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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.



  AWS, Chinua Achebe, & all those Books

Nourdin Bejjit: You worked for Oxford University Press before going to Heinemann Educational Books. What made you decide to move to the African Writers Series?

James Currey: Oxford University Press was an excellent apprenticeship particularly in Cape Town. Rex Collins did start the Three Crown Series and this was particularly good at bringing on playwrights like Soyinka and J. P Clark, and so on. But the OUP, apart from anything else, there was a decision not to publish novels by contemporary writers and, so, that although they allowed short stories to be published they did not publish novels. I think, you see, the African Writers Series started in 1962, the Three Crown Series was started, I think 1961 or 1962.

Then OUP - I spent three years with them publishing a wide range of serious books on Africa, academic books, some textbooks and the Three Crowns. Anyhow, I was not particularly looking around but Rex Collins in particular said: “Look that job that’s going on Heinemann, have you put in for it?” So, I thought well there is no harm in having an interview and, then, as soon as I realised how interesting the job was going to be, I was very keen to get it. And of course, going back to the question of novels, obviously, the central strength of the AWS from the first was novels both written and translated into English. So, it just seemed to me a very exciting opportunity.

NB: Why did you leave after 17 years?

JC: The AWS was started in 1962. Chinua Achebe was the editorial advisor. Keith was building up the whole of overseas, the Third World Department and decided that I should help him specifically on Africa where there was the biggest potential for publishing. And so, I joined him after the series had been running for about 5 years. By 1972, we got to a 100 titles in the first ten years, but by then more and more writing was coming in and it was rather an exciting period in the 1970s and there was a lot of work to publish, because in 1972, when Chinua Achebe decided to stand down as editorial advisor, he first of all thought of Ngugi or he and I thought of Ngugi. In fact, I went to visit him just after the Biafran war at the remains of his house on the campus at Nsukka in the University of Nigeria, in Eastern Nigeria, (what was formerly Biafra) and he said to me then: “why don’t you try Ngugi?” So I and my colleagues decided that was what we would do.

Ngugi accepted without hesitation, but after six weeks or a couple of months, he thought it would interrupt his work on his own writing. So, we decided at that time to bring in much more active participation from the new companies and then, new editorial departments in Ibadan and Nairobi. In Nairobi, a young student or former student of Ngugi, Henry Chakava, came in about 1972/1973. Aig Higo had been head of the Heinemann Nigeria Company for some eight or ten years. So, he was, a sort of, a generation older that Henry Chakava. Then we set about integrating decisions between — we had a sort of triangular basis that we all exchanged our reports. They were having all manuscripts coming into base through Nigeria and Kenya… so, as a result of this we were publishing yet more and by the end of the 1970s, there was a Nigerian oil boom and container loads of books going out to Nigeria. There was the Kenyan coffee boom — black gold as it was called —and there was a very lively publishing scene about that time and Heinemann was active… I think Longman and Macmillan as well…so there was a lot going on in Nairobi.

And then in April 1982, it was an absolute crash because the Nigerian foreign exchange closed. And a lot of countries in Africa were inundated. That killed the whole forward impetus. We moved into the 1980s … it was actually christened the book famine because people did not have the foreign exchange to buy books for Africa… having in the 1970s being buying and buying and buying… and so during the 1980s, Heinemann had four owners in three years, and the new managing directors were always told “cut jobs, increase profit”, and having been an extremely enjoyable firm to work for, in 1984, I think, eight out of the ten directors either went on or moved on to other jobs elsewhe

I demanded my redundancy because the new managing director said that he just wanted to keep a finger, a toe in Africa…“Oh James, you know so much about it.” So I said: “what can I publish?” And he said “well a couple of African writers Series and complete the UNESCO history of Africa”. So, having been publishing something like forty books a year, he was talking about three or four books a year. So, I said “so, you don’t need me” …

So with some difficulty I got some redundancy that enabled me to … two important factors …in setting my own company… the other important factor was this new managing director had decided to cut out all academic publishing. So, he sold the sociology list one weekend, and he didn’t quite know what to do with the African studies list. So, fortunately, I was able to negotiate with him to take over all the contracts because if I hadn’t taken over he would have to make compensation. So, he thought it was of advantage to me. So, I took over people like Ngugi, Terrence Ranger, and so on, where I was already in negotiation. So I literally could remove my filing cabinet.

NB: You took these manuscripts with you?

JC: A lot of manuscripts and some books on proof… They were actually already typeset, lots of projects… When I went to a big investment bank in London to discuss whether they would lend me some money, and the chap there said (the deputy chairman, who was the person I knew said): “are you starting this new company in order to make a fortune or in order to further your career?” So, I sort of blushed because I felt I was being rather guilty just to say “furthering my career“. You know, keeping that going because that was what I was interested in and then he said: “that’s perfectly alright, you might make a fortune anyhow.” (Laugh) But, so, um, my wife and I, my wife hadn’t had publishing experience before and we decided to plunge off and start up our own business.

NB: And then Keith Sambrook joined you?

JC: Keith was still with Heinemann and then in about 1987 or 1988, he left Heinemann and joined us. In fact, he had been a sort of honorary member when I used to go and visit him in his office in the Heinemann probably once a week to go through projects with him. So….

NB: You played a very important role in the ‘upbringing’ of African Writers Series for nearly two decades. Some commentators consider you the Godfather of the Series. Looking back, how would you sum up this experience? In other words, what does AWS mean to you?

JC: Who were you quoting? Ngara? … I just wanted to say you’ve got it straight. Emmanuel Ngara at the Zimbabwe Book Fair, in about 1982, I think it was… he was chairing a very distinguished gathering of African writers and he said… he described James Currey “here is the grandfather of African literature” and in the coffee break, Nadine Gordimer said: “Oh, hello grand grandfather!” So, I said, “Oh Gosh!” I was only in my mid-forties, so I thought, “I am not quite that old, Jesus.” Anyhow, the next Monday, I’d given an interview and the Zimbabwe Herald had over its centre page a headline which was ‘A Godfather of African Publishing’. So, you can take your choice as to whether I am a grandfather or the godfather. (Laughs)

NB: Of course, you had such a strong impact on its upbringing from the tender age of five to adulthood.

JC: Yes, I think that I was able to come in at the time when Heinemann had realised that it really did have potential. Alan, the chairman, if he hadn’t been an adventurous publisher, he might have said “Oh, Well, we are doing well enough with that”... and this is what the accountants wanted us to do…they said that the first thirty titles were much more profitable than the books we did later. But the fact was that… I think… my seventeen years with Heinemann were the period when there was a great flowering because, as you will realise, very few African authors had been published in London and they said that the great thing about AWS was that it gave Africans, African writers the idea that they could write. They’ve seen those pictures on the back and so on, and reading the blurb, the biography about the people… these are quite young people, these people are writing… you know… it is not just Shakespeare … it isn’t just Dickens… these are people that are writing about the Africa that we know now. And so, this was very infectious, I think, and gave people impetus, as you probably can tell me… but one of the people that Ngugi was much impressed by was George Lamming and he says in Homecoming how there was the moment when he suddenly realised how the novel can speak to him and, I think, this happened to a lot of people that they thought: “My goodness, these Nigerians… I can do it as well’ these young Kenyans, Ngugi and so on, they got the idea …

And so, I was in the fortunate position because I was not just doing the AWS, I was publishing an enormous range of primary, secondary and university textbooks as well, academic studies, only a handful of African studies, but the AWS was part of that… but certainly the great thing was that the success of the Series gave us enough confidence, when I say us, I and my colleagues, to be experimental that we knew that because, like all good book publishing, it does have to be based on good marketing, I mean intelligent marketing and because Heinemann was, particularly under Keith Sambrook’s direction, linking up with these offices in Africa… they built up very good marketing network. Also, of course, the universities were expanding and literature departments were starting and, of course, there were new examination boards – West Africa Examination Council and East Africa Examination Council – were setting exams and they were using African texts. They were not just using Shakespeare and Dickens. To go back to my role, my role was to take advantage of all these opportunities and so, that was what was fun about it.

NB: Van Milne, the overseas director at HEB, decided to start the AWS to make African writers available in cheap paperback in Africa. Could you shed some light on his position and his role?

JC: Well, it would be quite a good idea if you talk to Keith Sambrook sometime. He knew Van personally. I only met Van occasionally and that was before I came and you get a much more accurate picture from Keith. I think, like a lot of good ideas in publishing... the ideas are good, but how do you turn them to reality... I mean, I think Van and Alan Hill were also inspired in choosing Chinua Achebe as editorial advisor because that was a key African voice and he was in broadcasting in Nigeria… So, the idea came together at that stage, I think, partly because Alan was so amazed when he went to Nigeria in 1959 and he thought that he would be praised for having published Chinua Achebe when nobody knew him… “Oh, young Achebe doing the broadcasting… has he already had a novel published in London?” these were British people saying this, you know, they did not believe an African could live up to the standard of a supposedly eminent publishing house…

NB: As someone who is publishing books on Africa, how do you regard the reluctance of British Publishing houses to engage with African writing before Heinemann took the initiative?

JC: I think it is instructive to look at the comparison with what happened to writers from the Caribbean… um…as always, it is a matter of who you do encourage and in the case of the Caribbean writers, the two crucial factors in bringing on Caribbean writers were literary magazines in the Caribbean and the BBC, then colonial service …I think it was called Caribbean Voices and that encouraged quite a lot of Caribbean writers to write and they submitted their books to London publishing houses… of course, the situation in France was well ahead as the whole sort of move towards Negritude started in the late 1930s, involving both Caribbean and African, particularly Senegalese Diop and Senghor and so on ... Several of the best African Francophone African writers were publishing in Paris in the 1950s such as Oyono, Beti, and Sembene Ousmane… but very few books, as you know, were picked up… one that got a lot of attention, of course, was Amos Tutuola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard… because Dylan Thomas, in his individual maverick way, just took delight in it… but that, in a way, was the hampering fact because I think that was, sort of, felt to be the genuine African article… and so, although there were one or two other books published… I mean Peter Abrahams had several published…

Talking about the way that the Caribbeans brought on by British publishers… Naipaul, Lamming… a lot of them had their first books out in the Fifties and then to William Heinemann’s credit, they published Things Fall Apart in hardback in 1958… and … as you probably know, Achebe was made to study Mr Johnson by Joyce Cary and thought: “if anybody could get away with writing such a bad book about Nigeria, I can do better”…um… so that was sort of his feeling.

Anyhow, I think that everything was happening fast in the Sixties, a period of independence and everything … and very quickly, Heinemann Educational Books, which Keith and I were working for Alan Hill, the chairman, took such a dominating lead that other publishers just really decided they did not quite know what to do anyhow… and of course one of the things we were willing to do was to really discuss books with authors, give them to readers to report on, send the reports to them …um… we did persuade William Heinemann to market some of the books in hardback first and then Heinemann Educational Books published them in paperback in the AWS. So, we spent quite a lot of effort trying to encourage Secker & Warburg, also in the Heinemann Group (and they had quite a reputation for high level of intellectual work) but on the whole they did not want to take books from us. They sold us occasional titles … um…Yambo Ouologuem’s Bound to Violence, Soyinka’s anthology of verse, Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya and so on… but they didn’t want to give a hardback publication to our authors.

So, we, at Heinemann Educational Books, also started selecting some of the authors for hardback publications because, of course, as Denis Brutus, said to me… I mean several people said this, but I was reading this the other day, he said: “look, it’s all very well, you know, but I want to be regarded as a poet and not just as an African.” And of course this was the advantage and the disadvantage of the African Writers Series that it had a clear continental identity which drew attention to the books in Africa, but there was a danger of it excluding writers from the general literary market, particularly New York and London where, quite frankly, most enthusiastic reactions of a lot of people was at the best patronising towards Africans… they didn’t really feel that Africans could write…well, there are exceptions… but that was their general feeling whereas, of course, particularly the public libraries were to be enormous patrons of new writings in those days… they used to spend a lot of money on…judging by reviews, but they really supported new writers. So, the Caribbean writers got a lot of that advantage. Our writers got some advantage when we did them in the hardback as well. They would get reviewed and they would get into libraries. But … um… it goes back to the fact that the AWS, more or less, in the first twenty years was selling about eighty per cent of its copies in Africa and about ten per cent in Britain and ten per cent in the US... so, it was not only African writers, but it was mainly African distribution…

NB: Publishing, it seems, served the ‘realistic’ objectives of the Empire by providing the reading materials, educational textbooks, carrying out the mission civilisatrice, and domesticating the colonised. However, the case of a number of established British publishing houses such as Oxford University Press, Longman or Macmillan reveals the paradoxical relations inherent in the cultural conditions between the British companies and ‘Africa’ both in the colonial and postcolonial times. The question I want to ask is what was the rationale behind the persistence of such companies which succeeded in triumphing in such environments previously seen as opposing to the colonial system?

JC: Well, obviously you’ve put your finger on an important point here, because all those companies you mentioned were and other ones like Nelson… they were big on textbooks, on school textbooks and the assumption was a school textbook market and there was not a general…that you could, as you say, the British equivalent of mission civilisatrice was, when I joined the Oxford University Press it had enormously successful Oxford English courses, it had tropical Africa and world history….

Of course, it was better to have textbooks which were written for Africa than just sending British textbooks which used to happen. But what Alan Hill, Van Milne and Keith Sambrook had began to prove, by the time I joined, was that there was a general market in Africa as well as a school textbook market that, although this was an educational company and, therefore, the big sales were then and continued to be school textbook examination adoptions.

Nevertheless, the thing that was absolutely marvellous about the African Writers Series during the Seventies was that by that stage there were university campus bookshops – not only university campus bookshops but other kind of bookshops – and that they were selling Penguin’s, African Writers Series, gardening books for an adult audience because, as you know, a lot of the people involved in educational systems were adults, obviously – I mean, there were the teachers, there were the inspectors, there were the exam setters and there were the families, the wives… and the university campus bookshops became very good general bookshops and you can find all sorts of interesting books there.

Really – with probably the exception of Blackwells at that time – there were probably better bookshops on African campuses in the late sixties and seventies than there were on the British campuses, and so a general market grew for the African Writers Series… although as an educational company, it would be assumed that it was going to be first and foremost a school textbook market. And that is what of course, in actual monetary terms, it turned out to be; but the same time, then it introduced writers – obviously there were all sorts of restrictions if you just published for school: sex, religion, and politics were all considered problems. But Chinua Achebe was having nothing of that and when I came, when I joined him, we actually were absolutely determined that it should be first and foremost an adult series and some of the texts that we used in schools and they could be used in all sort of ways: Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautiful Ones are not yet Born has very powerful sustained image of ‘shit’ and it was very difficult for me to get that accepted because you are never going to sell a book like that in schools. But it got prescribed for ‘A’ Level because it was exceptionally an outstanding book and this image was central to his whole attitude towards the corrupt African regime.

This is the first of a three-part interview, which is published here for the first time. It was carried out by Nourdin Bejjit at James Currey Publishers in August, 2005.



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.


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