/ 14 August 2008

A forum for African writers

Percy Zvomuya looks at <i>Africa Writes Back</i> by British publisher James Currey.

A few years ago reclusive Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah left the idyllic simplicity of his fishing village base in Popenguine, near Dakar, Senegal, on a rare visit to Johannesburg. My Kenyan friends, fans of the author and literary scholars in their own right, dutifully bought copies of Armah’s African Writers Series (AWS) novels and took them to the author for an autograph. He refused to sign them, dismissing Heinemann, parent company of the AWS, as a multinational conglomerate that exploited African writers. That’s a moot point, but what his argument ignores is how invaluable the series has been in bringing African writers to a wider world — both on the continent and overseas.

The argument is underscored by the fact that although Armah has been busy in recent years, studiously going through the continent’s history and appropriating Egyptology for use in his new works, his later novels are as unavailable as the author himself. He has published Kmt: In the House of Life and The Silence of the Elders. Most of his readers, though, have no way of getting hold of any of these books as they are not available in any local bookshop except from Armah himself or as overpriced copies sold by online shops.

It was with Armah at the back of my mind that I read Africa Writes Back, a new book by British publisher James Currey. It is an engaging book, a comprehensive bibliography and socio-literary history of early African literature, beginning with the 1950s. The tale behind the publication of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is as mythical as the classic’s reach and universal appeal. It is perhaps appropriate that this history should be written by Currey (whose parents are South African-born), who joined Heinemann in 1967, at the time that the African Writers Series was really taking off.

Currey, grand old man of African literature or “grandfather of African Literature” as he was once called when he was still a young man, is now into academic publishing and this tome is co-published by his company. 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.

The book is lit up by frank correspondences between the various writers (Bessie Head, Nuruddin Farah, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and others) and Currey in the days when phones were very expensive and letters were the only means by which people could communicate. Then letter writing was a craft, it was dutifully done, almost like an occupation. Currey’s book is made engaging by anecdotal material on many of Africa’s top writers. For instance, Currey initially thought that Somali writer Farah was female because Currey had been struck by the sensitivity with which he portrayed Eba, the heroine of his novel From a Crooked Rib.

It is not only celebratory as Currey notes the many criticisms levelled — sometimes in passing and at other times in depth — against Heinemann, including its attempts at not only publishing literature written in English, French and Arabic by Africans, but actually attempting, as a critic has argued, to control what eventually came out.

Currey also notes how writer and dramatist Wole Soyinka, with typical flourish, described the brightly coloured series as an “orange ghetto”. He also records the fury of Nigerian writer Cyprian Ekwensi: “Sometimes I wonder why I ever devoted so much of my life to writing — the work put into one book is six years and all I have earned so far is the miserable advance of £400 which my agent squeezed out of you. You were crying as you wrote the cheque.”

Africa Writes Back is a thorough book, excavating even the likes of Yambo Ouologuem, author of Bound To Violence, a work whose brilliance and value was diluted by the controversy that followed when it was pointed out that parts of it bore remarkable similarity to Graham Greene’s It’s a Battlefield. An alternative account of what might have happened is suggested in the Chimurenga issue titled Conservations with Poets Who Refuse to Speak. It is suggested that a sloppy editor may have excised references the author put in.

More than four decades after the establishment of the AWS, Heinemann can claim to have been the midwife of written African literature. The series brought generations of African writers to the fore. Even Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera, who famously cast off the label African writer by saying “fuck you” to anyone who dared call him an African writer, knew for certain he could also be a writer after reading Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not, Child from his school’s library.

Currey’s book is a welcome and invaluable companion to anyone who cares about African literature in English.