Among the many happenings at the Cape Town Book Fair, few were as auspicious as the relaunch of Heinemann’s famous African Writers Series (AWS).
Almost 50 years after the publication of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart on June 17 1958, Heinemann’s international publishing director, Jenny Pares, announced the reissue of eight AWS titles as part of a classics edition.
They are Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, Bessie Head’s Maru and When Rain Clouds Gather, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat, Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood and So Long: A Letter by Mariam Ba.
The original publication of Things Fall Apart provided the impetus to establish the AWS, with Alan Hill, founding editor Achebe — in an unsalaried position — and others who came after him. They oversaw the publication of more than 40 writers in 19 African countries.
But the AWS experienced a lull at the turn of the 21st century when a management decision was made not to expand and build on the corpus, a decision Pares described as “unwise”.
She says although the title of her launch presentation was “African Writers Series is back”, it was something of a misnomer as the “series was never away”.
She says the series will not only look back at the past but aims to build a new body of work. “Manuscripts are being submitted,” she says, adding that because of the overwhelming success of the original AWS, many authors it published “have become mainstream”.
Things Fall Apart was not the first book to be published on the continent. Several others were published before in Southern, West and other parts of Africa, but it was the first successful literary attempt, in Achebe’s words, to write about the occasion “where the rain began to beat us” — that moment when Europe colonised Africa.
It was the first novel in English that humanised Africa and presented its “past and culture as intriguing, profound and elaborate enough to inspire the most considered literary treatment”, writes Malawian academic Mpalive-Hangson Msiska in his introduction to the re-issued book.
And, as Pares says, many African authors have indeed become mainstream. Achebe won the Booker’s Lifetime Award last year, the same year his literary daughter, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, won the Orange Prize for Half of a Yellow Sun, a moving account of the Biafran war for independence from federal Nigeria in the late 1960s.
The AWS classics come with introductions by scholars. In his introduction to Things Fall Apart Msiska emphasises that the book was “conceived as a response to the denigration of Africa in colonial novels”, such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson.
He argues that Achebe attempted to go beyond “the colonial depiction of grunting ‘savages’ and ‘cannibals’ with no language and historical links to their physical environment — ” Msiska writes, very densely, that the novel “locates the chirographic or writing mode inaugurated by Western colonialism within the larger autochthonous semiotic order, undercutting its signifying power by historicising it”.
Unlike Msiska, poet and scholar Stephen Gray writes a succinct introduction for Bessie Head’s Maru, the story of a Masarwa girl who goes to teach in a village in which Tswanas treat her fellow Baswara people as slaves. Head writes that “with all my South African experience I longed to write an enduring novel on the hideousness of racial prejudice”. But she also “wanted the book to be so beautiful and magical that I, as the writer, would long to read and re-read it”.
The copious notes on the author’s intentions create a context for this classic not only of African literature or women’s literature but of all literature.
More broadly, the classics launched at the fair pander to political correctness. The continent’s main geographical coordinates — north, east, west and south — are represented and four titles are by female authors.
Pares says there is an economic imperative in launching these titles. Heinemann is heavily involved in educational publishing and most of these texts are central to many of Africa’s educational curricula. “We shouldn’t cede that ground,” she says.
Also at the fair was James Currey, who worked at Heinemann from 1967 to 1984 on the company’s African publishing desk. He and other editors were responsible for putting out 270 books by African authors. Now he runs the eponymously named publishing company, James Currey, which publishes academic books on African literature. At the fair they launched Africa Writes Back, a book co-published with Wits University Press and Harare’s Weaver Press.
In a year Currey plans to put out a biography of Christopher Okigbo, Nigerian poet and Biafran war hero. Currey also talked about his troubled relationship with Dambudzo Marechera, Zimbabwe’s literary enfant terrible.
“I had so many difficulties with Dambudzo, who used to come to our offices in many disguises, sometimes as a woman, other times as photographer, other times in hunting outfits.”
He tried in vain after the critical acclaim for House of Hunger to persuade Marechera to write a novel. Currey recalls Marechera churning out what he described as “ferociously, wildly individualistic manuscripts”, some of which got lost or were later published after the author’s death in 1987 at the age of 35.
Between the revived AWS and Currey’s titles, classic African literature and African literary studies are in for a renaissance.