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Review of Africa Writes Back: The African Writers Series and the Launch of African Literature


By Martin Banham

Africa Writes Back: The African Writers Series and the Launch of African Literature. James Currey. James Currey, Oxford, 2008. Pp. 318. ISBN 978 1 84701 503 7 (hb). £55. (Also in pb. 978 1 84701 502 0. £19.95)

In the LUCAS Bulletin No 68 (2006) we were privileged to carry a preview of the material in this magnificent book, a chapter entitled ‘Publishing Ngugi’. Now we have available James Currey’s extraordinary story of ‘the launch of African literature’, in which he chronicles the Heinemann Educational Books’ publishing venture that commenced with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in 1962 (alongside Cyprian Ekwensi’s Burning Grass, and Kenneth Kaunda’s Zambia Shall be Free) and brings us – c. 350 titles later – to novels by Ghana’s Ama Ata Aidoo and Daniel Mengara from Gabon. The famous HEB series was created by Alan Hill, and soon attracted the publishing talents of Keith Sambrook, Henry Chakava in East Africa, Aig Higo in West Africa, and Currey himself. Major talents of African literature, including Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o were also crucially involved in the process of publication as well as creation.

However, this is no mere list of books published. It is a quite extraordinary adventure story, and not always an easy one. We are dealing with authors who suffered imprisonment (Ngugi himself, Jack Mapanje, et al) and others who were exiled or persecuted in various ways. It sets out the risks, personal and publishing, taken by all those involved. It is an unusual book on what might be regarded as the cloistered world of publishing that finds its author booking a ticket on a boat from South Africa to Canada, but leaping overboard at the last minute so that a wanted South African author (Randolph Vigne) can take his place and flee the South African Special Branch! (James Currey – I almost said Bond – was, after this, urgently advised to leave South Africa himself, and did so more discreetly.) There is so much in this record of fifty years of African publishing to enjoy and be deeply informed by. There are fascinating portraits of a wide range of writers, including, for instance, the novelist Bessie Head (‘ hair-springed as a landmine..’) and the hair-raising ‘road show’ of Dambudzo Marechera.

This extraordinarily intimate and informed story of one of the most enterprising and important publishing initiatives of C20th. brings the processes and the personalities of African literary publishing richly to life. It is a remarkable and triumphant tale, told with wit, wisdom and dedication. It is not insignificant to note that Africa Writes Back is published not only by James Currey’s own imprint, but by six other publishing houses, in South Africa, the USA, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 70 (2008), pp. 88-89]

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