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African Writing Archives


James Currey



James Currey

Currey is the Chairman of Oxford-based James Currey Publishers Ltd. He had previously worked with Heinemann Educational Books and Oxford University Press. His latest book, Africa Writes Back: The African Writers Series & the Launch of African Literature, was launched in June by the Wits University Press at the Cape Town Book Fair.


AWS, Chinua Achebe, & all those Books. II

Nourdin Bejjit

Nourdin Bejjit
is a Moroccan Student. He did his MA in National and International Literatures in English at the Institute of English Studies, University of London. He is currently working on a PhD in the Literature Department at the Open University. His research focuses on the involvement of Heinemann Educational Books in publishing African Literature, and is part of the Literature Department’s larger AHRC-funded project on the Colonial and Postcolonial History of the Book.


Part 2 of an Interview with James Currey

NB: Talking about A Level, how do you think the empire’s ‘products’ – we are talking here about the educational system, the English language as a medium of instruction, and so on – providing fruitful grounds for the industry of publishing to flourish in Africa, particularly after the fall of the British colonial rule?

JC: Yes, the English language, of course, was the language of authority, but it was also the language of resistance. So, that’s a vehicle… it’s there for you to get your message across even if it is one of authority or even if it is one of objecting to authority.

NB: But for a publisher like Heinemann Educational Books, the existence of a relatively large readership in English across the African continent, as Alan Hill notes in his autobiography, was providing more opportunities than in North Africa for example…

JC: Yes, what was very important to the Kenyan company under Henry Chakava was beginning to publish books in Kiswahili. But it was quite difficult because, unless they were prescribed in the school system, the sales were negligible and so, you know, you can’t afford go on publishing books which aren’t selling. That was quite difficult. We published little that was not in English. We tried to do a few books in Yoruba. We did few books in Kiswahili, and in South Africa we specifically did not publish because there the African languages were only prescribed by the Bantu Education Department which was a sell out.

NB: How do you think British publishers accommodated new post-colonial discourses and agendas?

JC: The problem is publishers respond on a very ad-hoc basis to the market opportunities in a particular situation. And so, one of the things that did happen was the generation of whole new area of study which at one stage was called Commonwealth literature and then postcolonial studies. But this did mean that the growth of African literature has been a serious area of study.

NB: Launching overseas branches in Nigeria and Kenya in 1960s as well as in other commonwealth countries was to reflect the economic and political policies at home towards Africa in the period following the Suez Crisis. There were other motifs behind this urgent search for profitable markets in Africa, though. Alan Hill noticed that other British publishers “were taking profits out of West Africa, and putting nothing back in the way of investment in local publishing and encouragement of local authors”(123). For Alan Hill ‘profit, though important, was not [his] primary concern’. His idealistic vision was almost prophetic particularly after the success of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which prompted Hill’s team to develop African Writers Series, publishing literary works by African authors hitherto unknown in Africa and the world at large. What was the philosophy behind the making of Heinemann AWS?

JC: Well, (laugh) it happened I was looking at Alan Hill’s autobiography last night and, of course, Alan Hill is saying that he is the only pure one. All of us have mixed motives and some of the motives of which we were not so sure turned out to be actually quite valuable. Anyhow, what he says is not quite fair. For instance, Oxford University Press had a Nigerian chief T. T. Solaru as head of the Nigerian company in the late Fifties, I think…. They did not have Kenyan in Nairobi, but certainly as in West Africa, there was always a tension between the branch and the centre. I know that Charles Lewis, head of OUP in Nairobi, fought with his bosses in London and in Oxford because he wanted to keep the money that they made out of publishing an English course… he wanted to put back into publishing plays in Swahili, and into Zuka, a literary magazine. He actually wanted to put it back, but he was turned off. These tensions were running. Alan Hill’s central philosophy was very positive – his father had been in the teachers’ trade union – and so he came from a concerned leftish stand point. Sometimes, Keith hesitates using the word ‘left’ about Alan… but anyhow, that was his central philosophy.

We were owned by Tillings – the big bus company nationalised by Labour in 1947. They said: “Last year you achieved 13.5 per cent return on funds. As long as you achieve a little more than that, as long as you don’t slip back, we are happy.” What Alan said to me was: “We have to do that, we’ve got to be efficient, we’ve got to make that sort of return on funds… but the important thing is the more you can make, the bigger margin you can make, the greater freedom that gives you to experiment … that money is working capital for us to invest in new projects.” So that was very positive practical philosophy… it was working within the capitalist system. This was very important. For instance, when I was told that Bessie Head was having difficulties in getting Question of Power accepted, I was able to persuade my directors from my reaction, from Keith’s reaction, from the reports that this was an outstanding novel and we ought to accept it. The argument was even if we can’t sell it to schools, within the context of the general market for the African Writers Series, the book will sell perfectly, comfortably and profitably. Alan said: “As long as you give them their profit, they are not going to question you much, but if you don’t give them that profit, they’ll start cutting back and be cautious.” So it was a very basic philosophy.

In the eighties, Heinemann, in five years was owned by four companies; and the first company was BTR who, a dawn raid on the stock exchange, took over Tillings who owned Heinemann. They immediately demanded that return on the funds went up from 13%, 14% to 23%... and they actually confiscated our cheque book because they made a lot of money over being very tight on the management of money. There were lots of different companies… and some of them were doing rather badly and Heinemann was doing very well. The Heinemann group of publishers was in the early Eighties was only about, I think, eight per cent of the money invested in the whole of the Tilling Group, but it was about twelve per cent of the profit. But we were being profitable by being enterprising. A book like Sembene Ousmane’s God’s Bits of Wood… again the argument was that because that was a big fat book it was going to cost more than ten shillings – which was the old fifty pence – and, therefore, schools wouldn’t buy it. But it sold over 50,000 in the next few years. Within Heinemann there were tensions about what we, as an educational company, could do. In Africa we were not just regarded as an educational company; we were a general company as well. In Britain, we sold the AWS through the William Heinemann’s reps who went to the bookshops and promoted the books as general books…

NB: Just in relation to what you’ve just said concerning publishing writers from different parts of Africa and about HEB’s philosophy, both Van Milne and Alan Hill’s intention was to publish “black” African writings… as a North African myself, it seems to me that there was a kind of marginalisation of some interesting ‘African’ writings…

JC: The use of “black”, over the years, has shifted. Hasn’t it? The rough and ready philosophy about the African Writers Series was that the writers should been born in Africa or spent their formative years there. Doris Lessing wasn’t born there, but she wrote about something which was of concern within two black African countries. South Africa was in a funny situation because it was cut off from the rest of the continent in political terms, but, of course, it was the most advanced in terms of the publishing industry. We never had a racial line, because how the hell do you know about Angolans and Mozambiquans. I was saying only the other day that when I was in South Africa in the early Sixties, there was a feeling that somehow people of mixed colour were not actually quite properly African. There is a very good new book by Christopher Heywood published by Cambridge UP about South African literature and he is absolutely fascinating about ‘creolisation’ as he calls it. He sees this as part of Atlantic creolisation as the mixture in the southern states of America, in the Caribbean, within Africa itself. Some of our most distinguished South African writers were people of mixed race… I mean…Alex La Guma’s father, I think, boasted of Japanese, Mauritian, and Scottish ancestors… (laugh)…none of them African. I think Africans in South Africa, to a certain extent, were imprisoned by apartheid. They were put apart by the whole apartheid racial ideology and they are mixed as anything…

Nuruddin Farah wrote from Chandigarh in India where he was at the university and sent the manuscript of his first novel. All the people who read it said: “Is this written by a woman?” because it is very sensitive about the whole position of women in a Muslim society. So, I asked him if he was an African and if he was a woman (laugh) and he thought this was very funny. Anyhow, I did not know it is a Muslim and I did not know… in fact, like yours. I did check up that he was African.  We had one manuscript which was sent by Black American, who said his name was Musa Nagenda which was a Ugandan name. We accepted, but not for the AWS. I asked him for a photograph and he sent a photograph of his cook (laugh)… who was a Ugandan... Nadine Gordimer … I said to her: “Look, I am interested to discuss with my colleagues in Ibadan and Nairobi which collection we should include in the AWS.” After some thought, she put together Some Monday for Sure. Lots of enthusiastic reactions came from Henry Chakava and his team in Nairobi. Silence from Nigeria, which was unusual but Nadine was saying “Oh, it doesn’t matter... it was worth a try to see what people feel.” Then a belated, very enthusiastic, report came in from Nigeria, which she described as perceptive. Having worked in Cape Town for five years one is, a sort of, hyper-sensitive on these racial issues.

As you will see, unfortunately, there was a very poor representation of North African writing in the AWS… we got involved in the Arab Authors where the criterion was that the book had to be written in Arabic.

NB: And, of course, Tayeb Salih was a bestseller

JC: When I was at Oxford University Press, I met Denys Johnson-Davies… he was doing an anthology of stories from Arab countries and he said that he had this friend in the BBC who had been published in the Arab world. So, he brought round his manuscript of his translation of The Wedding of Zein. Keith Sambrook rang me up - I had already accepted the job at Heinemann - and he said “Chinua Achebe is coming through next week, it would be a chance for you to come and say hello”... because I had never met him before … I had met Soyinka, Clark and other OUP authors, but not Chinua…I took the manuscript of Zein because it had been turned down for the Three Crowns at OUP. I was just amazed because I showed this manuscript to Chinua and to Keith Sambrook and they both spent five or six minutes at it and they said: “Oh, this looks promising” and almost by the end of that meeting that they accepted it. This was completely different from OUP where everything was formal and you had to go through committees and everybody was very snooty …  and “Oooooh, not up to our standards” and all these sort of things.

So, it was a very different atmosphere where Chinua and Keith were absolutely delighted by fresh writing like that… As soon as Heinemann accepted Zein, Denys said “What about Season of Migration to the North?” We got the English translation of Season out within a year of its first Arabic publication and as a result of that Denys came back and said: “Look, what about these Egyptian writers - Naguib Mahfouz, Taha Hussein, Tawfik Al Hakim, Yossef Idriss and so on?” Arabic was an African language, or an African based language, of great importance and, of course, we didn’t want to miss out on that for the AWS. So, we started publishing Naguib Mahfouz, but people in the Arab World were snobbish about the African label. So we started Arab Authors. More writing came from Egypt and Sudan together than from the rest of the Arabic world. We just gave them fresh covers and marketed them differently and that was quite a successful series. I remember one Penguin rep said we were soon selling better in the Gulf than Penguin was selling their fiction in English.

NB: Heinemann Educational Books has enabled African literature to become a concrete reality for Anglophone audiences, it has perforce shaped certain general tendencies and allowed them to emerge and dominate: what particular audience had Heinemann targeted in the publication of African writings?

JC: Because we were an educational company, the major audience was through the educational network. For instance, for every new book in the African writer series, we had a list of something like a hundred people to whom we sent specimen copies of the latest title… this was a mixture of academics and writers and some key booksellers and so on. So, we particularly had the academic market in mind … what we discovered in places, interesting cities like Ibadan, Accra, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Salisbury (Harare as it was then) was that people were going in to buy, to look, to see what the latest AWS titles were and they were buying for their own interest. And libraries were certainly buying not only for an educational, but also for a general audience…

NB: When targeting these audiences, what kind of ideologies or values did Heinemann support?

JC: What we did not support was racialism! (Laugh) …all your value judgements about writing are very subjective, but in all the three publishing centres – Ibadan, Nairobi and London – we had quite a good group of readers. Quite few of the advisors were actual writers themselves, particularly novelists and playwrights and so on. We were confident that this was some of the most exciting writing that was been done in English, but we also got other professionals to help writers develop their manuscripts, to work on their plots, to reconsider the balance of the book shortened… lengthened… all these sort of things… but the people we would get to help us were not ordinary educationalists. They were professional practising writers and university teachers doing their best to judge things by international standards. Simon Gikandi, who was another of Ngugi’s students in Nairobi… Henry Chakava got him to work with him before he went off to Edinburgh to do his doctorate… and Simon’s reports were replete with comparisons with John Carlos Williams, with Fuentes. His international comparisons were with the most interesting writing of the time wherever it came from. So, that was very much the philosophy, and Simon Gikandi was a particularly good editor. Chinua and Ngugi also advised quite a lot at one stage…we used our published writers to give us advice as well.

NB: Talking about Achebe and Ngugi, wasn’t the liberalism with which Heinemann received their radical views, and others’ of course, a strategy of domesticating the wild?

JC: We tried to achieve, particularly Henry, Aig and myself, that the input from Africa was very strong in terms of advice. Not that it was always necessary good advice from Africa…. When I sent to Henry Chakava Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger, he gave it to a local academic who complained that it put Africa in a bad light…. Henry ignored this advice. It was just that he didn’t rate it. He just said: “If this is the first work by this writer, then he has a great future.” Nuruddin Farah’s second novel, A Naked Needle … actually in that case both the British novelists who worked on it didn’t much like it…they thought Nuruddin was too much influenced by James Joyce - indeed Nuruddin had done his thesis on James Joyce. Gikandi in Nairobi was very enthusiastic about it as was in fact Molara Leslie in Ibadan…and she said that with this book the African novel comes of age….

So, during that period in the late Seventies, we really did have a very very virile exchange of ideas. One of the things that one, of course, takes for granted now is communication but in those days it was quite expensive to communicate: airmail was expensive.. you tended to use cables… they were expensive… airmail letters were quite fast, but that still meant even if you replied by return you probably wouldn’t get the message back in under three weeks from the original. There was a sort of rhythm about the posts… you were writing all these letters out and on the whole you could trust those services. Telephoning was extraordinary expensive … you had to book calls and so on…Travelling by air was very expensive. A lot of Africans used to arrive in London from July to September… they used to flood into our offices to get free lunches and so on…we were able to be very hospitable…and lots of African writers used to meet at the Heinemann offices. If a couple of people were coming in at the same time … we would book a dining room  and then we have another sort of half a dozen writers or artists would turn up. And so, there was a great deal of exchange going on between the writers themselves and we as publishers. When our own people like Henry Chakava and Aig Higo would be in London again we set up gatherings with whoever was in London at that time.

NB: Diana Athill in her memoir Stet says that: “for a time during the Fifties and early Sixties it was probably easier for a black writer to get his book accepted by a London publisher, and kindly reviewed thereafter, than it was for a young white person”. The question that Dr Gail Low raises is: was it the guilt-feelings over the British imperial past that prompted these publishers, literary and academic to support the ‘South’s writings’ or was it the curiosity to listen to the voices of Africans?

JC: Yeah …when she says ‘black’, she is talking about mostly Caribbean and some black Americans…. It was difficult for Africans to get accepted before the African Writers Series.  I admire Stet in the way that I am reserved about Alan Hill’s book, because, I think, it’s much more self-aware and self-critical than Alan’s… Alan, thank goodness, we had him… because, you know, he did break the rules… he was a non-conformist and that’s the great achievement… but thank goodness we had Diana Athill too I was in a meeting the other day where Austen Clark, the Barbadian writer, and he was talking about that period particularly the importance of having something accepted and read on the radio from London … that was a tremendous thing … he also said that it was marvellous that he had to struggle through the same textbooks in Barbados that contemporary students were having to struggle through in Britain. Diana Athill was of course was the early publisher of Naipaul. Guilt did not enter into the terms of young people … elders might have had guilt …but the young people were determined to do something about it. Alan Hill quotes Chinua Achebe saying that Chinua’s teacher said that he thought the group of people that he had to teach in Nigeria were better than he had ever to teach in a British school. You had the Malaysian emergency, the Mau Mau  in Kenya, and then you had the idiot Suez adventure… and so by the end of the Fifties, Macmillan and Macleod thought ‘let’s get rid of this lot… there can only be more trouble’… but in terms of people in the intellectual world, there were young people trying to do jobs one way or another. We were just enthusiastic about the end of empire … John Reed who did the anthology … Reed and Wake’s anthology of African verse… he was saying the other day: “We didn’t know what the hell we were doing!He was teaching in Salisbury … we just did want to do things … we just kept on trying this and that… we were well educated ... we had a good rounded education ourselves … and we didn’t see why African shouldn’t have a good rounded education. Of course, it was through the medium of English, and that meant that a lot of the cultural values were transferred, but, I think, when you look at the teachers at the universities at that time, it wasn’t a sense of guilt. They were trying to do a decent job…within the terms of their own society… you know… we are all coming from wherever we come from…

Publishers are like book makers… they have a range of bets, and they think: “Oh, this look quite promising for that sort of market and that looks promising for that.… we do a couple of those there…” and they spread the betting on books … and when one or two succeed, then that provides the money so that they can try a new lot. When Things Fall Apart was published by William Heinemann, it would have been probably one of a couple dozen novels published during that year by William Heinemann, and they were pretty sure that they would get their money back from selling to libraries. What they hoped as a hardback publishing house to do was to sell subsidiary rights particularly and immediately to paperback, film, broadcasting, all those subsidiary rights. Basically their initial bet, like a book maker, was “This is reasonably decent book and got quite a good report … we have some hopes about it.” This is what they were saying about Chinua Achebe’s bookWell, put that into the spring list or the autumn list”… so you hedged your bet. There was the Collins’ Fontana imprint and which took up some books such as Camara Laye’s The African Child. They took up Ike’s Toads for Supper. It had quite a batch of African writers within a general paperback series selling in bookshops around Britain. So people were trying these different writers, but basically there was quite a prejudice against African writers.

NB: This will bring us to the question of literary “standards”. In the colonial time there was a general assumption that Africans were unable to write… when Achebe published his first novel… that was a novel that reached a level of commanding the “western” style of writing… in one of your articles about Achebe published in African Affairs in 2003, you say: “In Africa there were no established standards to inhibit originality. New standards would emerge out of the manuscripts they were offered.” On the other hand, and in a letter to Ngugi dated the 13th of august 1962, Van Milne wrote: “As it stands Weep Not, Child is not quite up to standard for the African Writers Series, but the writing is very promising and I would like to find some way of helping you to revise the manuscript still further.” Arguably there were some “standards”? Who set them? And what were they?

JC: I was talking ironically because when I was talking about “the standards” of the OUP… because the OUP was mistaken not taking Tayeb Salih’s book. I was absolutely certain that it was up to the standards of other titles already published in Three Crowns. Quite honestly I don’t think you’d find in my letter what Van Milne was saying to Ngugi. Who is talking about standards? I mean…what are the standards? I am all in favour of revision or suggesting revisions, but I never ever prescribed revisions. When I took Bessie Head’s Question of Power on, Richard Lister, the novelist who had discussed Head with me, he said “I don’t think there is any great problem about her writing, it’s a bit dense … often it is just a question of punctuation… a comma here, a comma there…” I wrote to Bessie and said “Look, you don’t need to change anything…you don’t need to change a comma… we will publish it as it is…but I think it would help everybody if you did work through it again.” She was so relieved to have the book accepted … “Oh! I have already got back to it. I am already working on it…” When I observed Keith and Chinua working together for first time, they were not looking over their shoulders about standards… they were making up their own standards… they were making up their own minds… they were reacting to Tayeb Salih’s writing and thinking “This is fresh… this is interesting…it deserves publication.” We were short of manuscripts at that time and Tayeb just stood out …

NB: But in some way when we look back at the beginning of AWS, particularly when Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was published, Alan Hill, in his autobiography, explains why they hadn’t published anything before… he cites Amos Tutuola…but for him, Achebe’s novel was absolutely a new book… let me quote him “In Things Fall Apart  we now had something entirely new from Africa: a novel which affirmed permanent human and social values in the context of a traditional tribal society in crisis, and which expressed those values in terms which the Western-educated reader could understand.”

JC: What about these people that Alan Hill cites as being enthusiastic about it, Gilbert Phelps, Donald MacRae, James Michie, Alan himself… they thought it was good… what they did not understand was that this was … they had no cultural means of telling … in fact…just was talking at a very African level below the Western competence of the presentation… it was a well presented book, but of course the deep Ibo cultural input they wouldn’t have understood it at all … it wouldn’t have occurred to them really… people like Bernth Lindfors and others African critics began to analyse this in depth … but the book, although it was written in English, was operating in Ibo, wasn’t it? They took on it as culturally good and competent … but they could not sell it to a paperback house… the fact that it wasn’t picked up by Penguin or Pan or Collins Fontana meant that it was almost unknown in Africa … I mean… I found it on shelves in Cape Town, but Cape Town was a very prosperous part of Africa … the general book trade already worked there…

NB: In your view, what did make the AWS successful more than series started by other publishers like OUP and Longman?

JC: I have already given reasons comparing with Oxford’s Three Crowns, which, I think, was quite an enterprising series, but it was handicapped by just being plays and short stories – no novels. Longman was immensely successful as an educational textbook publisher, but the director of Longman African division, Julian Rees, did want the Longman series to rival the Heinemann series. But they were a bit slow on starting. Heinemann series was quite well established by the time that they really got down. They kept changing the title of the series, Drumbeats and other names… sometimes they put the Caribbean and African together and of course they have published Ben Okri’s short stories and there were various other ones… Sam Selvon, George Lamming… they had quite an interesting list… but Julian Rees always laughed about us… “Oh, yes, you are the literary publishers… Yes we are wiping the field with textbooks!” which I certainly felt was the case.

But in fact it turned out he was deeply envious of AWS as he has said in very generous terms in recent years. I think they were so successful at school textbook publishing that the literary publishing was very much more of a sideline than it was for Heinemann. Heinemann was really only beginning to get into Africa at the same time as the African Writers Series started. The African Writers Series got off to a flying start because of the enormous enthusiasm of Van Milne, Keith Sambrook and Alan Hill. They were all quite committed in left politics and they had the confidence. They were absolutely certain that there must be more good writing out of Africa. If you got Chinua Achebe, there must be other good stuff around. It was Chinua Achebe and Van Milne who first read Ngugi’s script at Makerere in 1962 at a meeting there. There were two major rivals. One was the Modern African Library in East African Publishing House in Nairobi, which was the publisher of first choice in Kenya. Although we got Ngugi, there weren’t many East African authors to begin with in the AWS. It was quite difficult to get them… they were choosing to be published by the very active East African Publishing House. Alan Hill completely goes on about Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino…we weren’t the originating publishers… it looks as though we were … we weren’t … East African Publishing House made a success of Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol before. We were just anxious to get rights for outside East Africa …Then the later date, Macmillan set up this popular series called Pacesetters and they were very successful. They started in Nairobi, but went absolutely enormously in Nigeria …

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