BOOKS / A voice out of Africa: A story of sweet success and bitter controversy: the low-profile but high-grade African Writers Series has just celebrated its 30th year

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The Independent Culture
THE LAST, and strangest-sounding, literary prize of 1992 - 'The World Aware Williamson Tea Award for Social Progress' - was awarded on 15 December. It isn't really literary at all (Anita Roddick won it in 1991), but this time it went to a publisher's list: the Heinemann African Writers Series. The AWS, as it's known, is now celebrating its 30th birthday: a grand party is planned this month. Since 1962 it has published more than 200 titles, covering the continent from Morocco to Mozambique, and including translations from African languages, French and Portuguese.

Under the editorship of the poet Adewale Maja-Pearce, the series is certainly not resting on its laurels: in the current catalogue, such valued backlist names as Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa' Thiong'o, Bessie Head and Nuruddin Farah rub shoulders with first collections of poetry, with new novelists, and with such authors as the Ghanaian Kojo Laing, one of the most innovative writers in English today. To Vicky Unwin, managing director of Heinemann International, 'the list is virtually a chronicle of African history and development over the past 30 years - both through the political works of early traders, and the voice of the people themselves.'

The way the series began has achieved the proportions of a myth. One day in 1957, so the tale goes, a typescript landed in Heinemann's offices. It had already suffered adventures: a single handwritten copy, sent to a London typist from Nigeria in response to an ad in the Spectator ('authors' manuscripts typed'), vanished for months, before being disinterred from dusty piles by a friend. The book was Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe's great novel of an Igbo warrior and the coming of the missionaries. If it had been lost, Achebe later said, he would 'probably have given up writing altogether . . . and if I had rewritten it, it would have been a different book'. It has sold more than eight million copies.

Published in hardback in 1958, Achebe's novel inspired Alan Hills, then educational director of Heinemann, to look for more African fiction. In 1962 he launched the paperback African Writers Series with Things Fall Apart, Kenneth Kaunda's Zambia Will Be Free and other titles. Achebe acted as a tireless unpaid scout, reader and editor in Africa until after the Biafran war in 1972, bringing in more than 100 books. 'His name alone acted as a magnet,' Hills says.

No commercial list can live without profits, but it's agreed that the men who shaped the series - Achebe, Hills, Van Milne and later Keith Sambrook and James Currey - were idealists. It was a marriage of vision and opportunism: Achebe kept literary standards high, the books' orange covers (openly borrowed from Penguin) established credibility, and the price (as little as 25p) ensured sales. After independence, African schools and universities were keen to change their syllabuses; soaring print runs won over 'profoundly sceptical'

directors and made the AWS a welcome addition to Heinemann's publishing in Africa.

The tag of 'cultural imperialism' is inevitable, and the 'big four' publishers in Africa - OUP, Macmillan, Longman and Heinemann - have indeed reaped cash from the 'wind of change'. Recognising this, several authors, such as Ayi Kwei Armah in Ghana, will now only publish at home. A related debate, about language, has also raged for 30 years, since a now famous article by Obi Wale in Transition in 1963 attacked 'these writers and their Western midwives'. At one conference in the mid-80s, Ngugi (who has written in Gikuyu for 12 years, but allows translation) gave the keynote address: if you write in the language of the colonisers, he said, your mind is colonised; publishing in English fosters the dependency which almost destroyed the continent; local languages must be used to express the collective experience of Africa. In response, Lewis Nkosi from South Africa asked a question, in Zulu. Ngugi could not reply. What Nkosi had asked was: 'If we don't publish in a world language, do you not think there will be problems of communication - between Africans?'

One concerned observer at that conference was Alistair Niven (a former university teacher in Ghana and director of the Africa Centre in London, now director of literature for the Arts Council). He sees the series as 'vastly underrated - one of the great triumphs of British publishing since the war and of inestimable importance to Africa'. He points out that, far from hindering national publishing, the list has stimulated it: without it, it would have been impossible to teach local literature in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, Maja-Pearce, as series editor, believes that, as far as young writers are concerned, 'it doesn't matter who publishes them, in what languages, as long as they get read'. He recently startled a Cambridge audience by attacking both 'the Dignity School of African Writing', who elevate a vanished past, and the Marxists, who demand engagement with current struggles; for him, conspiracy theories about 'the West' have distorted criteria, denied free expression, and held back Africa's entry into the modern world.

But how can such a series escape politics? That dimension has been strong from the start, with works by Kenyatta, Nkrumah, Mandela, Biko and Tambo. Fiction, drama and poetry have inevitably focused on immediate conflicts; the themes of independence and the Europe / Africa confrontation giving way in the late 1960s to disillusion with new national regimes. Many writers have been political prisoners, like Dennis Brutus in South Africa, Ngugi in Kenya, and Jack Mapanje in Malawi. Maja-Pearce, however, sees his editorial role as separate from his work as Africa editor of Index on Censorship: he admits they overlap, but he insists that he selects on purely literary grounds; the battle now is one of quality.

In its eagerness to present Africa's story to the world, Heinemann probably did publish too much, without enough discrimination. In a 1990 interview in the journal Kunapipi, Hills and Sambrook justified their decision to spread the net widely, on the grounds that they were 'pioneering in an unknown field'. Even now the AWS is unusual in actively welcoming unsolicited manuscripts. Last summer, when the Guardian's Ian Hays ran a short story competition in conjunction with the AWS, an announcement on the BBC World Service brought more than 800 entries from African writers as far afield as China, New Zealand, even St Helena. Many entries were accompanied by 'heart-rending pleas for help with education, careers, opportunities. This seemed their only chance of being heard.'

The effect of the list has been uniquely powerful. Margaret Busby, editor of the new anthology of women's writing Daughters of Africa (see review opposite) remembers her student days: 'I was studying English at London University, and there wasn't a single black or African writer on the course. I had to find them myself, and the African Writers series was the only thing around - I bought them all.' Hilary Laurie, now editorial director of Everyman Classics, recalls arriving in Nairobi in the 1970s, when 'the series was the only route into a culture which was strange to me. The books opened my eyes - I remember driving to work each day past the prison, and thinking of Ngugi detained inside.' The poet and playwright Gabriel Gbadamosi, who was brought up in London, hunted down the orange covers in second-hand bookshops when he was a schoolboy: 'It was a strange way of meeting African literature, oddly without context - but it was the only way.'

The initial impact was greatest in Africa itself. The novelist and academic Abdulrazak Gurnah, who grew up in Zanzibar, remembers the series as 'quite shocking - before that the curriculum in African schools was mostly English books about Africa, Conrad, Graham Greene, C S Forester's The African Queen. In the days after independence, these books proved that Africans could speak for themselves. The very fact of their existence, almost more than the content, was liberating.'

For the next generation, 'African writing' was an established fact. In Biyi Bandele-Thomas's dazzlingly disturbing novel The Man Who Came in from the Back of Beyond (1991), the adolescent Bozo retreats to the wilderness, dreaming of a marijuana-funded jihad, and sits by the stream with 'an Egbuna or a Soyinka or an Achebe or an Armah or a Rotimi'. Now 26, with a play in rehearsal at the Royal Court, Biyi wrote the novel in his late teens. Why did Bozo choose those books? 'Those were the ones that were around. When I was a kid I think I read everything published in the series. I liked the different voices and styles.'

The way younger writers stress diversity counters the accusation that the series created a falsely homogenous 'pan-African' style: progressive, representational, stylistically unsophisticated. But this image persists; Adewale Maja-Pearce and Vicky Unwin accept that, ironically, the AWS has almost to fight its past. In the last four years its authors have scooped several prizes, but it is still somehow taken for granted. Despite the vogue for paperback originals, Kojo Laing's new novel Major Gentle and the Achimoto Wars went unnoticed, while his previous two, published by Heinemann in hardback, not in the AWS, were widely acclaimed. Like other specialist lists, the AWS has been described as a ghetto - or even (cruelly loaded) a 'plantation' - and some writers want to avoid being labelled. Would Ben Okri's The Famished Road, they ask, have received the attention it did, or have won the Booker Prize in 1991, if it had been published here, rather than standing out as 'different' on the Cape list? Many people unconnected with the Heinemann series feel that it remains invisible to the British literary press.

Nevertheless, dynamic marketing has revived and 'de-ghettoised' a list which looked doomed in the early 1980s, when educational spending in Africa was decimated by overseas debts. The orange jackets disappeared in 1986 when Vicky Unwin took over the list, with its sister Caribbean Writers Series, and gave them a new look, in line with other high-profile paperbacks. Sales reps of the mighty parent publishing group, Reed International, now treat the books as general interest paperbacks, alongside the Minerva and Mandarin imprints, instead of educational titles: an important step in dragging the AWS from the back to the front of bookshops, and into the eye of mainstream press attention. The tactics seem to be working. Amid the recessionary gloom, sales of the AWS are up 55 per cent; it currently has displays in 100 bookshop windows around the country.

The books still sell in Africa, but by far the largest market is now the US, followed by the UK and Europe. Changing markets, even more than arguments about style and quality, inevitably influence editorial policies. Whereas Achebe, dubbed a 'post-colonial editor', was publishing for Africa, Maja-Pearce, who has been called a 'metropolitan editor', is publishing - with equal commitment - from Africa.

His touchstone now is world taste, not just local need; a book was allegedly turned down as 'too Nigerian'. 'We wouldn't publish another 'colonial' novel now,' Vicky Unwin says. 'That's in the past.' At the start of its fourth decade, the Heinemann African Writers Series is facing forwards, not back.-