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Ngũgĩ, Leeds and the Establishment of African Literature


By James Currey

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 74 (December 2012), pp. 48-62]

I want to start with a quotation from a lecture given in 1989 by Chinua Achebe:

In 1962 we saw the gathering together of a remarkable generation of young African men and women who were to create within the next decade a corpus of writing which is today seriously read and critically valued in many parts of the world. It was an enormously important moment, and year, in the history of modern African literature. The gathering took place at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda.

(It was at that conference that a young Kenyan student ventured to ask Chinua Achebe to read the manuscripts of his two novels.  The name of the student was Ngugi. The novels were The River Between and Weep Not, Child.) Achebe continues:

The other event of 1962 was not as widely publicised as the Makerere conference but it was to prove at least as portentous. It was the decision by one farsighted London publisher to launch the African Writers Series on the basis of no more than three or four published titles. Conventional wisdom in the book business of the time was inclined to dismiss the whole enterprise as a little harebrained. But…this series was to publish more than three hundred titles and establish itself without doubt as the largest and best library of African literature in existence….

(Chinua Achebe modestly does not mention that one of the first three titles was his own Things Fall Apart which was to sell many more than twenty million.)

Chinua Achebe continues:

As for the African Writers Series in that same eventful year of 1962 I was invited to be its founding editor and I was to spend a considerable part of my literary energy in the following ten years wading through a torrent of good, bad and indifferent writing that seemed in some miraculous way to have been waiting behind the sluice gates for the trap to be released…

This is what Chinua Achebe said in a lecture at the University of Guelph, Canada, in 1989, some twenty-five years after the start of the Series. (From ‘Politics and Politicians in African Literature’, a lecture by Chinua Achebe at the University of Guelph, Canada 1989).

Here we are in 2012.  Now the Series is 50 years old. In London at the end of June the Royal African Society (more than 100 years old) organised the ‘Africa Writes’ festival at SOAS. Next year ASAUK will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. So many important institutions in African studies started in the post-colonial sixties. LUCAS was started in 1964. The University of Leeds played a significant role especially in the establishment of African literature and in the study of African literature.  In this paper I will focus on three individuals and their association with the University of Leeds; the writer Ngugi, the literary scholar Eldred Durosimi Jones, and the publisher, my colleague Aig Higo.

Paperback series are meant to be reprints of hardbacks. But it quickly became clear how few books by African writers had been issued by hardback publishers. When Keith Sambrook joined Heinemann Educational Books on 1 January 1963 he found the Ngugi manuscripts on his desk. Weep Not, Child was to be the first new novel in the Series which was to be published in paperback as well as in hardback for the international market. This was the moment of take-off for the African Writers Series.

How should serious readers evalue the books published from Achebe’s ‘torrent’ of writing?   Eldred Durosimi Jones at Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone saw the need for the establishment of critical standards. Fourah Bay College is the oldest educational institution of higher learning south of Sahara as it was founded in 1827, a year before Cape Town.   In 1963 there was at Fourah Bay a radical conference of teachers of English in Anglophone universities on the integration of African literature into the university and school syllabuses and into the prescribed lists of the new examination councils, EAEC and WAEC. A powerful lobby had emerged for adventurous change – in contrast work by Francophone Africans was not considered worthy of study in French university literature courses. In particular support came from Eldred Jones and Paul Edwards at Fourah Bay, from Kofi Senanu in Ghana, from David Cook and Gerald Moore at Makerere, and in particular from people in the English department at the University of Ibadan under Professor Molly Mahood.

Eldred Jones took up a Commonwealth Fellowship at the University of Leeds in 1965. The Professor of English, ‘Derry’ A. N. Jeffares, was Irish and had a teasing relationship with the British intellectual establishment, who only doubtfully acknowledged American and Irish literature as being worthy of study - let alone writing from all the other jumped up countries of English expression. In 1964 Leeds University hosted the founding conference on Commonwealth Literature; Chinua Achebe’s lecture on ‘The Novelist as Teacher’ still provokes debate.  Out of that conference emerged, with backing from the British Council, the Journal of Commonwealth Literature (JCL) which Keith Sambrook got Heinemann to publish. It was edited by Arthur Ravenscroft who had come to Leeds in 1963 from universities in southern Africa. Eldred Jones says in his forthcoming book The Freetown Bond:

Derry was the leading spirit behind the Commonwealth Literature movement which brought together scholars from across the world to establish a literary genre out of the diversity of writing produced in the British Commonwealth. I taught a post-graduate seminar which was in itself a symbol of commonwealth diversity and included Ngugi wa Thiong’o …. He was however busy writing A Grain of Wheat so I saw far less of him at the seminar than at my wife’s Saturday afternoon [gatherings at our apartment in] The Avenue – a far more valuable allocation of his time and talent.

Arthur Ravenscroft had introduced Eldred and Marjorie Jones to their landlord John Wood, who was a member of the Yorkshire Education Authority and who had translated Moliére for Penguin. Eldred Jones tells how ‘A resident approached our landlord and suggested that he might be risking bringing down the value of property in The Avenue by renting to people of colour. “I am not prejudiced myself ’’ he argued, “but others might take this view.”  “Since you have such a liberal attitude,” countered Mr Wood, “don’t you think that a slight drop in the value of your property would be a small price to pay in the interest of racial harmony?” When my wife turned up a few days later at the wheel of a white Mercedes, the neighbour crept back and conceded, “I think they are rather nice people.”  Such delicate dilemmas recall the ‘pressurised good breeding’ of the landlady in Soyinka’s poem Telephone Conversation. Wole Soyinka had of course also taken a degree in English at Leeds in 1958.  Eldred Durosimi Jones was to publish the first critical study of The Writings of Wole Soyinka. It was Eldred’s landlord John Wood who came bounding downstairs to tell him that The Guardian reported that his Shakespeare study Othello’s Countrymen had won the prize for literary criticism at the First Festival of the Negro Arts at Dakar.

While at Leeds Eldred Jones showed Keith Sambrook a copy of The Bulletin of African Literature, which he and Marjorie Jones had been producing since 1963.  Keith Sambrook, Overseas Director, proposed that Heinemann should publish an academic journal of African literary criticism. They agreed that it should be less solemn than the Journal of Commonwealth Literature. The aim was to attract all those people, teachers and professionals, who were buying the ‘torrent’ of new African books in the campus and school bookshops across the new universities of Africa. There were new books coming from Collins Fontana, Longman Drumbeat and OUP’s Three Crowns as well as from the African Writers Series. The journal was aimed at an audience which wanted to read what Africans were writing about themselves. In 1968 Eldred agreed to start the critical journal African Literature Today. He was, with the assistance of Marjorie Jones, to edit it for 23 issues over a period of 33 years; and it is still after forty-five years being published under the editorship of Ernest Emenyonu.

In the early sixties Alan Hill and Keith Sambrook were fast expanding Heinemann’s operations in Africa and needed a manager for their Nigerian office.  During 1964 Derry Jeffares recommended to Keith Sambrook that he interview Aig Higo, whom he described as outstanding among his recent Leeds MA students. Aig Higo was a poet himself with his work represented in the first two landmark anthologies of African poetry, and he had been involved in the renowned Mbari club in Ibadan. He took over the Heinemann Nigeria office in January 1965 and joined with Chinua Achebe in finding new authors for the African Writers Series. Between them they established the dominance of Nigerian and West African authors in the first ten years of the Series.

It was the link Keith Sambrook of Heinemann had established with Derry Jeffares which made sure that Ngugi came to Leeds. Ngugi wrote in April 1964 to Keith Sambrook from the YMCA in Nairobi:

It may be that I am not going to Leeds after all; getting a scholarship seems much more difficult than I had thought. I am very angry about this as I had hoped that a new country & different environment were just the things I needed for a novel I have in mind. Images keep haunting my mind but I cannot get settled soon enough to grapple and come to terms with them. Kenya depresses me; although I have always written about this country I have never written a thing while I was actually living there; not even on my vacations. (Ngugi to KS 17 April 1964)

A month later Ngugi was writing (Ngugi to KS 14 May 1964):

I have gone through my exam. I was placed in Class II Upper Division. The results came out and three days after Weep Not, Child. A very eventful week. I celebrated the publication of the book by donating a pint of blood; I was dragged into it; I was feeling in no virtuous mood.

At the last moment the scholarship for Leeds was cleared. This was largely thanks to an intervention by Simeon Ominde, a geographer who had been the very first African to be hired to teach at what was to become the University of Nairobi. He was in the eighties to become the Chairman of Heinemann in Nairobi under Henry Chakava who was the originating publisher of Ngugi’s novels when from 1978 he wrote them in Gikuyu.

Ngugi was met in London in 1964 by Keith and Hana Sambrook. He wrote in early October thanking them and giving his first impressions:

Leeds shocked me, threw me into bewilderment from which I am slowly recovering. It seems to be a city that – mushroom fashion – had sprouted without a planning hand. Black soot seems to be the only clothes the buildings wear to fight off the cold. (Ngugi to KS 12 October 1964)

The University of Leeds was the right place for Ngugi to go. They did realise the importance of this young African writer. The publication of The River Between was celebrated on 25 January 1965 by a party at the University of Leeds with a cluster of professors across the disciplines present and leading booksellers from the town.  In contrast when Richard Rive went from Cape Town to Magdalen College, Oxford to work on Olive Schreiner for his doctorate, that university was not able to find a supervisor and he had to travel to London.

Leeds gave Ngugi the chance to carry out his ambition of writing A Grain of Wheat which had been growing in his mind in the YMCA in Nairobi. He wrote to Keith Sambrook:

I’ve become lazier and lazier at doing things. I suppose it’s the climate here and the time moves so fast. There’s only enough time for sleeping!… I want to finish the first draft by the end of this term so I can properly work on it during Summer. I’m however stuck: problem of time. For the whole action is supposed to be contained within 10 days around independence in Kenya. (Ngugi to KS 22 April 1965)

However, Ngugi’s work on Caribbean writers for his MA was also to be of singular importance to his developing philosophy. In the fifties so many of the Caribbean writers, to whom Ngugi refers in his book of essays Homecoming, had made their first appearance in Britain; Mittelholzer,  Mais, Naipaul, Selvon, Walcott. The publication of writers from the Caribbean was a decade ahead of those from Africa. The hardback book publishers of the fifties in London and New York were happy to experiment with writers from the West Indies and continued to do so in the sixties. Little from Africa had been published in London even by the mid-sixties.

For his postgraduate work Ngugi chose to focus in particular on George Lamming, whose novel In the Castle of My Skin had made such an impact on publication in London in 1954. Ngugi says of George Lamming in Homecoming:

He evoked through a child’s growing awareness a tremendous picture of the awakening social consciousness of a small village. He evoked for me, an unforgettable picture of a peasant revolt in a white-dominated world. And suddenly I knew that a novel could be made to speak to me, could, with a compelling urgency, touch cords deep down in me. His world was not as strange to me as that of Fielding, Defoe, Smollett, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, D.H.Lawrence.

Just before the publication of A Grain of Wheat a lengthy and well-informed interview with Ngugi was carried out by a quartet of students and appeared in the Leeds Union News of 18 November 1966. Weep Not, Child had just been awarded first prize for Literature at the Festival of Negro Arts at Dakar. The interview reveals how far Ngugi had already come in his beliefs. Fanon was central to his philosophy. These students no doubt had, as I had in 1963, welcomed the independence of Kenya. Ngugi made it clear to them how the new elite was running the country at the expense of the peasantry who had actually fought the liberation struggle.

To finish here are a couple of quotes from the interview:

[AM] What were your impressions of England and Leeds University?

NGUGI First there is what I absolutely physically felt when I arrived here. It was winter and London was quite nice, but I found Leeds absolutely depressing. All those houses crouching like old men and women hidden in the mist. Then there is the question of what I had expected. ...the way Colonial Education made you think of England as the ideal. Well, I was not here for long, before I realised that things were not all ‘rosy’, that all this idle talk about freedom of the press, freedom of speech etc has to be seen in the context of an economic and political life dominated by a very few rich men. The whole system is basically wrong. Just a small thing – I would never have believed before I came here that policemen in Britain could be so violent and that they could manhandle peaceful students demonstrating in the streets of Leeds (The Stewart Demonstration).

[DM] What is your view of the English student?

NGUGI On the whole very disappointing. Some so naive that they believe everything they are told in The Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph or The Daily Mirror about Russia, China or Africa. But the few who are really active and broad minded. In this respect I am glad that I came to Leeds. There is a strong radical tradition here which of course helps every ‘colonial’ student who comes to Leeds in a way that places like Oxford or Cambridge cannot do. I went to Oxford last term and some students I met there. Lord! They were worse than they ever were before coming to England. But invariably a ‘colonial’ student who comes to Leeds goes back with a disturbed state of mind.

And Ngugi says:

I shall concentrate on the work I am doing on West Indian literature. You see I have reached a point of crisis – I don’t know whether it is worth any longer writing in the English language.


Leeds Union News 18 November 1966 pp 6/8 Exclusive Interview by Alan Marcuson, Mike Gonzalez, Sue Drake and Dave Williams.

James Currey, as Editorial Director at Heinemann Educational Books, published over 250 titles in the African Writers Series from 1967 to 1984. In 1965 he and his wife Clare started James Currey Publishers to publish books on African Studies. James Currey was and is a great pioneer in the publishing of African literature and African Studies.

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