Zimbabwe’s Weaver Press celebrates 25 years of championing truth-telling fiction |

By The Guardian

WHEN the Zimbabwean editor Irene Staunton and her husband Murray McCartney set up their publishing business in 1998, it seemed natural to call it Weaver Press.

Their modest HQ, in the back garden of their home in Emerald Hill, a northern suburb of Harare, looked out on the many intricate nests of the weaver bird that peppered the landscape.

Last week, the company celebrated its 25th birthday. The location has not changed and the team has rarely exceeded the staff of two. But in the words of one distinguished Zimbabwean scholar at the University of Oxford, Weaver Press has “quietly shaped post-independence Zimbabwean literature”.

Weaver Press’s early days coincided with the country’s economy going into an accelerated decline just before a series of strikes and a constitutional referendum that dealt a blow to the then-leader, Robert Mugabe.

The couple might not have started the company had they known the scale of economic hardship that would ensue – and continues today, says Staunton. “But once we began, we kept going. Publishing has become more and more difficult because of the economy. Photocopying now outnumbers printing and this is driving publishers and printers to the wall.”

Despite this, Zimbabwe’s leading independent publisher has weathered all storms and although it has never published more than 10 titles a year, has worked, through various collections and books, with more than 200 fiction and nonfiction writers, a dozen of whom have gained international recognition – a remarkable achievement for any small publisher in southern Africa.

Staunton worked with the publisher John Calder in London in the late 1970s. She and McCartney met at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden in 1978 when there was a literary buzz about the place, which was frequented by the likes of the Nigerian-born British poet Ben Okri and the late Zimbabwean novelist Dambudzo Marechera.

A portrait of Weaver Press publishers Irene Staunton and Murray McCartney sitting on the steps at their home in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Staunton and McCartney named the company after the weaver bird, which can be seen from the couple’s back garden. Photograph: Cynthia R Matonhodze/The Guardian

Publishing in Zimbabwe has always mainly focused on textbooks, with very few exceptions, McCartney says. “Weaver was one of those exceptions. We focused on literary fiction and academic nonfiction and in doing so, we tried to put Zimbabwe on the map – not because we’ve published hundreds of books, but because we presented a complex picture of Zimbabwe that may otherwise not have existed to the outside world,” he explains.

The couple moved to Zimbabwe in the early 1980s after independence from colonial rule. “In the 90s, people were excited by and about Zimbabwe and came to the [Zimbabwe international] book fair from all over the world,” Staunton says.

One of the first books Weaver published was The Stone Virgins, a novel by Yvonne Vera about the horrors of civil war that went on to win the Macmillan prize for African adult fiction in 2002.

“Fiction is an important form of truth-telling, because a good writer will look at a situation from many different points of view – you don’t want the social history of a country to come out of a single narrative,” Staunton says.

Among the most successful writers Weaver has worked with is NoViolet Bulawayo, author of We Need New Names, shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2013, and Glory, shortlisted for the Booker in 2022. Weaver published two of her short stories before she won the Caine prize for African writing in 2011.

(From left) Murray McCartney speaks into a microphone, sitting next to NoViolet Bulawayo at the launch of her Booker shortlisted ‘Glory’ in Harare, 2022.

McCartney and NoViolet Bulawayo at the launch of her Booker-shortlisted Glory in Harare, 2022. Photograph: David Brazier/Courtesy of Weaver Press

Bulawayo told the Guardian that Weaver Press “has always been at the centre of Zimbabwe’s literary scene ever since its inception” and that, “[in] terms of contribution, Weaver is essential, an institution”.

The author emphasises Staunton’s editing skill. “Her keen eye, intelligence and honesty helped me define my own ethic around reading and editing mine and the work of others, which I especially needed back when I was a young writer,” she says.

“And of course her opinion, as a Zimbabwean editor well positioned to read and understand my work with nuance, is extremely important to me. She is just a gift, not only to me – I am reminded of this whenever I read brilliant works by my favourite Zimbabwean writers like Yvonne Vera, Charles Mungoshi, Shimmer Chinodya … editors work in the background and are not always acknowledged but we know the truth of their worth. That’s Irene.”

Oral histories of marginalised women and children have been a focus for Staunton. Her compilation Mothers of the Revolution, originally published in 1990 by Baobab Press, which she co-founded, was reprinted by Weaver in 2000 and features first-hand accounts from rural women who were left behind when their husbands and sons fought in Zimbabwe’s 1960s and 70s war of liberation. A Tragedy of Lives, published in 2020 and co-edited by Staunton and Chiedza Musengezi, is a collection of interviews with female prisoners conducted by the Zimbabwe Women’s Writers collective.

A portrait of the Zimbabwean publisher, editor, researcher and writer, Irene Staunton in her garden at Weaver Press in Harare, Zimbabwe.

NoViolet Bullawayo praises Irene Staunton (pictured) for ‘her keen eye, intelligence and honesty’. Photograph: Cynthia R Matonhodze/The Guardian

Weaver has largely remained immune to state interference or censorship, despite dealing with subjects the government might consider out of bounds. That’s because, McCartney says, the censorship act primarily deals with cinema and theatre, “unless somebody goes to the censorship board about a book and objects to something in it”.

The author and gynaecologist Valerie Tagwira’s debut novel, The Uncertainty of Hope, was published by Weaver in 2007. She says she was struck the most by how open Weaver was to working with first-time writers.

“Over the years, many of their publications went on to become set books for school literature in English at both ordinary level and advanced level. Others were referenced in theses at local and international universities. They have certainly made an indelible mark on publishing in Zimbabwe,” Tagwira says.

Despite the praise, Staunton says she prefers to stay in the background. “The relationship between an editor and an author is completely confidential. And I like it that way,” she says. “I prefer not to be centre stage – editors are backroom people, they’re like stagehands, you work very closely with an author for a very long time but you are a stagehand and you should do everything you can to push the author to front and centre.”

Six books from Weaver Press

 Blind Moon by Chenjerai Hove – a collection of poems by the writer who was one of the founding figures of modern Zimbabwean literature.

 Running With Mother by Christopher Mlalazi, which deals with the atrocities of the genocidal Gukurahundi killings of the 1980s.

 Harvest of Thorns by Shimmer Chinodya, about a war veteran coming to terms with life in post-independence Zimbabwe, which won the 1990 Commonwealth Writers regional prize.

 The Stone Virgins, the last novel by Yvonne Vera, who died from meningitis, aged 40, in 2005, tells the story of two sisters who suffer and survive the Gukurahundi killings.

 The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu, first published in 2010, which tells among other things the story of a gay hairdresser.

 The Uncertainty of Hope by Valerie Tagwira, the author’s first novel and set in the township of Mbare, south of Harare, develops against the background of Operation Murambatsvina, a government campaign to forcibly clear slums.

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