Words and sights at AWT 2023 Informative Seminar by Jennifer A. Okech

A burning desire for inspiration…I love literary workshops and seminars. If I could afford it, I would attend a writers’ workshop (and literary events in general) at a cozy hotel with breathtaking scenery every month. Writing workshops usually give me the inspiration I need; they ignite my creative juices, that muse from Heaven just comes down to put me in the mood to make my Creative Writing success dream a reality. The African Writers Trust (AWT) informative seminar on Emerging Trends in Writing & Publishing Practices was just what I needed. The Seminar packaged in the breathtaking scenery that is Hot Springs Villas Hotel, whose customer care is at a whole different level, was a breath of fresh air. So, when an email came in informing me I had qualified for the CC Adetulla fellowship in Creative Writing to attend the second edition of the AWT Informative Seminars, I was excited and delighted.

The serene environment.

I need someone to sponsor me to check into Hot Springs Villas to sit and write away all the blockbusters hidden in me. This dream needs to come true, and then I will have no more excuses for not getting out of the irritating writing slumber I’m in right now. Hmm, I’m waiting for God to bless me with an annual all-expenses-paid writing residence to spend all day crafting life–changing stories. A place for the right muse to stimulate all my creative writing juices, no distractions,   no worrying about anything but giving birth to the most beautiful stories of transformation.

Around the time I qualified for the AWT seminar, I was dealing with a difficult real estate case that worked me up but all the stress disappeared the moment I started taking a walk around Hot Springs Villas. I started glowing within a few minutes of walking into the gardens; it was a magical love that got us into a photoshoot spree; me and Hot Springs.

A Glimpse of the Hotsprings villa hall, by night.

The resourceful informative sessions.

Executive Director of Uganda Publishing and Reproduction Rights Organisation (URRO) Charles Batumbuze, who also doubles as Executive Director of National Book Trust Uganda (NABOTU), and Counsel Bernard N. Nakireza started us off with a very detailed informative session on the legal aspects of writing and publishing.

Protecting copyright.

Charles has had several operations to curb piracy in the book industry in Uganda so it was an honour to have him take us through a session on how we can protect our copyright. His presentation on protecting copyright made me think about my humble contribution in “his” big fight against copyright infringement in Uganda and the world at large. I have on a number of occasions had to take the difficult decision to buy the more expensive original copy of school text books for my brother as opposed to the cheaper pirated copies as my contribution to fighting piracy in the publishing industry. Also, in my more than 10 years of editing experience, one of the first things I do before I start editing anyone’s work is check for plagiarism, and then  have  a long plagiarism chat with the writer if their test for plagiarism turns out positive.  I do not tolerate plagiarism. I’m glad this was included in the seminar. We all have a role to play in protecting our copyright. However, it was great to learn that it does not have to be a lone soldier battle for the authors as Charles assured us that authors can subscribe to Collective Management Organisations (CMO) such as URRO or CMO member associations to help them enforce copyright.

Legal aspects of publishing.

Speaking of Counsel Benard, he told us copyright does not protect ideas; it only protects expressions of those ideas. Did you know that? Well, I didn’t.

I need to get the long list of ideas I have off paper and implement (express) them before someone takes advantage of this loophole in the law to steal my ideas, don’t you agree?

Benard’s detailed presentation on the legal aspects of publishing was very insightful. He reminded us that court does not make contracts for us; it interprets them so we have to put everything in the contract but be specific regarding rights given to the publisher. When trying to publish, there are things we might not think about because all we want to do is get our book out there to the reader. But after Benard’s session on author-publisher contracts, I now know it is important to specify how long a publisher will hold certain rights like the right to distribute, and the territories where they are allowed to distribute your work.

I was glad to hear about the Berne convention, which works across borders to protect copyright.

Now that I have extensive knowledge on copyright and publisher contracts thanks to Counsel Benard and Charles, what I need to do now is publish that long awaited book, so let’s get writing Jennie, we wouldn’t want all this information we have received from the experts to go to waste!

Publishing across cultures and borders

After the long and rich session on copyright, legal aspects of writing and publishing, then we got to hear from published authors starting with Rachelle Atalla, who took us through a session on publishing across cultures and borders. I assumed Rachelle was Ugandan until I read her bio and it says she’s Scottish-Egyptian. When I met her, I couldn’t help but tell her, her last name could be mistaken for a Ugandan name from Tororo in the Eastern part of the country (We have Otalla, Nyatalla, Otal, Atal, and even Atalla). I know a number of African territories share names but I was surprised to meet a Scottish-Egyptian with a Ugandan sounding name, almost as surprised I was to meet two Japanese with Ugandan sounding names a few years ago.

Anyway, back to publishing across cultures and borders. Rachelle talked about the universality of themes but noted that as writers, we are bringing uniqueness to our voices. “As long as a story is coming from you and your voice, it’s yours…Write what you feel compelled to tell the people; write a story that interests you… Don’t let rejection distress you, it’s part of nature. Have determination to keep going,” she reassured participants who were worried about their stories being rejected by publishers abroad because some western publishers expect African writers to write a story that fits a certain narrative to be able to sell their book to a western market. This concern also came up at a writers’ workshop I attended last year. Rachelle couldn’t have given us better advice; “write what you feel compelled to tell the people; write a story that interests you”. This is exactly what I’m going to do.

Also, she advised that the people we take on to give feedback, and to edit our work should be people we trust, and people whose taste we trust. “Have a good team that believes in your book,” she emphasised. Great advice, this works for all kinds of writing.

The ghost that writes

Thank you Gawaya Tegulle… Gawaya Tegulle’s presentation wasn’t really about Proverbs 18:16, it was about ghost writing. I have always had my reservations about ghostwriting, like how do I give birth to my child and give him her or him away for money?! I still do not know how ghostwriters master the courage to detach themselves from a child they brought to life.

Although Gawaya Tegulle’s presentation was very enticing, I still have my reservations and several questions on my mind. However, I may just consider thinking about ghostwriting in a different light.

Regarding writing in general, I was inspired by how Gawaya Tegulle, a very busy lawyer and journalist, manages to find time for his personal writing and ghost writing as well. No more excuses, let’s get writing.

And as we get writing, Gawaya Tegulle reminds us that Creative Writing is a job and one cannot be unemployed if they are a creative writer because creative writing will never go out of business and one cannot retire from it.

He also re-echoed the importance of research and networking in the writing business.

“Network with people who are already paid for and sold…Stand on the shoulder of giants,” he advised.

And I’m off to stand on the shoulder of giants!

And oh, I almost forgot, if you noticed I keep referring to Gawaya Tegule by full name; it’s not by accident. I grew up watching his political show on local TV station and somehow echoes of “I’m Gawaya Tegulle” keep ringing in my ears and I find it strange not to refer to him by full name because it’s what I’m used to. And oh yeah, I was excited to physically meet him for the first time and drink from his cup of knowledge!

The official Launch of the CC Adetula Fellowship For Women’s Writers.

What better way to end an information-packed day facilitated by generous speakers than launch a writing fellowship! I enjoyed the launch of the CC Adetulla Fellowship in Creative Writing for African Women Writers in the serene Hot Springs Garden. I was honoured to be among the beneficiaries of the inaugural fellowship, which sponsored my attendance of this second edition of AWT informative seminars. The fellowship was started in honour of Nigerian author Chi-Chi’s late sister CC Adetula, author of the Perfect girlthe Prostitute and other stories.

We also had a session of AWT project coordinator Racheal Kizza in conversation with Chi-Chi.

What stood out for me during this conversation is the power of putting one’s pain on paper not just in healing oneself, but others as well.

Also, Chi-Chi noted that it is important to believe in what you have written. From her difficult experience, she says: “The most difficult topics to talk about make the most interesting books.”

From her sharing, I realised she stuck to a writing schedule that yielded great results. I’m definitely getting a new writing schedule and sticking to it, the old one hasn’t worked.

The evening barbecue and dancing after fellowship launch

The dancing… I did more of taking pictures of the beautiful fire behind my chair in the eucalyptus groove camping picnic site than dancing. The caged up logs of small wood dancing flames holding hands to illuminate through the cage holes were a yellow-white-orange breathtaking sight to behold in the dark night. Anyway, I have never really been much of a “public dancer” but I do enjoy watching people dance, and yes I did enjoy watching my fellow participants pull-off their favourite dance strokes as I kept them company with a few of my own self-censored strokes as we danced round in the picnic site wall-less grass thatched hut to tunes I had either never heard of or hadn’t heard  in a long time because I mostly do Christian worship songs these days and listen to Radio Maria Uganda, only tuning in to a non-Christian radio station that had been my favourite all my childhood and a big part of my youth, occasionally for  my favourite political show (Capital Gang) on Saturdays at 10am. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay out until late so I left the dance queens and kings to do their thing, as I had to watch 9pm news, which I never miss unless circumstances are beyond my control. The first thing I did the day I checked into my room was to politely ask that the channel be changed to my favourite local news TV channel at 9pm for the duration of our stay at the hotel so that I wouldn’t miss out on the day’s news events. Thankfully, the in-charge had no problem with that and was glad to help.

Closing day

Talking climate change… Davina Kawuma, was our final speaker of the three-day residential informative seminar, talking climate change specifically the role of Literature in tackling the Global Climate Change Crisis.

I have been fighting climate change in all other ways apart from writing; planting trees, flowers (yes, flowers are important though rarely recognised in this climate change struggle, but I do recognise you, my dear friends), protecting the environment, name it but after Davina’s presentation, I’m considering writing about climate change.

The seminar organisers

I must say the seminar was well organised in a very conducive environment. They couldn’t have chosen a better place.

I love the team leader-team member relationship between AWT director Goretti and her team. Her working relationship with Racheal Kizza, the project coordinator is enviable and inspiring. The workplace would be a better place if all bosses and their subordinates had a great working relationship that Goretti has with Racheal. Racheal seemed to be enjoying her work. The photography team attested to Goretti’s being a great boss.

Thank you AWT for the great learning experience, thank you to Chi-Chi for the CC Adetula Fellowship, and thank you British Council for supporting the seminars.

The call

While writing my experience, I looked at the call again, and I confirm AWT delivered on its promises, thank you Gorreti and team.

My expectations

As a creative writer who would like to get better at my craft and to take my writing to a professional and international level, and even considering enrolling for a PhD in Creative Writing, the benefits listed in the call summarised most of my expectations of the seminar. However, if their budget had allowed it, I would have loved it if we had stayed longer in this very conducive environment just to focus on our writing away from the distractions of day-to-day life.

The accommodation

I wanted to take my room back home with me, hahaha; it had most of what I wanted in a bedroom that I couldn’t afford to have because of budget limitations. It inspired me to make a few drastic changes to my bedroom as soon as I got home; I cleared the office corner and moved it to a different room, and revamped the bedroom bookshelf. As soon as finances allow, I will upgrade my bedroom to one fit for a creative writer intentional about their living space.

The food

The food, my taste buds never complained; we had a reason to look forward to meal time. I would spend a whole day on this if I started to talk about the delicious meals and how overfed we were! I was supposed to be day-dry fasting but somehow the three days of the seminar coincided with my fasting “women exemption days” so I did not miss any of the sumptuous yummy meals. May be the Lord wanted me to experience Hot Springs full circle, I don’t know.

The goodbye…

I’m looking forward to the next seminar or workshop. It was fruitful, my time was well spent.

I didn’t want to leave this beautiful new – found creative life behind.

Imagine myself sitting at Hot Springs or any other place with breathtaking scenery, all-expenses-paid, for like a month or several months writing beautiful stories of transformation. That would be nice; this dream needs to come true.

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