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the Complete Review
the complete review - publishing / history

Africa Writes Back

James Currey

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To purchase Africa Writes Back

Title: Africa Writes Back
Author: James Currey
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2008
Length: 332 pages
Availability: Africa Writes Back - US
Africa Writes Back - UK
Africa Writes Back - Canada
  • The African Writers Series and the Launch of African Literature

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fascinating and useful companion-volume

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Africana Libraries Newsletter . 3/2009 Hans Zell
Mail & Guardian . 14/8/2008 Percy Zvomuya

  From the Reviews:
  • "This fascinating and highly entertaining book tells the story how they did it, and how publishing relationships were developed and nurtured with a very large number of African writers, including some of the continent's now foremost writers (.....) Rich in anecdotal material on many of Africa's best known writers, the book offers a narrative how the now famous series came together." - Hans Zell, Africana Libraries Newsletter

  • " It is an engaging book, a comprehensive bibliography and socio-literary history of early African literature, beginning with the 1950s. (...) It is the kind of book that lay readers can grab on a Saturday afternoon and page through with relish, as the text is interspersed with photographs and portraits by George Hallett. (...) Africa Writes Back is a thorough book" - Percy Zvomuya, Mail & Guardian

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Africa Writes Back is a fairly comprehensive history of Heinemann's fabled African Writers Series, which published most of the leading African writers of the second half of the twentieth century. The Series was founded in 1962, and while originally targeting the schools-market (with anthologies and reprints of notable African works -- beginning with AWS 1, the first volume in the Series, Chinua Achebe's 1958 classic, Things Fall Apart) soon began publishing original work as well -- and:

The Series was to become to Africans in its first quarter century what Penguin had been to British readers in its first 25 years. It provided good serious reading in paperbacks at accessible prices for the rapidly emerging professional classes, as the countries became independent. The colour orange was shamelessly copied from Penguin.
       Africa Writes Back focuses on the history of the Series from 1962 to 1988. This is a publishing history, rather than a narrative account, and it relies heavily on personal reminiscences as well as company records, specifically letters and readers' reports, which are often quoted at length. After an introductory section (on 'The Establishment of African literature') it is divided into five parts, each focusing on writers from a specific region of Africa (West, East, North-Eastern/Horn of, South, and Southern) -- i.e. it does not proceed strictly chronologically. Each part also includes one or more special sections that are devoted specifically to the publishing of some of the most notable authors.
       Chinua Achebe's role as founding editor (as they put it in the Series-books themselves; here he is referred to by his official title of 'Editorial Adviser') -- a legacy arguably as significant to African letters as that of his own fiction -- is well-known, but Africa Writes Back usefully also introduces and profiles the many other significant figures behind the series (notably Alan Hill, Keith Sambrook, and the author).
       Personal accounts, reports, and letters offer fascinating detail about the publication of many of the AWS titles -- wonderful (and often troubling) insight into the publishing world. At times there are a lot of stories being juggled here: the publishing process is a drawn-out one, and in describing authors' relationships with the publishers there are many strands running side by side. In covering so much, much also gets compressed; the complex relationship with Ayi Kwei Armah is, for example, covered in a mere three pages -- though even here there are a fill of nice anecdotes, from the advance offered for The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born ("Armah was right to treat the offer of the advance of £50 as insulting") to its somewhat surprising success (they had not expected it to be an acceptable set text for schools, but when it was adopted, it: "quickly sold the initial 50,000").
       The process of selecting books and authors is a fascinating one, as is the different directions the Series took -- the forays into translated literature, for example, successful early on with Francophone literature, but never really managing to embrace Arabic literature (though they did manage to include works by the likes of Mahfouz and Tayeb Salih). The readers' reports are useful both as at least introductory book-summaries for many of the texts, as well as often providing interesting insight into how these manuscripts were considered, both literarily and with an eye towards the market.
       Many of the best known AWS titles are covered in some depth -- the acquisition- and publishing-history, as well as the surrounding circumstances -- but perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the book is that not all volumes are mentioned (beyond in the list of all the AWS publications). Many of what are perhaps considered the minor volumes -- especially the poetry, drama, and anthologies -- aren't discussed at all; while understandable -- the Series topped out at about 350 volumes, and even brief discussion of every title would have added to the heft of the book -- some (any !) information about many of these titles is certainly missed.
       Currey does provide good context about the works and authors he does mention, and in this regard the region-by-region approach is particularly effective. Each area and often many of the countries posed different issues, from Nigeria (the West African base for the AWS) to apartheid South Africa to the Francophone and Lusophone colonies. The myriad markets and concern for the bottom line (and the organizational difficulties being part of Heinemann posed) all also figure into the twisting history of what got published, and when.
       Africa Writes Back is also very nicely illustrated, with cover-images from many of the books as well as author and other photographs by George Hallett. Admirably, too, Africa Writes Back is a co-publication that seven publishers are responsible for -- five of them African.
       An essential history of African publishing and literature in the early post-colonial period, Africa Writes Back is filled with fascinating titbits and useful information. While certainly of interest to anyone involved in publishing, it should be of particular interest to readers (and scholars) of African literature, providing an extensive literary history and a great deal of context. Very nicely done.

       The closure of the Nigerian foreign exchanges in 1982 was a major factor in leading: "the new owners of Heinemann to decimate publishing on Africa", but even after some lean years in the 1980s, when only a handful of AWS volumes appeared annually (compared to some twenty a year in its heyday in the 1970s), there was a revival of sorts that lasted into the mid-1990s. Since then, however, the Series has sputtered to more than a halt. As Currey writes in his Conclusion:
     In 2003 the owners of the Heinemann imprint issued a confusing statement that no new work would be added to the African Writers Series. They managed to give the impression that the African Writers Series was being closed. [...] The 2007 catalogue in fact still listed 64 lucrative titles. By the standards of most publishers that is quite a substantial body of work. All the firm needed to do was to buy in a few 'fresheners' from other hardback houses and national publishers in Africa to keep interest in the Series alive. Unfortunately one of the prophecies in Keith Sambrook's 1985 memo had been completely realised: 'Gradually the Series will be reduced to a rump of established titles by well-known writers, reprinting annually.'
       Not much seems left of the Heinemann AWS (and in 2010 Penguin have begun their own AWS, relying heavily on reprints from the original Series). The loss is a great one. The African Books Collective is an invaluable resource that does now make much contemporary African literature readily available, but the AWS was the first name in African publishing, a recognizable imprint which readers could rely on and which offered much of the most important writing of the times; it has not and can not be replaced.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 February 2010

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Africa Writes Back: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       James Currey was born in 1936.

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