Q&A: ABC-Words on the Times – Elma Shaw of Cotton Tree Press

AiW note: To celebrate the past thirty years of independent distributing and bookselling at African Books Collective (ABC), we are running a series highlighting the wonderful work of those who make up ABC. We will be talking to some of the publishers from the collective, gathering their Words on the Times, an AiW Q&A series that invites collective reflections on the way the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed our work and our communities.

ABC is an African-owned, worldwide marketing and distribution outlet selling books from Africa. ABC’s wide-ranging catalogues promote big and small academic presses, children’s books publishers, NGO and writers’ organisations, and literary presses. They also run the website readafricanbooks.com which profiles the work of African publishers and books. We started the series with a Q&A and Words on the Times with ABC CEO, Justin Cox. You can read our other Words on the Times with ABC publishers Gadsden Publishers in Zambia. 

Today, we talk with Elma Shaw of Cotton Tree Press. Cotton Tree Press is a small company in Liberia that publishes fact, fiction, poetry and prose. The company is named after a gigantic tree that holds a special place in the life and culture of several nations with tropical rainforests, and around which life in many Liberian villages and towns was deliberately organized.

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AiW: Could you tell us a bit about your work and  the ways that the pandemic has affected your plans?

Elma Shaw: Cotton Tree Press publishes literature and nonfiction by African writers. Our goal is to produce books that celebrate our rich heritage and challenge us to make changes for a better world. We planned to launch two new imprints earlier this year, and the pandemic caused some delays because of shipping and travel restrictions. We’ve now made the books available online, but in-person author events will have to wait a bit. 

Our new Legacy imprint is for memoirs and nonfiction by Africa’s changemakers. These are entrepreneurs and servant leaders who have stories and wisdom to share. The lockdown began in mid-March, and we quietly published our first Legacy title in April: Finding Purpose in Challenging Times, by Patrick Karangwa. It probably sounds like advice borne of the pandemic, but it’s not. His book tells the story of his life as a refugee, and his journey to becoming a humanitarian and CEO of one of Rwanda’s largest local NGOs. 

Leroi Books is our children’s imprint. We want to publish excellent books that are accessible to all children, and include all children. For example, our first title is a picture book that features a day in the life of two African siblings who look different from each other because one is living with albinism. There’s no lesson or plea in Rainy Season Rhymes, just a view of life as we want to see it, where children are carefree and happy. The poems are by James V. Dwalu, a writer from Liberia, and the pictures are by Regis F. Muhirwa, an illustrator from Rwanda. The pandemic probably did us a service by pushing publication to the months when we’re experiencing the rainy season across parts of the continent.

In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?

I’ve always worked remotely, from wherever I happen to live. My team is made up of people who also work remotely, so there was no need to change the way we collaborated on book projects. In June though, after three months of schools being closed, I decided to offer a Creative Writing Workshop online for young writers in middle and high school. Nineteen enrolled, so I had two sections, each tuning in to Zoom once a week for eight weeks to explore fiction, poetry, and personal narratives. 

Students enjoyed the online workshop, and parents appreciated the opportunity to enroll them in an activity that was both creative and academic. I truly enjoyed teaching and discovering young talent, and was inspired to make children’s literary programs a regular part of our work at Cotton Tree Press. Students who enrolled in the two online workshops were from Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and Côte d’Ivoire. I get excited thinking about how much further we can reach, and the kinds of opportunities we can provide to get young people across Africa reading and writing! 

What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?

Elma Shaw and James V. Dwalu

I’m grateful for the African book festivals that took their events online and gave people all over the world a chance to join them. The Aké Arts & Book Festival, which is normally held in Nigeria, premiered on YouTube and DSTV in October. Uganda’s FEMRITE recently had an online literary event that I enjoyed as well. For me, the magic of quarantine-inspired online book festivals began way back in March with Afrolit Sans Frontières, which was organized on social media by South African writer Zukiswa Wanner. 

Afrolit has grown into a series of festivals featuring writers, poets, and book industry players from Africa and the Diaspora. There have been more than five seasons to date, including a special African languages edition. I was one of the authors featured in the second season, and got to read from my novel Redemption Road

Gii-Hne Russell, Augustus Voahn, and M. Woryonwon Roberts.

One of the best things that has come out of the connections authors have made through the Afrolit festivals is that we are now banding together to speak out, through one pen, about injustices around the world—from the George Floyd case and racism in America, to issues on the continent such as the arrest of Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and the harassment and killings of people protesting police brutality in Nigeria. It feels like a natural extension of the work many African writers do with their books.

How can our blog communities support you?

We want to grow a community of authors at Cotton Tree Press, and are actively seeking submissions from new and established writers. We also welcome collaboration on projects and programs that will benefit readers and writers, children and adults alike. I would love to hear from anyone, anywhere, who might be interested in working with us.      

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Elma Shaw is the author of Redemption Road and publisher at Cotton Tree Press. She holds a BA in Journalism and a Master’s in Film from American University.

She was the editor of Monrovia Rain and Other Stories Lost and Found, and has written for Liberia Travel & Life Magazine, Pambazuka News, UNMIL Focus, and other publications. A long-time champion for women and girls, Elma supports girls’ education and worked with The What to Expect Foundation as lead writer for Big Belly Business—a Liberian woman’s guide to a healthy pregnancy.

In 2015, in recognition of her literary and humanitarian work, she was nominated for The African Sheroes Award for Outstanding Writer/Novelist.

She currently lives in Rwanda.

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Follow Cotton Tree Press via their Facebook, and buy their books through African Books Collective 

Make sure to check in each Friday for our Words on the Times with other ABC-distributed publishers!



Categories: Words on the Times

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