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Becky Ayebia Clarke

Becky Ayebia Clarke; Interview

Clarke is a Ghanaian Publisher based in Oxfordshire. She set up Ayebia Clarke Literary Agency & Publishing Limited in 2003 with her husband David. She was Editor at Heinemann’s African & Caribbean Writers Series at Oxford for 12 years until 2002 when the imprint stopped publishing new titles. Ayebia is establishing itself as a leading international publisher of quality African and Caribbean literature from both established and new authors, filling the gap left by the demise of active publishing in Heinemann’s African and Caribbean Writers’ Series. Ayebia has developed a clear publishing and marketing strategy, effective distribution arrangements in the UK, Africa, Europe and USA and a strong networking position in the key organisations concerned with African and Caribbean literature studies.


 A Publishing Life

: Can you assess your earlier experience with the Heinemann African Writers’ Series and the impact of the Series on the development of modern literature in continental Africa?

Becky: Forty years ago, writing from Africa was unheard of in the wider world. The history of the African Writers Series encapsulates the history of Africa’s struggle to rid itself of colonial domination and post-colonial oppression. By presenting to the world stories written by Africans in which Africans are themselves subjects of their own histories, the African Writers’ Series positioned itself at the vanguard of the movement for representing an African identity in the modern world. With nationalism, independence, and the post-independence disillusionment (captured in the Series by titles such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, 1962; Kenneth Kaunda’s Zambia Shall Be Free, 1965; and Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, 1969)—and the new global diasporas of Africans, the power and influence of the Series grew and it came to be seen as the canon and carrier of this struggle, being its most visible public voice in creating an international audience and getting the message across to it.

It is therefore no exaggeration to claim that African literature could not have attained its present form without the pioneering role that Heinemann played.

: What do you consider the different cultural and economic challenges in writing and publishing Africa today.

Becky: According to Charles Larson, ‘those who say that nothing good has come out of Africa have not read the continent’s writers. African writers inhabit a world devoid of privilege or advantage, lacking many of the things that their Western counterparts take for granted such as—informed and understanding critics, rarely encounter enlightened political leaders willing to acknowledge the importance of the arts. They are often denied social and political stability and their lives are threatened by censorship, forced exile, imprisonment and sometimes worse. And yet contemporary African writers have left an indelible mark on the continent’s psyche as well as on the international literary scene’. In this climate, very few writers writing on the continent can live on their royalties. Successful African writers have therefore tended to be published by the metropolitan publishing houses who have the financial resources and established marketing networks to promote their work to a world audience. This could be economically rewarding but culturally, there are some writers who feel predisposed to write stories tailored to Western sensibilities and pre-conceived stereotypes.

The place of African publishers in the chain of communications in the global economy tends to be at the mercy of Western economies of scale. African publishers—often find and nurture black writers only to lose out to the bigger mainstream Western publishers because of their inability to secure the financial backing that would guarantee their writers reasonable income. This tends to mean that despite their best efforts, African publishers are often left to fend for themselves at the bottom of the pyramid. If African writing is to retain its originality and universal values, African governments and the business community must do more to support writers and the publishing industry. This important task of writing our own histories has tended to be left to generous Western donors who often come with their own agenda.

: Why were you involved with the Caine Prize for African Fiction and other projects focused on new writing from Africa?

Becky: The Caine Prize for African Writing, also known as the “African Booker” set up by Baroness Emma Nicholson in memory of her late husband Sir Michael Caine, former Chairman of Booker plc has unquestionably become one of the most important yearly events on the African literary calendar. Now in its 8th year, it has become synonymous with new writing from Africa. Each year, the winning candidate is supported by a plethora of media events, is catapulted into the media gaze with a year’s fellowship at a prestigious university either in the Europe or the US.

In 2000, when I was Editor at Heinemann’s African Writers’ Series, I chose Leila Aboulela’s short story “The Museum” published in Opening Spaces: An Anthology of Contemporary African Women’s Writing and edited by Yvonne Vera (AWS 1999) went on to win the inaugural Caine Prize.

Monica Arac de Nyeko’s short story entitled “Jambula Tree” featured in Ayebia’s Anthology of African Love Stories edited by Ama Ata Aidoo won the 2007 Caine Prize for African Writing. Naturally as a Publisher of African writing, I feel proud to have been associated with this groundbreaking work which pushes forward the boundaries. The prize has brought acknowledgement and recognition for Ayebia’s vision.

I am also the Editor for the British Council’s Crossing Borders online Magazine which nurtures budding African writers with the help of established British writers. Each month, I choose six winning stories and write an Editor’s Note. Indeed, Monica Arac de Nyeko was also a beneficiary of that project.

The work of nurturing new writers is a crucial aspect of the development and advancement of African writing and yet again the West has been very supportive in fostering this in the absence of an African or Pan-African orientated initiative.

: What are some of the memorable encounters you have had in working with African writers for the development of African literature.

Becky: When I worked at Heinemann, as the Submissions Editor, I would often read manuscripts from Africa which smelled of wood smoke or kerosene indicating that perhaps the person was probably writing without the luxury of electricity. I have on occasions even received manuscripts with palm nut stains—perhaps from a working mother. I was always encouraged to see such dedication and commitment. I have worked with writers to develop their work and celebrated their success when the manuscript finally becomes a book. But unquestionably, one of my most treasured moments is also tinged with a sad irony: editing Ngugi wa Thiong’o latest book—Wizard of the Crow. The manuscript came in at over 1000 pages. Sadly, Heinemann declined the book in 2002—a period which corresponded with the demise of the AWS. Ngugi’s book was eventually published by Random House in 2006.

: As not only a publisher and promoter of African literature, but also an informed reader, what is your opinion and treasured memories of some African books you have read.

Becky: As a Publisher, I read voraciously, and I have been fortunate enough to read some of the best classics in the African literary canon. Whilst I have read my way through the Western classics and have fond favourites such as Austen, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Bronte Sisters, Goethe et al. When I read African writers I feel a keen sense of affinity—as if their message(s) is transmitted intravenously. Here is a list of a few favourite African writers which include, Ama Ata Aidoo’s Anowa (Longman, 1970), Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter (Heinemann, 1981), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (Heinemann, 1962), Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat (Heinemann, 1968), Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like (Heinemann 1979), Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (Women’s Press1988 now published by Ayebia 2004), Camara Laye’s The African Child ( Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1954), Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger (Heinemann, 1978) and Wole Soyinka’s Aké (Methuen, 1981). I could go on and on, the list is endless.

I also like to read African Philosophy which affirms our history and cultural origins and would recommend books like Kwame Nkrumah’s African Must Unite (Panaf 1963) and Challenge of the Congo (Panaf, 1967), The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality by Cheikh Anta Diop (Présence Africaine 1967), African Philosophy: Myth and Reality by Paulin J. Hountondji (Indiana University Press 1983), The Invention of Africa by V. Y. Mudimbe (James Currey/Indiana, 1988) and Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Bogle L’Ouverture 1973).

: What are your thoughts on the relationship between diasporic writing of African origin and the African continent.

Becky: Diasporic writing is increasingly connecting with writing on the continent and this can only be a good thing. These cross-cultural currents and fertilization of ideas and sharing of information can only help to strengthen the foundation laid by cultural activists such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey and Efua T. Sutherland et al in helping to foster stronger ties within the Pan-Africanist project started by leading advocates such as Nkrumah. A plethora of literature is also appearing in the diaspora by African writers living in either forced or economic exile in the West. African writers are increasingly using their writing to voice their concerns about the current socio-political conditions on the continent and to extend our horizons and make a difference. This should be celebrated.

: What are the prospects for the African imagination and writers of African origin in the UK book industry and literary environment.

Becky: If recent achievements by African writers on the world literary scene is a barometer for future events then, African writers have a lot to celebrate. African literary production is now fully acknowledged as part of world literature. Chinua Achebe’s winning of the Man Booker International Prize this year—an accolade given every two years for an exceptional lifetime’s contribution to world knowledge and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s winning of the Orange Prize this year with her novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, is a clear indication that African writing has come of age. African writers, readers and publishers should be bolder and create their own institutions by not just writing but also publishing, becoming film-makers, theatre directors and getting actively involved in the ownership aspect of the arts. There is a lot of talent out there that needs to be harnessed to inspire the future generation of children growing up in the diaspora. We must cultivate a reading culture that supports our publishing industry – because knowledge (and more importantly self-knowledge) is power!

: What are your projections and hopes for the future of African literature.

Becky: I would like to see more narratives experimenting with form and breaking new ground and generally pushing forward the boundaries. Stories that are steeped in an African sensibility that crosses boundaries and locales. I also would like to see more African publishers, editors, booksellers, reviewers, sales representatives, theatre directors celebrating the black cultural heritage through the arts with positive images that provide black youngsters with role models—instilling in them a belief in themselves and security in their identities—that it is possible to be black and successful.








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