- Africa Writes Back: The African Writers Series & the Launch of African Literature
Heinemann Press, a European publishing house based in London, entered Africa's literary sphere in 1958, when it published Chinua Achebe's classic and best-selling Things Fall Apart, the book that gave birth to modern African literature. This publication not only set the foundation for the African literary canon but also provided the impetus for the foundation of the African Writers Series, which started in 1962, with Achebe as its editorial advisor. Thanks to the efforts of James Currey, the editorial director of Heinemann Educational Books of the African Writers Series from 1967 to 1984, African poet-activists and public intellectuals entered a new era of literary innovation, creativity, and cultural decolonization. As Achebe observes, 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). In Africa Writes Back, Currey recounts this adventurous journey, detailing the publishers' endless conversations with writers and with Heinemann's literary agents, as well as the cultural and political phenomena that informed these exchanges. The Series "was to become to Africans in its first quarter century what Penguin had been to British in its first 25 years" (1). The goal of the book is "to provide a narrative of how it came together" (viii).
Africa Writes Back focuses on the first quarter-century of the series from 1962 to 1988. The book is the first account that discusses the genesis of the African Writers Series in such copious detail. The preliminary section, "The publishing and selling of the African Series," highlights the main actors and summarizes the challenges, successes, and the joint labor and commitment of Currey's colleagues to initiating and expanding the Series. Achebe uses the phrase "conspirators in the launch of African literature" (24) to refer to the collaborative effort of Alan Hill, Aig Higo, Henry Chakava, Keith Sambrook, and James Currey to establish the African Writers Series.
The book is structured geographically, and divided into five equal parts. Representative writers from five corners of Africa (West, East, North-Eastern, South, and Southern) are introduced accordingly. The book's geographical orientation rightly indicates the significant contribution of continental African literature and correspondingly speaks for Africa's diverse literary voice. Currey discusses the publication process of the works of eight distinguished writers: Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Nuruddin Farah, Alex la Guma, Dennis Brutus, Bessie Head, Mazisi Kunene, and Dambudzo Marechera. Each chapter incorporates short excerpts of works by writers in the Series and generously distributes archival photographs and portraits of those represented writers by George Hallett. Observations indicating collaboration and misunderstandings as well as corresponding letters between potential and already-established writers and James Currey and his colleagues are also included. The book includes a full list of all paperback titles published in the African Writers Series from 1962 to 2003 by year of publication. It also records Heinemann's published works that made it to the list in the Africa's 100 Best Books of the twentieth century, juried by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF). In a remarkable way, the book signals a sense of (literary) movement, progress, and active involvement toward the process of publishing Africa. [End Page 359]
Part 1: "Writers from West Africa" gives special attention to Nigerian writers, Négritude writers from Senegal to Cameroun, and magical realist writers from Ghana, the Gambia, and Sierra Leonne. It was in Nigeria, however, that so much got started for various reasons. First, Achebe, the first published poet and novelist of the African Writers Series, was born in Nigeria. Second, Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958) and its sequel, No Longer at Ease (1960), both published by William Heinemann, called Westerners' attention to Nigeria as an important site of modern African writing in English. Third, the appointment of Achebe as Editorial Adviser to the Series in 1962 was indicative of Nigeria's literary promise and early prominence. Finally, according to Currey, by the...