Research in African Literatures 34.2 (2003) 163-174
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The African Writers Series—
Celebrating Forty Years of Publishing Distinction
Literature Consultant, Oxford, UK
First, let me put my presentation 1 within the larger context of Heinemann's publishing history. Heinemann has had a long history, one that goes back to 1890, of giving world writers a voice. Besides publishing periodicals and journals, Heinemann also published British authors such as John Galsworthy, Somerset Maugham, and John Masefield in addition to publishing non-English European literature in translation. Bjornson and Ibsen, Gerhart Hauptmann, George Brandes, Guy de Maupassant, and Gabriele d'Annunzio were all given voice in places other than their home countries and linguistic regions by the imprint.
Alan Hill's title In Pursuit of Publishing charts Hill's early formative years forged in the strict tradition of English nonconformist radicalism. In recounting the experiences which became the driving force of his vision in starting the series, he recalls:
As I now discovered when I visited Nigeria for the first time in 1959, British Publishers operating within West Africa sold mainly textbooks and regarded the territory as a place where you sold books rather than a source for new writers. Moreover, the books sold were almost all written by British authors and produced in Britain. They were taking profits out of West Africa and putting nothing back in the way of investment in local publishing and encouragement of local authors. (122)
When Heinemann, alongside other publishing companies, came to Africa, it was largely, if inadvertently, to fulfil a colonial mission. The British Empire presented an open market for British publishers. The market was secured by the imposition of the British system of education throughout the colonies. It was a highly protected market, for the 1842 and 1911 Copyright Acts applied throughout the colonies, ensuring British publishers a monopoly on their titles. British trade to former colonies was protected by means of the British Commonwealth Market Agreement of 1947, which gave British publishers a privileged position over American publishers in the sale of books to this territory.
At the time Heinemann started publishing the literature series, it was unusual for an Educational Publisher to publish fiction. Could the series have failed after such a start? It could well have. It was published by an educational company and the education industry wants established standards, so easily verifiable and ascertainable as to allow inclusion in the school curriculum. Sales follow the prescriptions for exams and class adoptions. But for African literature at this time, there was no canon of established texts.
However, something crucial was happening in Africa and coincided [End Page 163] with the establishment of the series and was to act as the catalyst that brought the African Writers Series to international attention. Newly independent countries in Africa in the late 1950's whose curricula were fashioned on European models and tradition wanted to replace European Educational literature with literature about Africans written by Africans. The newly established Universities at Ibadan, Legon, and Makerere became the source from which ripples spread out across the whole of Africa. This was the period that saw the development and advancement of the publications into a pan-African series. A total of 270 titles appeared during the years from 1972 to 1984. This rich outpouring of new writing from the continent gave people all over Africa the hope of publication and the guarantee of an audience.
Achebe, in Home and Exile, describes Alan Hill as "an adventurer with all the right instincts" (50) and, in the foreword to Henry Chakava's Publishing in Africa as a Professional, as from "the old school of publishers who loved books and their authors and took them seriously enough to take pains and risks on their account" (xiv). He said it was Hill's sense of entrepreneurial adventure and his readiness to listen to editorial advice from the best literary brains on the continent—such as Henry Chakava, Simon Gikandi, Aig Higo and Laban Erapu—that developed the series into the single most important avenue for...