I doubt if there is any student of African literature who has never heard of the African Writers Series, through which Heinemann Educational Books introduced and popularized dozens of African writers in Africa and around the world. In Africa Writes Back James Currey tells the story of the Series, using correspondence between the publisher and the writers, as well as reports by manuscript reviewers. These documents are held in the library of the University of Reading, thanks to Mike Bott, the archivist, who persuaded several leading British publishers to deposit their archives there.
Although Heinemann Educational Books had published several African titles starting with Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart in 1958, the African Writers Series started in 1962 with Achebe as Editorial Adviser. Achebe recalls that the "launching of the Heinemann's African Writers Series was like the umpire's signal for which African writers had been waiting on the starting line" (1). Achebe proudly notes that this Series generated a vast amount of writing from across Africa, which transformed the reading of literature on the continent, giving people something other than the traditional fare of English classics. Currey notes that the "Series was to become to Africans in its first quarter century what Penguin had been to British readers in its first 25 years" (1).
Africa Writes Back recounts the role of the prime movers, conspirators, as Achebe calls them, of the African Writers Series: Alan Hill, Chinua Achebe, Keith Sambrook, Henry Chakava, Aig Higo, and James Currey. In 1964 Heinemann-Cassell established a sales office in Nairobi under Bob Markham, and in 1965 Heinemann Educational Books in Nigeria was [End Page 425] founded, with Aig Higo as manager. In 1970, Henry Chakava became editor of Heinemann Educational Books (East Africa). With that infrastructure, the work of soliciting and processing manuscripts from African writers gained momentum.
Africa Writes Back is divided into a number of parts. A preliminary section, "Publishing & Selling the African Writers Series," sums up the story the book tells, introducing the main actors, and the challenges of developing and expanding the African Writers Series as a business enterprise. Then come specific stories, each comprising a separate section. A section titled "Publishing Chinua Achebe," acts as a prelude to Part 1: "Writers from West Africa," which features Nigerian writers, Negritude writers from Senegal to Cameroon, as well as writers from Ghana, The Gambia, and Sierra Leone. There follows Part 2: "Writers from East Africa," dealing with writers from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, with a word on the oral tradition. The next section is "Publishing Ngũgĩ." Then comes Part 3: "Writers from The Horn & North-Eastern Africa," which is followed by a section titled "Publishing Nuruddin Farah." This part concludes with a section titled "Arab authors in Egypt & Sudan." Part 4: "Writers from South Africa," deals with writers and politics under apartheid. Apart from notes on Zwelonke, Dikobe, and Peteni, there are special sections titled "Publishing Alex la Guma," "Publishing Dennis Brutus," "Publishing Bessie Head," and "Publishing Mazisi Kunene." Part 5, "Writers from Southern Africa," deals with writers from Mozambique, Angola, Zambia, Malawi, and Zimbabwe, ending with a separate section, "Publishing Dambudzo Marechera." The "Conclusion," poses and discusses the question, "Is there a role for the African Writers Series?"
Africa Writes Back is not only a history of the African Writers Series: how book manuscripts were obtained and evaluated, the correspondence with authors, the challenges of distribution, and the vagaries of the market. There is also information on the lives of writers and the issues that preoccupied them, such as politics, as was the case with writers from Southern Africa. Currey notes that Africa Writes Back owes something to G. D. Killam and Ruth Rowe's The Companion to African Literature, including information about writers and comments on their works.
Africa Writes Back sometimes reveals interesting discrepancies between what people remember and the evidence in the archives. Sometimes, the published works represented compromises between...