Wednesday, September 17, 2008



The Standard
September 17, 2008
By Peter Kimani

They were the chosen few, and their creative stirrings would ripple across the world, spinning yarns that would form Africa’s world-view.

Over the years, the African Writers Series, an imprint of Heinemann Educational Books publishers would gain acceptance as the African cannon, recording a range of voices that told of the different struggles that Africa was, and is, going through.

Having marked its 50th anniversary of the publication of its first title mid this year, the AWS marks another milestone this week with the release of a new book chronicling the eventful journey.

James Currey’s Africa Writes Back, The African Writers Series and The Launch of African Literature, which shall be launched tomorrow evening at the Nairobi National Museum, pieces together correspondence between the authors and the publisher.


More often than not, the snippets are as interesting, if not more riveting, than the stories that the authors wrote.

Some of the correspondence was about money, or perhaps the lack of it; others recount some authors’ tempestuous relationships with others, their big egos and bohemian lifestyles that stunted literary growth or consigned them to early graves.

In the main story, Currey, who served as Heinemann’s editor and later rose to be its managing director provides rare snapshots of the writers who defined Africa’s imagination.

The correspondence, most of which is drawn from the authors’ communication with Heinemann’s London office, reveals glimpses of the authors’ fears and aspirations.

Yet for others, the book exposes the genesis of their long-held viewpoints that would inform the rest of their lives.

Out of the 350 titles that were printed in London, and released simultaneously in different African capitals, Kenya contributed several dozen titles a majority penned by renown author Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Mrs Grace Ogot, Mr Sam Kahiga, Mr Mwangi Ruheni and Ms Rebeka Njau, among others, published a book or two while Mr Meja Mwangi made a major contribution to the series and beyond.

AWS has not released new titles since 2003 although it is understood publishers in America and Europe appear keen to start an imprint that could continue from where Heinemann left.

Africa Writes Back chronicles major writers and their circumstances in life as they made a tentative step in publication.
James Currey’s book on the African Writers’ Series

fallen by the wayside

There are those who would stand firmly and rise to the pedestal; yet others faltered and fell by the wayside.

The book is divided into regions, with East Africa represented by Ngugi, Taaban lo Liyong and Mwangi.

They all encountered Heinemann from different routes. Ngugi was an undergraduate at Uganda’s Makerere University when he met Chinua Achebe, then a published author and founding editor for AWS, and whose seminal work, Things Fall Apart, is considered a classic in African publishing.

Taban, on the other hand, would make inroads to Heinemann after a stint at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he became the first African to graduate with a Master of Fine Art degree.

Mwangi, on other hand, would encounter Heinemann through its local affiliate, which has since been transformed into a publishing enterprise by the name of East African Educational Publishers under Dr Henry Chakava.

Chakava, who joined Heinemann as trainee editor in 1972, and rose to be the firm’s managing editor before his 30th birthday, oversaw the birth and development of many African writers.

Ngugi was the first Kenyan to be published in the series with Weep Not, Child (1964), followed by The River Between (1965), which had been authored earlier for a competition that he won.

Dr Henry Chakava, who oversaw the birth and publishing of great Kenyan authors such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o. PHOTO: file

Before his 30th birthday, Ngugi had become an internationally recognised writer. His success made him restless.

"I’ve become lazier and lazier at doing things," Ngugi confessed to Heinemann editor Keith Sambrook after arriving in England’s Leeds University for postgraduate studies.

"I suppose it’s the climate here and the time moves so fast. There’s only enough time for sleeping!" He said.

Months earlier, in April 1964, Ngugi had expressed frustration at his inability to write and the agony of missing a scholarship, and his impatience with his country.

"It may be that I am not going to Leeds, after all. Getting a scholarship seems much more difficult than I thought… I had hoped that a new country and different environment were the things I needed for a novel. I cannot get settled soon enough to grapple and come to terms with them…" he lamented.

Ngugi went on: "Kenya depresses me; although I have always written about this country I have never written a thing while I was living there; not even on my vacations…"

Writers often crave for space and distance to reflect on the issues affecting them and their people, and whether Ngugi’s literary distance contributed to his long years of exile is a matter of conjecture.

But for others, such as Somalia’s Nuruddin Farah would inspire their ire when the publisher failed to keep up with them and remit royalties to the right bank.

"Does your royalty department send statements to Kwame Nkurumah care of the Osayegefo Presidential Palace near Legon still?" He ridiculed, referring to Ghana’s founding president and author.

"And what about Tom Mboya," Farah went on, referring to Kenya’s former minister and author. "Do you send him (his royalty statements) care of the Government Road in Nairobi?"

To illustrate the challenge that Currey faced in tracing Farah, who is presently based in South Africa, Farah had travelled to Europe en route Somalia while a cheque was mailed to his bank account in India!

classic novel

Nigeria’s Elechi Amadi, whose novel, Concubine was a class reader in Kenya for many years, spurned a £2,500 advance offered for his book, Estrangement in 1984, demanding £10,000, but changed his mind six months later saying:

"Since you are still holding on to Estrangement, in spite of my letter… you might as well get on with the publication. Moreover, my wife Hillary is expecting our baby and I need money.

"Please instruct your bankers to pay the royalty advance of £2,500 (plus a wedding present) into my accounts. I hope you will stretch a bit or I shall blame Heinemann if the baby suffers from malnutrition.

That’s not where Amadi ended. He explained why Heinemann had a stake in the child’s development.

"A prenatal divination here strongly indicates that it (the child) will write better than the father…"

But no story was as dramatic, as that of Zimbabwean poet Dambudzo Marechera, a gifted poet and novelist who died in 1987 aged 35.

The self-destruction, quite often stoked by alcohol or drugs meant Marechera terrorised virtually everyone who crossed his path and, more often than not, that person was Currey.

"To be near him (Marechera) was to be on red alert," Currey writes, "The curtain was always about to go up on some new drama which totally absorbed one’s time."

Marechera was exiled in England for eight years, initially to join Oxford University where his teachers in Zimbabwe had secured him a scholarship after his expulsion.

But he trooped in and out of prison and, after failing to extract subsistence from Currey, would arrive at the Heinemann offices in England wearing different disguises.

In spite of this destructive bohemian, or perhaps because of it, Marechera wrote some memorable prose and energised verse that confirmed his genius.

The trouble with Marechera’s fragmented lifestyle was that he could barely sit and gather together the strips of thoughts scattered on pieces of paper, mainly because he rarely stayed long enough in any space.

Marechera biographer, Flora Veit-Wild did a great job in Dambudzo Marechera: A Source Book on His Life and Work, but the essay contained in Currey’s book moves the story forward to provide, for the first time, a first-hand account of Marechera’s dislocated life.

When Marechera died, South African poet Lewis Nkosi recorded in 1983 that Marechera had once said: "I told (the police) the only relatives I have are my publishers. But imagine being buried by Heinemann."

And now the former Heinemann man has resurrected those memorable encounters with African writers to keep their memories alive. It’s a book worth reading and re-reading.