African Writers Series: The making and marring of British publishing industry – posted by ejimakor aloysius obih

(“How Things Fall Apart became the way things fell together” – Aeron Bady).

 Written by Odimegwu Onwumere

 African Writers Series (AWS) was founded in 1962, by Heinemann’s Alan Hill – the Heinemann Publishers. A school of thought said that the series brought many African writers to limelight during its 40 years of publishing the series. The other said that the African authors’ prominence seems to be only in their names and not in their pockets. The likes of Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Nuruddin Farah, Alex la Guma, Dennis Brutus, Bessie Head, Mazisi Kunene, Dambudzo Marechera (the list is endless) became prominent by AWS

 “In 1962, to tell the story as simply as possible, Heinemann’s Alan Hill decided that the British Empire’s loss could be the British publishing industry’s gain, and he set out to create a fairly low cost series of educational publications that he could market to the sudden up-tick in demand (from newly independent African nations) for a thing which had never existed as such, a thing which is now called ‘African literature’ – (Aeron Bady, The Valve Literary Organ, November 2009).

 Bady went further to say that the AWS was the only successful company that had done business of publishing books in the continent of Africa, but he didn’t bring to fore the perceived navigation of the label from truism to exploitation of  the ‘virgin’ African authors as was a speculation.

 “And while there are all sorts of ways to critique what that product turned out to be, it is absolutely unquestionable that Alan Hill’s establishment of an “African Writers Series” for Heinemann was the most important and most influential publishing infrastructure through which ‘African literature’ was first developed… AWS in the sixties is somewhere between substantial and overwhelmingly dominant,” said Bady.

 There were founding editors of the series, which Achebe was one. But, apart from those editors, James Currey anchored as the editorial director of the label from 1967 to 1984. During his tenure, the series released over 250 titles by authors from more than twenty-five African countries. In response to the book written by James Currey (published by Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008) titled, “Africa Writes Back: The African Writers Series and the Launch of African Literature”, Todd H. Leedy of University of Florida, in an article (published in journal: African Studies Quarterly, Volume 11, Issue 1 Fall 2009), said that “Currey was a committed editor, even though that the label came in disguise”.

 Leedy went further: “His depth of relationships within the African publishing world is immediately evident in the volume’s simultaneous release by Ohio University Press (his own imprint), East African Educational Publishers (Nairobi), Mkuki na Nyota (Dar es Salaam), Heinemann Educational Books Nigeria (Ibadan), Weaver Press (Harare), and Wits University Press (Johannesburg)”.

 Many African authors saw the series as part of the colonial masters’ strategy of exploiting the relics left of Africa. As a result, many of the authors did not want the label, AWL, to publish their works; they felt that the series was hoodwinking them but just included “African” in the title. They wanted African publishers as against the neo-colonial publishers.

 A common theme amongst many of the authors covered here is the oft contentious relationship between publishers and authors on issues ranging from advance/royalty payments to editorial recommendations, the most problematic of which, by Currey’s own admission, emerged with Ayi Kwei Armah. For his part, Armah later commented, in characteristic uncompromising terms, of his hopes “to find an African publisher as opposed to a neo-colonial writers’ coffle owned by Europeans but slyly misnamed ‘African.’ Indeed, such relationships were hardly limited to writers from Africa, and this, in part, exemplifies why some had difficulties even accepting the label of ‘African writer.’ Wole Soyinka, for a time, resisted having his novel, “The Interpreters” appear in AWS – for fear of being confined to the “orange ghetto” defined by the recognizable colour scheme of AWS volumes. However, the series became a necessary purchase for anyone with more than a cursory interest in African literatures,” said Leedy. 

 In Publishing and Canonicity: The Case of Heinemann’s “African Writers Series”, Loretta Stec, quoted in the Bellaigue 89, “A British publishing executive asks rhetorically: Is this a business or a charity? There are those who think they are publishing books with artistic worth; they don’t have to worry about balance sheet…” (Pacific Coast PhilologyVol. 32, No. 2, Convention Program Issue (1997), pp. 140-149).

 Intricacies befell both the indigenous writers and their white explorers or exploiters. Leedy had a clear picture of that thus. “So Currey, and his self-proclaimed “conspirators” in the promotion of African literatures through the AWS, all too frequently found themselves negotiating a delicate path between artistic vision (and sometimes very real material need) of authors and their own position in an evolving corporate structure where the bottom-line was the bottom-line”.

 Leedy, on the contrary, believes that the series succeeded no matter the discrepancies that were perceived on the area of the initial low sales, but certain African writers contributed to the success of new works by the label.

 “That the AWS succeeded at all in this environment was in part due to the revenues produced by Heinemann’s wider educational book sales in Africa that allowed the publication of works with rather low expected initial sales. Certain authors’ popularity also contributed to the possible publication of other new works, as evidenced by founding editor, Chinua Achebe’s titles accounting for one-third of the total AWS series sales in 1984 (at that time approximately 250 titles). Still, the intricacies of this balancing act often initially escaped the writers themselves, leading South African Poet, Laureate Mazisi Kunene, to attack: “the commercialism that guides the selection of what must be published from Africa…” He later apologized, but it is clear that Currey and his staff had to invest enormous efforts in seeing through to print works that many others in the industry viewed as commercially unviable,” said Leedy.

  At a ceremony in Oxford on 28 June 2007, when Chinua Achebe, Nigeria’s great novelist, the arguably founding father of African literature, and the founding editor of the groundbreaking African Writers Series, was awarded the second Man Booker International Prize for 2007, Stephanie Kitchen argues that although the prize is decided by the literary establishment and still embodies the values of the former colonial power, African writers are fighting back as ‘active definers and custodians of society’s values’.

 “The colonialist critic, unwilling to accept the validity of sensibilities other than his own, has made particular point of dismissing the African novel… Did not the black people in America, deprived of their own musical instruments, take the trumpet and the trombone and blow them as they had never been blown before, as indeed they were not designed to be blown? And, was the result not jazz? Let every people bring their gifts to the great festival of the world’s cultural harvest and mankind will be all the richer for the variety and distinctiveness of the offerings.…
My people speak disapprovingly of an outsider whose wailing drowned the grief of the owner of the corpse… One last word to the owners…most of what remains to be done can best be tackled by ourselves.” – Chinua Achebe. (Pambazuka, 2007-07-05, Issue 311).

 As if Bady knew what gibberish Stephanie Kitchen was going to say, he said that even though that the Heinemann didn’t initially give Things Fall Apart the attention it sought but it scaled through later and paved way for what seems to be known as ‘African literature’.

 “When Things Fall Apart started making the rounds of London publishers, it was initially greeted with great skepticism; there was seen to be no precedent for African fiction, and even when Alan Hill convinced Heinemann to take a chance on it, they gave him only a very small print run. And although Things Fall Apart deserved the success it quickly had… Had Achebe not been the standard bearer for the AWS, both the model that made it seem profitable enough to attempt and the hand that guided its development, “African Literature” would look like something very, very different now. To say that Achebe is pretty damn important then, is only partly a statement on his personal achievement… but it’s also a recognition that the cards more or less happened to fall in his favour (while, to continue the metaphor, if he had lost his first bet, he might have lacked enough of a stake to stay at the table).

 “And illustrating how contingent the form that “African Literature” has taken has given us a certain perspective on the “West African male Anglophone novelist”-centricity of its emergence. In short, what we think of as “African Literature” is a function of how it was first institutionalized, in Achebe’s image and under his guiding hand, through the African Writers Series… So in thinking about how to better understand what it was that Achebe did in 1958 and in 1962, the question is of how to think about how—roughly—the West African male Anglophone novel of ethnographic tragedy came to be the mould out of and into which “African literature” was expected to fit, how Things Fall Apart became the way things fell together,” said Bady. 

 However, Leedy summed it up buttressing many flaws of the many uncritical minds of critics of the series as thus: “Readers may notice unevenness in the coverage of writers featured, but this could be the result of a similar trend in the archival files that are the basis of this history. For instance, of the eight writers in the expanded “Publishing…” profiles, five are from southern Africa. Or perhaps these were decisions based upon the qualities of their correspondence and the various issues that emerge therein. There are also a few too many typographical errors for a volume of this quality, particularly when proof corrections no longer require costly manual resetting as they did for those AWS authors who found their late changes charged against their advance amounts. None of these minor criticisms detract from the overall impact and usefulness of this volume. It will be of particular value in preparing courses on African literature, especially when paired with Margaret Jean Hay’s edited volume Using African Novels in the Classroom (Lynne Rienner, 2000) as many authors covered there also receive treatment from Currey. Some may find the minute intricacies of the publishing industry detailed by Currey a distraction from the more fascinating aspects of the authors’ personalities and their writing process. Yet it is often precisely through these accounts that we learn about writers’ commitment and determination”.

 Did AWS make or mar African Literature? Cyprian Ekwensi (now late), in a letter to Currey in 1976, said: “writing is the one profession in which you are an apprentice all your life. There is no retirement. You just have to go on struggling in the queue until you die!”

  But African Writers Series retired perhaps having achieved what Bady had said thus, “Heinemann’s Alan Hill decided that the British Empire’s loss could be the British publishing industry’s gain…”

Odimegwu Onwumere, a Poet/Author and Media Consultant, is a Columnist with modernghana, pointblanknews, thetimesofnigeria, africanexaminer, elombah, thewillnigeria, nigeriansinamerica, nigeriavillagesquare, xclusivenigeria, championsofnigeria, nigeriaworld, thenigeriavoice, mynaijanews, kwenu, transparencyng, codewit, newnigerianpolitics, hollerafrica, onlinenigeriannews, eagleeyereports, ocnus, ukpakareports, africanheraldexpress, africanwriter, huhuonline, chatafrikarticles and a contributor to Daily Triumph Newspapers, Nigerian Observer, Punch, Peoples Daily, Thisday, Guardian, The Sun, Vanguard, Tribune, Compass, PM News, Leadership, Niger Delta Standard., Independent, Champion, New Age, BusinessDay, Nat’l Daily, Nat’l Mirror, Hallmark, Nation, Nat’l Network, Hard Truth, Beam, Telegraph, the list is endless; and the Founder of Poet Against Child Abuse (PACA), Rivers State, Nigeria. Mobile: +2348032552855. Email: apoet_25@yahoo.com

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