Africa Writes Back. The African Writers Series & the Launch of African Literature. Oxford: James Currey Publishers; and Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2008.
xxxi + 318 pp £19.95/$26.95 pap. £55.00/$55.00 cased
ISBN-13 9781847015020 pap. / ISBN-13 9781847015037 cased (James Currey Publishers)
ISBN-13 9780821418437 pap. / ISBN-13 9780821418420 cased (Ohio University Press)
Hans Zell Publishing
James Currey was the editor in charge of the African Writers Series (AWS) at Heinemann Educational Books from 1967 to 1984. Together with his colleagues Henry Chakava in Kenya, Aig Higo in Nigeria, and Keith Sambrook in London they published the first 270 titles in the series. This fascinating and highly entertaining book tells the story how they did it, and how publishing relationships were developed and nurtured with a very large number of African writers, including some of the continent's now foremost writers such as Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Nuruddin Farah, Alex la Guma, Bessie Head, Dennis Brutus, Dambudzo Marechera, and many more.
The focus is on the first twenty-five years of the series from 1962 to 1988. James Currey was able to draw on the African Writers Series files which Heinemann has deposited with the University of Reading library in their renowned publishing archives, and which is linked with its Centre for the History of Authorship, Writing and Publishing. The book is co-published with no less than five African publishing houses in East, West, and Southern Africa, which must be something of a record.
Rich in anecdotal material on many of Africa's best known writers, the book offers a narrative how the now famous series came together. It "provides evidence of the ways in which estimation by a publisher of the work of writers grows and, sadly on occasion, diminishes", and gives examples of "how the views of publishers and their advisers emerge as they consider a new manuscript, and then coalesce and change as they assess further work by the same author." The book is interspersed with archival photographs and portraits of African writers by George Hallett, whose photographs were used on many of the books' covers.
Much of the contents consists of extracts from correspondence between James Currey and the numerous writers that were published in the series, as well as correspondence with literary agents, copy editors, and correspondence with Currey's colleagues at (then) Heinemann offices in Kenya and Nigeria, together with extracts from readers' reports. The book opens with a chapter entitled "Publishing and selling the African Writers Series" and a timeline of the main dates of the series, from its founding by the late Alan Hill and Van Milne in 1962 through to 2003, when the Heinemann management announced that no new titles would be added and the Heinemann International Division was disbanded, although some of the most popular titles are still kept in print. The complete series is now available in digital format published by Chadwyck-Healey, the specialist humanities imprint of Pro-Quest CSA. The digitization of the AWS texts as part of an extensive searchable database permits new kinds of research and enquiry to be pursued, allowing researchers to run searches across a whole corpus of texts 1.
Subsequent chapters vividly capture the drama and energy of the whole enterprise: the publishing risks involved, dealing with writers egos and temperaments, their financial needs, their perceptions about publication rights issues, their sometimes unrealistic expectations of sales and royalty earnings; and they tell of encounters with some larger than life characters such as Taban lo Liyong, who had such high expectations of the profits that could be earned from his writings that he planned to build a palace from the proceeds, called 'Royalty House'! Or they recount the sometimes strained relationship with a number of authors, such as Dambudzo Marechera, the Zimbabwean writer and enfant terrible of African literature who died in 1987 and who has now attained something close to cult status, with several Websites and blogs devoted to him. The chapter on "Publishing Dambudzo Marechera" includes the funny and rather grotesque correspondence between Marechera and Currey (acting as his reluctant guardian at the time, while Marechera stayed in the UK in the late Seventies), written from such diverse settings as a Cardiff prison cell or from a tent set up in Port Meadow in Oxford along the banks of the Thames. The chapter describes how Currey was trying to cope with Marechera's tantrums, his nomadic lifestyle, his knack for creating havoc at various literary events, and his eccentric behaviour, for example by turning up at the Heinemann offices in Mayfair unannounced dressed up in a variety of disguises, trying to borrow small sums of money or attempting to squeeze yet more royalty advances out of his publisher, as well as giving Currey a hard time with his heavy drinking-"Damn Boozo" as Currey's children loved to call him.
Another particularly fascinating chapter is "Publishing Bessie Head", particularly as it relates to the issue of trust between a publisher and their authors, and authors and their agents. Bessie Head had a history of quarrels with a whole sequence of publishers and agents, but the extracts from Currey's correspondence shows with how much sensitivity and tact dealings with her were handled, demonstrating an enormous amount of goodwill on the part of the publisher, but also applying firmness when firmness was called for.
The book includes a complete list of all titles published in the AWS from 1962 to 2003 by year of publication, and a concluding chapter "Is there still a role for the African Writers Series" looks at developments to the series since 1988. Earlier, in 1983, Tilling, the owners of the Heinemann Group had been taken over by British Tyre and Rubber (BTR), which was followed by changes in corporate management, frequent shifts in policy, and later yet more changes in ownership. Coupled with the collapse of the markets in Africa in the 1980s, the outlook for the future growth of the series became increasingly uncertain. In 2003 the owners of the Heinemann imprint issued a statement that no new work was to be added to the AWS, but keeping 64 of the most established (and presumably most lucrative) titles in print, and reprinting them periodically.
The African Writers Series has had its share of criticism over the years. Ayi Kwei Armah once famously described it as "a neo-colonial writers' coffle owned by Europeans but slyly misnamed 'African'", and has since claimed that the series "did its best to stunt the growth of African talent", while Wole Soyinka described the series (with its bright orange covers) as an "orange ghetto". There are just three pages in the book devoted to the publication of Armah's novels in the series and his relations with Heinemann's. It was an unhappy relationship, "by far and away the worst relationship we ever experienced with an author", says Currey, "a story of misunderstandings and damaged pride on both sides." Armah himself has set out his grievances against Heinemann in "Negatives-The Colonial Publisher as Pirate", published in his essay collection The Eloquence of the Scribes. A Memoir on the Sources and Resources of African Literature.2
There has also been some criticism of the AWS, quite unjustly I think, claiming that the series and Heinemann's were not only publishing African writing but were effectively controlling what was being published, or deserved to be published. However, there can be no denying that the AWS has made an enormous contribution in bringing several generations of African writers to the fore, acting as a catalyst for a very substantial and diverse range of African writing, and making this writing accessible to thousands of readers in Africa, as well as bringing it to the wider world and the international market place. And James Currey's own contribution in nurturing African writers - and his engagement in helping to stimulate the growth of contemporary African literature over several decades - is immense and lasting.
All libraries with African studies and African literature collection interests will want to acquire this engrossing book, as will be those with collections on book, media and publishing studies.
1 For more details and a description of the project see the article by Matt Kibble "The Digitisation of the African Writers Series." Africana Libraries Newsletter, no. 120 (May 2007). http://www.indiana.edu/~libsalc/african/ALN%20120/aln120vendor.html
To ensure wide access by libraries and institutions within Africa, Pro Quest is offering subscriptions at either heavily discounted rates or entirely free-of-charge.
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2 Ayi Kwei Armah. "Negatives-The Colonial Publisher as Pirate." In The Eloquence of the Scribes. A Memoir on the Sources and Resources of African Literature by Ayi Kwei Armah. Popenguine, Senegal: Per Ankh. The African Publishing Cooperative, 2006: 307-338. (distributed in the US by Bonnie Kwan, 2014 22nd Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94116 http://stores.bbkwan.com/StoreFront.bok). A review of this article appeared in the African Book Publishing Record (ABPR) 33, no. 2 (2007): 109-110.
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Notes: For further insights about the growth of the AWS read the three-part series of interviews with James Currey, "AWS, Chinua Achebe, & all those Books", two of which have thus far appeared in the freely accessible online resource African Writing Online:
no. 4 , Part I
no. 5 , Part II
Hans M. Zell
Publishing, Books and Reading in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Critical Bibliography.
With an introductory essay by Henry Chakava. Locharron, Scotland: Hans Zell Publishing, 2008.
F. Abiola Irele
Since 1975, when he began to publish The African Book Publishing Record (ABPR), Hans Zell has reported regularly not only on the general state of the book trade in Africa, as a discreet area of the continent’s economy, but also on the general cultural and intellectual climate within which books, journals and other forms of printed materials circulate and function either as educational tools or as expressive means. Apart from reviews of new books and publications, which provided extensive bibliographic information on the pace and scope of book production in Africa, ABPR also carried feature articles on various aspects of the book culture as it was developing in Africa, keeping track of events such as book fairs and conferences related to publishing in Africa and policy matters as elaborated by African government and international agencies. In this way, the journal provided pointers to current trends in book production in Africa, and its potential for expanding the scope of the new literate culture, highlighted by its special focus on the formative role of children’s literature.
Material from the journal also went into the compilation of the highly successful African Books in Print, which first appeared in 1975, the sixth and most recent edition of which was published in 2 volumes in 2006. The effort that went into these publications provide the background for the preparation and production of the book entitled Publishing and Book Development in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Annotated Bibliography, published in 1996, in which Hans Zell offered a comprehensive documentation of the book as a major index of contemporary life and expression in Africa. It is this work that he has now revised and updated, to take account not only of new material but also of the technological revolution that has so profoundly transformed the publishing world in the past decade or so. Indeed, the outstanding feature of this new edition is the way it has been conceived both as regards content and its organization by this technical consideration. This accounts for what may be termed double nature of the book, in which the print mode is replicated and its function extended by the digital mode.
It is well to point out that the instructions to the buyer for using the digital component of the book, once the conditions for this have been fulfilled, assume ready access to the internet. The special attention devoted in its layout as well as in its impressively detailed bibliographic references to digital and on-line resources emphasizes the dual dimension of the new edition. The digital features make this book a versatile tool, for not only do they facilitate navigation and discovery, they also enable the user to communicate with the publisher, in order for instance to send alerts about possible dead links. Information can also be regularly updated, so that this edition can be expected to be constantly serviceable. This is clearly a book designed for the electronic age.
This observation lends to the introductory essay by Henry Chakava, the guru of African publishing, its full historic interest. Chakava goes back to the conference held at the University of Ife, Nigeria in December 1973 at which participants considered the prospects for developing a viable publishing industry in Africa. He identifies the achievements as well as the setbacks, dwelling in this particular respect on the systemic factors having to do with African conditions, that have prevented the fulfillment of the high hopes expressed at the Ife conference. There can be no doubt that, along with the convulsions of political life on the continent, the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) imposed by international agencies on African economies from the mid-eighties onward contributed immensely to the steady decline of publishing that we have witnessed all over the continent until fairly recently. However, there are signs at the present moment of a revival of African publishing, gathering strength and pace all over the continent, as part of the innovative impulse that has given us in recent years a new expression in literature, the cinema, and the other arts. One can only hope that, where publishing, books and reading are concerned, this new development will be sustained over time, enabling us in Africa to create an infrastructure adequate to our educational, intellectual and cultural needs in the twenty-first century. It is in this light that the timeliness and importance of Hans Zell’s book emerge so clearly.
"Anthologizing the Atlantic Slave Trade Literature." Review of Atlantic Slave Trade (Jeremy Black, ed.) by Joseph C. Miller. African Studies Review - Volume 51, Number 3, December 2008, pp. 156-158. E-ISSN: 1555-2462/Print ISSN: 0002-0206