Volume 11, Issue 1
James Currey. Africa Writes Back: The African Writers Series and the Launch of African Literature. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008.
James Currey, the editorial director at Heinemann Educational Books from 1967 to 1984, has produced a book that for many will be difficult to avoid reading straight through. It is many things at once: a personal career retrospective; an insider’s view of the often frustratingly complex business of book publishing; a fascinating series of glimpses into the personalities and struggles of numerous prominent—and not so prominent—African authors; and a foundational history of arguably one of the most important literary series in the history of books. His depth of relationships within the African publishing world is immediately evident in the volume’s simultaneous release by not only Ohio and his own imprint, but also by East African Educational Publishers (Nairobi), Mkuki na Nyota (Dar es Salaam), Heinemann Educational Books Nigeria (Ibadan), Weaver Press (Harare), and Wits University Press (Johannesburg). This is hardly surprising as during his tenure the series released over 250 titles by authors from more than twenty-five African countries. Based upon personal recollections, extracts from the original African Writer Series (AWS) correspondence files (now held at University of Reading), various works of scholarly criticism, and media reviews, Currey produces a sprawling account that remains equally readable in sequence or alternatively, when simply opened to nearly any page. Complemented by selections from the distinctive AWS cover photography and author portraits of George Hallet, Africa Writes Back is likely to become a necessary purchase for anyone with more than a cursory interest in African literatures.
With a huge cast of characters that includes editors, reviewers, literary scholars, agents, publishers, politicians, and of course the authors themselves, Currey rather sensibly divides this history by geographic region. Beginning with West Africa and the founding of the series with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Currey intersperses his history and brief author portraits with a number of in-depth profiles under the rubric “Publishing…” These include Achebe as well as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Nuruddin Farah, Alex la Guma, Dennis Brutus, Bessie Head, Mazisi Kunene, and Dambudzo Marechera. A common theme amongst many of the authors covered here is the oft contentious relationship between publisher and author 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’” (p. 75). One suspects, as Currey alludes, that he was likely not the only author with such sentiments even if these were rarely expressed openly. 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 color scheme of AWS volumes.
So Currey, and his self-proclaimed “conspirators” in the promotion of African literatures though 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. 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” (p. 240). 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.
We are indeed fortunate that they did so. The broad availability of so many AWS titles on the continent from the 60s through the 80s (before corporate changes put large numbers out of print) likely did give many “a young person the idea that Africans could write and get published,” thus contributing to the future expansion of African literature (p. 246). The impact of the series in Europe and North America on developing scholars of African Studies – many in disciplines far afield from literature – should also not be underestimated. In his concluding chapter, Currey asks whether there is a future for the AWS. The unfortunate answer seems to be that new corporate ownership strategies have limited the series to annual reprints of well-established authors, producing dogged searches for the “orange ghetto” in used bookshops around the globe. No new titles have been added to AWS since 2003.
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. As Cyprian Ekwensi wrote to Currey in 1976, “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!” (p. 46).
Todd H. Leedy University of Florida