The Digitisation of the African Writers Series
by Matt Kibble, Development Manager, Literature
ProQuest CSA, Cambridge, UK
matt.kibble@proquest.co.uk


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In digitising the Heinemann African Writers Series (AWS), ProQuest CSA are making available a body of work with a unique cultural and historic significance. Launched in 1962, by the mid-1970s it had established such a reputation that the young Zimbabwean novelist Dambudzo Marechera could describe one of the characters in his novella The House of Hunger as an 'avid reader of the Heinemann African Writers Series', confident in the knowledge that his readers would know exactly what he meant. Marechera's shorthand tells his readers that the character in question is a defiant African nationalist, an advocate of pan-African solidarity and a champion of African cultural achievements:

Stephen was an avid reader of the Heinemann African Writers Series. He firmly believed that there was something peculiarly African in anything written by an African and said that therefore European tools of criticism should not be used in the analysis of 'African literature'.1

Stephen is associated with African nationalist figures such as Kwame Nkrumah, Kenneth Kaunda and Es'kia Mphahlele, and his interest in the AWS is a key indicator that he sees himself as an African intellectual. However, the context in which the AWS is mentioned is far from positive: Stephen, a classmate of the narrator's, is also described as a 'a typical African bully in an ordinary African school', who invokes names such as Nkrumah and Nyerere purely in order to win 'after-hours dormitory arguments'; the narrator remembers Stephen mainly for the brutal schoolyard fight in which he hospitalised a small, undernourished classmate called Edmund; and it is Edmund (who had always stayed aloof from their 'student armchair politics') rather than the AWS-reading Stephen who, years later, ends up fighting in guerrilla gun battles against Ian Smith's security forces. There is an implication that the AWS is associated with an earlier wave of pan-Africanist nationalism which has come to seem anachronistic and ineffectual; if so, however, the final irony is that The House of Hunger was in turn published by Heinemann as AWS No. 207. This passing reference reveals the richness and breadth of the Series: never tied to any one ideological standpoint, it continued to evolve and incorporate new perspectives such as Marechera's throughout its long history.

The Series continued until 2003, and published 359 volumes: the bulk of them (250 titles) are prose fiction, but the list also included poetry, drama, memoirs, reportage, and re-tellings of myths and folk tales. Our aim is to digitise as many of these volumes as is feasible, and the main obstacle to achieving this aim is the difficulty of locating rights holders, since almost all titles are protected by copyright. Given the size of this task, we have set a realistic target of including at least 300 volumes, and are well on the way to achieving this. So far, we have already digitised more than half the print series, including the complete fictional works of Chinua Achebe and Bessie Head, major novels such as Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North (1969), Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing (1950; reprinted in AWS, 1973), Marechera's The House of Hunger (1978) and Syl Cheney-Coker's The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar (1990), and two of the most influential works of African poetry ever published: Christopher Okigbo's Labyrinths (1976) and Okot p'Bitek's Song of Lawino (1966, AWS 1984). This new online edition means that students and researchers worldwide will now have access to an extraordinarily rich segment of postcolonial publishing history, much of which is currently inaccessible. In total, two-thirds of the list is out of print, and very few, if any, libraries hold a complete set of the Series. Many of these books, including volumes of poetry by Dennis Brutus, Lenrie Peters and Taban lo Liyong, and novels by Cyprian Ekwensi and Tayeb Salih, have been unavailable for 20 years or more, and even works by major contemporary authors such as Buchi Emecheta and Chenjerai Hove have fallen out of print in recent years. Online publication means these works can now come back into circulation and be added to reading lists and syllabuses once more.

In addition, the digitisation of these texts as part of an extensive, searchable database allows new kinds of research and enquiry to be pursued. Researchers can run searches across the whole corpus of texts to find instances of key terms of African nationalist discourse such as 'Azania' or 'black consciousness', or terms associated with politics and class distinctions such as 'socialism', 'democracy', 'middle class', 'accent' or 'elite', or simply for references to specific tribes or languages, such as 'Yoruba', 'Xhosa' or 'Tswana'. The indexing of authors and works means that searches can be focused on texts by women, or prose fiction by Nigerian authors, or works that were originally published in French. The web version also includes useful complementary features: we add biographical profiles for each author, have added a gallery of colour scans of all the book covers in the Series, and the site includes an excellent scholarly introduction to the Series written by Robert Fraser and Nourdin Bejjit of the Open University.

This online African Writers Series is published by Chadwyck-Healey, the specialist humanities imprint of ProQuest CSA, and follows much the same principles as those established in the very first Chadwyck-Healey Literature Collection, the English Poetry database (published in 1991, with a Second Edition in 2000). There are now more than twenty Literature Collections (more recent additions include Twentieth-Century American Poetry, American Drama and Twentieth-Century Drama), and they are all aimed at broadening access to rare texts through the creation of high-accuracy digital versions, faithfully transcribed from authoritative source texts. Subscribers to Literature Online who also take up the African Writers Series collection will also be able to cross-search this material with the whole corpus of the Literature Collections, and will therefore see search results from AWS authors like Okigbo and Brutus alongside hits from the poems of Audre Lorde, Les Murray, Fred D'Aguiar, Nissim Ezekiel or Seamus Heaney, and will be able to link through to journal articles, reference work entries and bibliographic citations on any of these authors.

The AWS was founded by the late Alan Hill of Heinemann Educational Books in 1962. It was conceived as an affordable paperback series, publishing works by African authors for a general African audience. It is important to recognise what a risky and ambitious venture this was, and how it went against the grain of established practice at the time. Here was a newly-formed educational imprint publishing, not textbooks or children's literature, but sophisticated and uncompromising new fiction; a British publisher looking to Africa as a source of new authors rather than simply as a market for home-produced titles; and an educational publishing programme predicated on the assumption that there would be a market for African literature, at a time when African writers did not feature at all on existing syllabuses. The Series found a market in the new secondary schools and universities which were springing up in newly independent countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. As African nations achieved independence, they soon sought to establish fully independent educational systems, creating new examination boards and syllabuses to replace the eurocentrism of existing colonial institutions with an emerging African canon. The AWS catered precisely to this demand, and its titles went on to be central to African education over the subsequent decades. Chinua Achebe was employed as Series Editor, helping to ensure that the list would attract a whole generation of new African authors, and his first novel, Things Fall Apart (published by William Heinemann in hardback in 1958) was issued in paperback as AWS No. 1.

In publishing an affordable paperback series, Hill was consciously following the model of Allen Lane's Penguin series: audaciously, he even imitated Penguin's orange livery and prominent series number for each title. The numbering ran from Achebe's Things Fall Apart (no 1) to the anthology African Short Stories (no 270), edited by Achebe and Lyn Innes in 1985, with the Series continuing unnumbered thereafter. In a further homage to the Penguin Classics and Pelican series, the AWS began with a colour-coding system: orange for fiction, blue for non-fiction, and green for poetry and drama. Like Penguin, and other paperback series, the early AWS editions largely consisted of titles that had already appeared in hardback from other publishers: Achebe's own novels, plus those of Cyprian Ekwensi and Peter Abrahams, and translations of French-language works that had been published by Parisian publishers, like Mongo Beti's Mission to Kala. However, the relatively small number of previously published African writers led Achebe to break new ground by actively seeking out new writing for publication as paperback originals, most notably the first novels of the young Ngugi wa Thiong'o, still a student at Makerere University College in Kampala at the time.

The high-water mark of the AWS was the 1970s: around fifteen titles were published per year, and the regional African offices in Ibadan and Nairobi had considerable independence in selecting local authors for publication. Economic recessions of the mid-1980s saw a marked falling off in new titles, and a slashing of the backlist, but despite this retrenchment the list continued to publish important new writing, and in 1993 was awarded the World Development Award for Business in recognition of its historic contribution to African cultural awareness, social progress and economic development. In 2002, this contribution was again recognised when a jury of African publishers, writers and librarians announced a list of 'Africa's Best 100 Books' at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair: of the seventy titles in the 'Creative Writing' category, twenty-one had been published in the AWS.

However, at around the same time, Harcourt Education (the current publishers of the Heinemann imprint) took the decision to discontinue the list. This was no doubt largely prompted by its increasingly anomalous relationship with the rest of Harcourt's publishing programme: a division of Reed Elsevier, Harcourt Education International publishes print and online educational materials for the 4-16 age group in Britain and other Commonwealth countries, and the maintenance of a list which involves commissioning serious new fiction from Africa is far from an obvious fit. Harcourt still distribute the 100 or so contemporary and canonical titles still in print at that point, but no new titles will be commissioned. The final titles, Ama Ata Aidoo's Changes and Daniel Mengara's Mema, were published in October 2003. In the initial stages of the project of digitising the Series, we worked closely with Harcourt, in establishing the bibliography for the Series and clearing rights for the texts. However, in the majority of cases, we are contacting authors directly to secure rights and pay royalties. We also soon discovered that additional bibliographic work would be needed: the archival information provided by Harcourt did not, for example, always distinguish between AWS titles and related Heinemann publications, so we verified this through library research, and established a definitive bibliography of 359 titles. As a result, we quite possibly have the most complete bibliographic information on the AWS that has been assembled, including full contents listings of the numerous anthologies in the Series.

There were a number of bibliographic quirks and puzzles to work through. For example, although the Series numbering ran from 1 to 270, we discovered that two numbers were never assigned (245 and 265), and that there were three numbered volumes which Heinemann included on published lists of AWS titles, but which were not actually published. Number 65 was to have been Duro Ladipo's Three Plays (translated by Ulli Beier), but we have not found any evidence of a Heinemann publication (a similar title was published by Mbari Publications, Ibadan, in 1964). A volume called This is the Time was advertised as No. 259, but no such volume exists in any of the library catalogues we consulted. Research in the AWS archive at Reading University reveals that this was a projected anthology of Central and Southern African poetry, which was instead published as When My Brothers Come Home: Poems from Central and Southern Africa, edited by Frank M. Chipasula (Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1985). And Kofi Awoonor's Until the Morning After: Collected Poems 1963-1985 was to have been AWS number 260, but was apparently withdrawn by the author and instead published by Greenfield Review Press, New York, in 1987.

Some people have asked us why we decided to publish the AWS as it originally existed, rather than, for example, publish a new collection of African writing from a range of print sources, using a new editorial basis that would reflect more current priorities. After all, if a print publisher were considering re-issuing the list, that is exactly what they would do: cherry-pick the most marketable content, leave out the more obscure material, and generate new interest in the list by including some new writing by younger authors, and perhaps a few neglected classics. However, the rationale behind the Chadwyck-Healey Literature Collections is quite different from that of print publishing: we see this as an archive of historically significant material, which makes available works that might never generate enough interest to be worth a print publisher investing in a new print run, but would nonetheless still be valuable to researchers. We see our Collections as carrying out the same role as a specialist research library: preserving materials that are of historical interest, and gathering them into comprehensive subject-based archives. Our aim is to provide the raw materials for research by giving unmediated access to primary texts and allowing scholars to find their own connections and make their own judgments.

Rather than making our own selections, we are effectively preserving the selection decisions made by the Series' various editors, from Chinua Achebe onwards. Achebe held the role of Series Editor, without drawing a salary, from 1962 to 1972, covering the first 100 titles, and later said that he considered his work as editor of the AWS to be of greater importance than his achievements as a novelist.2 The AWS is therefore not just a record of African writing of the post-independence period, but also a record of the aims and values of the Series' successive editors. One of the most interesting things about the list is that, in addition to publishing new writing by African authors, it aimed to create a library of African classics, rather like a combination of the Penguin Classics series (launched 1946) and Pelican series (1937) which it emulated. The demand for new African texts to be studied in schools and universities was partly supplied by the new fiction and poetry titles published as AWS originals by authors like Achebe, Ngugi, Okigbo and Brutus, but also by previously published classics: Equiano's Travels (the first edition of Equiano for 130 years); novels from the 30s, 40s and 50s like Sol Plaatje's Mhudi (1930; AWS 1978), Thomas Mofolo's Chaka (1931; AWS 1981), Peter Abrahams's Mine Boy (1946) and Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City (1954); the nation-building texts of politicians and statesmen such as Kaunda, Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Odinga and Mandela3; and anthologies of African poetry, prose, drama, myths and folk tales, and ephemeral forms such as Onitsha Market Literature.4

I began by mentioning that the digitisation of the AWS restores access to texts that have become inaccessible, but this of courses raises an obvious question: access for whom? These texts are of course only available to people at institutions that purchase or subscribe to the collection. However, as the Marechera passage suggests, the African Writers Series is synonymous with the spirit of post-independence optimism and nationalism in which it was founded, and its raison d'Ítre was the aim of reaching a wide African audience; it would therefore be perverse if access were limited to rich Western institutions that can afford our subscription fees. With that in mind, we are working to ensure access for African institutions - seven universities in South Africa and Botswana have already signed up for heavily discounted access, and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, the collection is available free of charge. We have already enabled this for universities in Nigeria and Ghana, and are looking into finding appropriate distribution channels that would help us to reach a wider African user base. Commercially speaking, our main market of course will be in universities and research libraries outside Africa (especially North American research libraries and Historically Black Colleges and Universities), but this potentially also allows the AWS to be restored to its primary market, possibly even to the very universities from which many of the AWS's writers emerged.

I'd like to close with an appeal for help. The largest challenge we are likely to face with this collection is making contact with authors, estates and other rights holders. Some authors are easier to trace than others - they might have literary agents, publishers or university posts; one of them, General Olusegun Obasanjo, author of My Command: An Account of the Nigerian Civil War 1967-1970 (1981) is of course now the President of Nigeria (easy to find contact details for; not necessarily easy to persuade him to sign a contract). Others have required some detective work: Hama Tuma - author of the 1993 short story collection The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor - was tracked down via the website of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party, and the poet Lenrie Peters via the Gambia Medical and Dental Association. Many authors have responded in an extremely positive way when contacted: for example, Kofi Awoonor described it as a 'laudable' project, which 'will serve a new generation of readers to whom access to these works is not readily available'. A rare rejection came, unsurprisingly, from Ayi Kwei Armah, who had a famously fraught relationship with Heinemann and now refuses to have anything to do with institutions from the industrialised North. There are a total of around 200 authors of AWS volumes, plus about a further 460 contributors to anthologies, all of whom we would need to clear rights for separately. Just one example is The Fate of Vultures, an anthology of poetry submitted to the 1988 BBC Arts and Africa Poetry Award competition: a sample biographic notes from the Notes on Contributors is 'Charles Agboola Bodunde is a teacher in Nigeria'). Once we've exhausted all other avenues, we will place adverts in African newspapers and magazines appealing for information about untraceable authors, but in the meantime if anyone is able to provide information about AWS authors that may have gone to ground, please contact me using the email address below. Amongst the authors we have not yet been able to trace are:


1Dambudzo Marechera, House of Hunger (London: Heinemann, 1978), pp. 63-64.
2Kirsten Holst Petersen, 'Working with Chinua Achebe, The African Writers Series: James Currey, Alan Hill and Keith Sambrooke in Conversation with Kirsten Holst Petersen', in Chinua Achebe: A Celebration, ed. by Anna Rutherford and Kirsten Holst Petersen (Oxford and Sydney: Heinemann Educational Books and the Dangaroo Press, 1991), 149-159 (157). Gabriel Gbadamosi, 'Africa Unbound: Publishing in Africa', BBC Radio 3, 3rd July 2005.
3Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia Shall be Free (1954; rpt as AWS No. 4, 1962), Kwame Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (1968), Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya (1938; AWS 1979), Oginga Odinga, Not Yet Uhuru (1967), Nelson Mandela, No Easy Walk to Freedom (Heinemann 1965; AWS 1973).
4 A Book of African Verse and Modern African Prose were published in 1964; traditional and ephemeral material includes Emmanuel Obiechina's collection of Onitsha Market Literature (1972), Ulli Beier's The Origin of Life and Death: African Creation Myths (1966) and his collection of Yoruba stories Not Even God is Ripe Enough (1968).

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