In 1967, James Currey joined Heinemann Educational Books as editorial director to work with editorial adviser Chinua Achebe and other key ‘conspirators’—in Achebe’s words— on what was to become one of the most important literary series in the history of books.
Several decades later— just a few weeks ago in fact, I had the opportunity to speak with James Currey about the African Writers Series (the AWS as it is called); what it attempted, what it accomplished, and what legacy it left behind within and beyond the shores of the African continent.
James Currey had acquired more grey hair by our conversation than he likely sported in ’67.
But his equally perceptible wit and mischievous glimmer communicated a lingering adventurousness which undoubtedly helped fuel the scheme he and his AWS co-conspirators hatched. Simply stated, it was one that would fundamentally transform the landscape of global literature.
Seemingly unrelated, but also contributing to the tone of our talk was a seminar on a recent archeological discovery in South Africa which we had both attended prior to our meeting.
South African historian Peter Delius presented his (literally) ground-breaking work which has uncovered evidence of a sophisticated agricultural and social system pioneered in Southern Africa around the 1500s, long before colonization, by the Bakoni, a decentralized people group whose history was previously enshrouded. Sprawling remains of stone-walled settlement still mark the landscape in a vast area of South Africa today and, though long overlooked, have now
become the central clue in the effort to piece together this forgotten narrative.
The presentation was undoubtedly fascinating in itself, not in the least for what the discovery might imply about understated innovations among decentralized groups in pre-colonial times. But more relevant is that it set an interesting key for my conversation with James Currey by bringing into sharp focus the themes of story-telling, record-keeping, and the counter-factual ‘what ifs’ of history which remained at the heart of Currey’s recollection of his AWS adventure.
The world he began to describe, into which the African Writers Series was first launched, was a world wherein the point still needed to be proven that Africans were capable of writing interesting things.
That a canon of mostly white/male authors selected by a mostly white/male audience should define the bounds of what is classic literature no longer seems quite as self-evident in our day. But of course, it is precisely because of the sort of adventurous initiative of which the AWS is perhaps the most notable example that this change ever occurred. Preceding such developments theirs was a world that was profoundly different from ours, if not in kind then at least in degree.
William Heinemann published the hardback edition of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in 1958. Alan Hill of Heinemann saw in Things Fall Apart the expansion of the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable by a European literary audience. However when he went to Nigeria in 1959 he found that hardly anybody had seen the book.
He realised that what was needed was a paperback series for Africa like Penguin Books.
Through his insistence, a cheap paperback edition of what was to become Africa’s single most successful novel was published as the first title in the launch of the African Writers Series in 1962. For the conspirators, this was a moment to make profit as well as history; it was an opportunity to make a market but also to make a mark.
But beyond righting the myopia of former colonist, a more fundamental reason why Hill pushed for the launch of the series lay in the same factors which steered Currey’s adventurous path to Heinemann by the fifth year of AWS’s existence.
‘’It was a quite an exciting time to be involved,’ said Currey. ‘This was the era of independence in the 60’s, panafricanism was strong, [and with] the commodities hike in the late 70’s lots of money was going into UPE [universal primary education] in places like Zambia, Kenya, and Nigeria. There was an enormous feeling that Africans wanted to see themselves in the books they were reading.’
By the time Currey came on board, the AWS was capturing significant market share on the continent and had published over thirty books. This early feat underlined the nascent potential of the series, particularly given its mere five years of existence and the at best skeptical context in Europe.
DETERMINATION TO TEACH
The establishment of education councils—the West African and East African Examination Councils — and their determination to teach and examine on African texts, beyond Shakespeare, Dickens and other standard colonial prescriptions, both confirmed the plausibility of the AWS goals and established the education sector in Africa as the Series’ main customer.
The entire AWS team also shared the desire to have represented in the Series authors from across the African continent to balance anglophone and francophone West Africa’s initial dominance and keep faith with the pan-africanist mood of the time.
Currey recalled that Tayeb Salih’s Wedding of Zein was the first manuscript he personally brought to Achebe who calmly turned over the pages for a while and then confidently said ‘Yes, we must publish that! And it will be our first book from Sudan.’
During Currey’s tenure from 1967 to 1984, the Series increased dramatically so that by the time he left Heinemann in 1984 it had 270 titles and published authors from 25 countries.
In sales terms, the Series maintained the educational market as its backbone. But interestingly the capacity building motive did not always perfectly align with profit-making imperatives.
‘In the heyday of the Series, we received a whole lot of manuscripts… some were better than others. But we often decided to send back the readers’ reports on promising manuscripts that didn’t quite make it. It was certainly an expense sending responses to a large number of manuscripts… A lot of our surplus was spent on these reader’s reports.’
As Currey emphasized, what made successful this dynamic interaction between budding writers across the continent of Africa and the London headquarters were the company offices in Nairobi and Ibadan which increasingly handled the inflow of manuscripts.
Manned by farsighted editorial minds like Henry Chakava in Nairobi and Aig Higo in Ibadan, these hubs were responsible for cultivating many of the new voices that came to define the Series.
The early novels in English by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o had been far bigger sellers than his plays in English in the African Writers Series. It was thus a surprise to Currey who recounted that: ‘Ngugi’s immense success in Kenya was with his plays written in his native Kikuyu which sold just as well as his novels in Kikuyu.‘
Ngugi’s success lay in the broad-based appeal beyond the educational setting. Morover, the restrictive political context in Kenya at the time turned Ngugi’s work into sought-after contraband.
Currey recalled Ngugi’s appeal: ‘ Ordinary people in bars in Kikuyu land would introduce themselves to him by the name of a character in his play and then start to recite lines from their parts.
In many bars a reader would read aloud from Ngugi’s Kikuyu novel until his glass was empty when he would put the book face down on the bar until somebody bought him another drink and he would only then continue. Literacy paid.’
Likewise the political sensitivity of some of themes in his work, particularly in his prison memoirs, added to the appeal of Ngugi in a similar vein to Dambudzo Marechera’s popular reception in the restrictive political context of Zimbabwe.
Currey said ‘In April 1982 the Nigerian foreign exchange closed leaving huge unpaid bills for British publishers. It was the beginning of “the African Book Famine”.’
AFRICA WRITES BACK
Currey’s adventurous glint grew slightly clouded when he reflected on what happened to the AWS. “At this point, after a stockmarket takeover, the new Heinemann management decided to cut out original publishing in the African Writers Series – no new authors – no new titles!’ We knew then that the era had to come to an end.’
His joviality partially returned when he talked about launching the James Currey publishing house shortly afterwards. ‘I demanded my redundancy pay-off from Heinemann and, well, there was one thing I knew I was very good at. I knew that all the big publishers had dropped out of African Studies publishing. By co-publishing with publishers in Africa and the United States we could fill the gap.’
The publication of Currey’s story of the AWS —titled Africa Writes Back—reflected on many of the industry’s heavy-weights, underscored the respect he had garnered and the place AWS had carved out in the publishing arena.
But what the AWS had undoubtedly accomplished extended beyond its key goal of ‘reversing the colonial bias in the teaching of literature in Africa,’ as Currey explained. It had also introduced to Africa itself and the larger world a new literary eminence situated in the assorted realities of the African experience.
Yet the flip-side of this achievement was that these very African realities were perceived by some as having been quarantined from the broader human experience and propped up as the ‘other’ by the boundaries of the series. Wole Soyinka, in a sardonic reference to the usual colour scheme of the book covers, once explained his hesitation to be ‘confined to the orange ghetto’. Ayi Kwei Armah later went further to express hopes of finding ‘an African publisher as opposed to a neo-colonial writers’ coffle owned by Europeans but slyly misnamed African.’
These authors raised an important point about the confinement of literature by African writers to ‘African literature’ in the general literary world. But perhaps AWS by virtue of its visibility became an easy target in a critique that was could more appropriately have been levelled at the broader (European) audience.
As Achebe once poignantly responded: ‘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.…”
His rhetorical questions in the negative may cast one’s minds to counterfactuals which highlight a key point regarding works of cultural production.
What would have become of the nascent energies that produces Jazz if trumpets and trombones had never been invented? What would be known of the Bakoni if Peter Delius and conspirators had raised a curious eyebrow upon sighting the lines of stacked stone beside the highway only to keep on driving, as had innumerable South Africans who took that commute before them?
Africa’s—like the rest of humanity’s— greatest moment’s of cultural production have been the result of influences bridging time and geography in conspiratorial alliances to forge a truly creative and, indeed, human future. The alliance that gave us the AWS and Currey’s role in steering and helping us remember it is a celebration of such creative production which belongs to Africa but also to humanity.
Sa’eed Husaini, from Jos, Nigeria, is a graduate student at the University of Oxford. He writes on literature, violence, politics and natural resource management across Africa.