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African Writing Archives

Current A.W.



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. III
Nourdin Bejjit

Nourdin Bejjit: In an article published in the Southern African Review celebrating the 30th anniversary of the AWS, you explained how decisions about publishing books in the series were taken when you were working for HEB. It seems that you conveyed a sense of being the only man in charge of running the whole series. Elsewhere you said that such decisions were shared between Henry Chakava, Aig Higo and yourself, particularly after Chinua Achebe resigned as a general editor of the series…

JC: Oh! But they were doing the same. You are quite right, perhaps I didn’t make that strong enough. I am willing to believe that for people to say that I took a pretty firm line. I just had such massive material and I had to thin it down. Both Henry and Aig were doing that as well. They were bringing in those manuscripts, selecting them, and then sending them round, but because a lot of the books were coming from Nigeria and Kenya, a lot of people did not necessarily send the books to a company in Africa. Sometimes they did. Nuruddin Farah sent his first manuscript to Aig in Ibadan and he actually didn’t like what I had to say about it. I did not know about this until a year or two later; it turned out that he tried it again on me in London (laughs)…

Publishing is a subjective business as you get from Diana Athill as well. The fact is that it is a lot of pressures on you… not literally, of course… but you try and maintain some sort of literary balance. The problem was not just a cultural problem. It was part of the process of how much you accept what the author does and how much you get them to re-write and how you encourage them to re-write. Writing is a bloody lonely business, and so you want to encourage writers. There were times when Henry Chakava and I worked very hard, giving advice on a book by Thomas Akare called The Slums, which was set in Kenya. When he got to the third version, I began to worry that it was going to lose its freshness… our intervention was actually possibly removing a lot of the originality of this book. Henry and I thought “Well, we just had to go ahead with him now”. We were both involved in encouraging this person who just dropped in off the street with a hand-written manuscript. I think the question you are asking me is absolutely right: it is for you and for others to question how my cultural values were affecting these writings…and because it was the African Writers Series, which had a very educational purpose - even though it was for a general market as well.

We did not do a deal on some of the books because we were bringing in translations from Portuguese, Arabic, French and a few African languages. We didn’t do much translating from one African language to the other. Ngugi’s great contribution was to face us with the problems of translation, which are not just linguistic, but cultural as well. The way he told his stories in his later novels were much more appropriate within the Gikuyu tradition. London and New York based critics and advisors tended to say “Oh, he used to write rather better” - this was their feeling - “When he was in his Conradian phase.” Whereas, to me, it was fascinating to see the body of Ngugi’s work and the way he was trying to accommodate not just his audience. He would not only translate his book, but got other people to do so. What he didn’t do was re-write it for the Western, New York, British markets. We had quite a lot of difficulty selling Petals of Blood in the United States. It was turned down by Pantheon. The editor there took on various people, like Marechera, but he didn’t think he could sell Petals of Blood in the American market.

NB: Heinemann Educational Books is no longer publishing new writings in the African Writers Series. Some say that it is dead. As the ‘godfather’ of the series, how did you or do you respond to the ‘end’ of this interesting publishing adventure?

JC: I assume they are going on publishing the ones which sell well. But in one way, the question which we haven’t touched on is: Should it have died earlier? (Laughs) Well, it does not really die; because copyright exists and it goes on. There is a mechanical extension, but of course it is a different series, a raddled series compared with what it used to be. The great thing about it is that unlike other paperback series it went into publishing new writing, and that was its great original drive and that’s why it was so successful. Of course forty years is a hell of a long time on a publishing scene. My successor, Vicky Unwin, was very good at fighting the reactionary forces within Heinemann to maintain a flow of good new writers, particularly new women coming on the scene.

As to your question of whether I was imposing metropolitan, cultural, neocolonial values on my colleagues in Africa, I think we were in collusion. But what I think is disappointing is that there isn’t a very strong literary publishing centre in either East or West Africa. The crucial thing about publishing a lot of writers (talking about novelists in particular) is that if the novel is set in the country, there is obviously a built-in substantial audience because people like local interests and novels. Some of the best of those should appear in the international literary market place and get circulated internationally. But that does not mean that the others aren’t performing an equally interesting task of informing and entertaining audiences in their own countries… this, in particular, happened in Zimbabwe in recent years. Writers like Vera were published locally and then sold to a publisher in the States.

When I left Heinemann in 1984, an extremely able chap called David Godwin who was at that time an editor at Heinemann (he went on to Jonathan Cape, published Ben Okri’s The Famished Road and then became an agent and made a success of several Indian writers) said to me “Look, it is just distressful what is happening at Heinemann Educational Books, come and have a talk to me. William Heinemann has this proud historic record of publishing African writers, we want to get the game started again.” He and I were very keen on this… that we should really publish African writers first and foremost for the British and American hardback markets and sell to the middlebrow paperback markets like Picador. It would have been much more appropriate for the African Writers Series to become like Penguin, a reprint series, if it had a lot of stuff to draw on. That would have been much healthier. The African Writers Series gave people the excuse not to do ordinary publishing. Africans came to us first and foremost and so we controlled the rights, and hardback publishers needed to control the rights.

We did two books with Nuruddin Farah. He even felt rather guilty when he told us that he had an agent, but Keith and I were absolutely delighted because we wanted an agent to do what we were trying to do, which was to interest other publishers… and his agent then had some difficulty in getting the book, Sardines, placed. He got it with Alison & Busby who were an enterprising, small, general publisher. But since then he’s gone on and he had a distinguished publishing record in both America and Britain. That’s the way things were beginning to move. I think that in many ways they have moved rather more in recent years. I know that Macmillan may have started Macmillan African writers series in recent months actually.

Note: This is the last of a three-part interview conducted by Nourdin Bejjit in August 2005 in Oxford,

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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