I am delighted to award Samantha Rumbidzai Vazhure the 2023 Brittle Paper Publisher of the Year honor for her work with Carnelian Heart Publishing. Vazhure is a writer, publisher, translator, and artist who lives in Wales, in the UK. She was born in London and grew up in Masvingo, Zimbabwe. With Carnelian Heart Publishing, she is making space for Shona language literature, heeding the call of the great Ngugi wa Thiongo that we need to take seriously the “claims of our language on us.” And we celebrate her.

Vazhure wears other hats. She is a legal professional and a mom of two. Carnelian Heart Publishing, which was founded in 2020, is a project that comes from her personal experience of the challenges of publishing, especially for writers writing in African languages and her keen sense of what African literary culture truly needs. With 30 books published in three years, Carnelian Heart Publishing is a key part of the success we are observing and celebrating in African literary culture today.

The journey to this point has not been an easy one, but it began with a deep love for the Shona language. As a Karanga from Masvingo, Vazhure said that she grew up immersed in the rich, poetic, and dramatic language of the Karanga people, who are also known for their keen sense of detail in storytelling. She recalls how, as a student, her teachers in Shona class expected detailed compositions, nurturing her skill in the language:

Karanga people are detail-oriented and when we tell a story, we call it kurondedzera, which loosely translated means “discourse at length.” As children, we wrote rondedzero (composition) in Shona class and my teachers expected to find the minutest detail in my work, because they too were Karanga.

While her childhood in this environment fostered her deep love for language, her relationship with books took a bit longer to evolve. As a child, her reading was mainly for academic purposes, as she grew up in a culture where reading for examinations was prioritized. It wasn’t until she was 16 years old that her exposure to literature in the classroom sparked a love for reading. This passion for reading was rekindled in a profound way later in life, laying the foundation for her inspiration to pursue an interest in writing that eventually led to her founding Carnelian Heart Publishing.

Carnelian Heart came about because she recognized the challenges African writers faced in publishing their work. She had experienced some of those challenges herself. By 2019, Vazhure completed her first poetry manuscript, and a year later, her first novel, Painting a Mirage. When she could not find a publisher, she considered self-publishing, only to find out that, at the time, Amazon would not publish her book written in Chikaranga because it was not one of their recognized languages. Carnelian heart is a labor of love – love for African languages, love for writing, love for culture, fueled by the desire to provide Zimbabwean writers space to tell their stories. There is an element of bravery, as well. Vazhure did not wait until she had mastered the business of publishing to venture in. It was a leap of faith, fueled by passion but grounded on hard work, a small savings, and a whole lot of smarts.

The journey has not been easy:

“It is a business that doesn’t make any commercial sense, because it has so many suppliers but limited demand for its product.” Vazhure is pointing to the cut-through competition in a global literary space where small publishers like herself share space with publishing juggernauts with unlimited funds for marketing and access to vast influencer networks. She adds, “Despite the wealth of talented African writers producing remarkable works, the reality is that their books often don’t reach a wide audience.”

Despite challenges, Vazhure has nurtured a supportive community around her publishing venture. Running Carnelian Heart all by herself, she adeptly outsources as needed. Her retail partnerships with Book Fantastics and The Orange Elephant in Zimbabwe, Nuria Bookstores in Kenya, and Xarra Bookstores in South Africa, along with recognition from global media outlets like the BBC, Radio France, HSTV, and ZTN, underscore the international interest in her work. The success and growth of Carnelian Heart are a testament to Vazhure’s commitment, the supportive cohort of collaborators, and the enthusiastic response from the literary community and readers.

When asked about what brings her the most joy in her role, she reflects on the satisfaction and pride she feels in making an impact in African literary culture. “Something I never imagined to be within my reach,” she adds, “I will forever be proud of this achievement, and eternally thankful to everyone who has supported me on this journey.”

Congrats Vazhure! We are deeply and truly proud of your accomplishments.