Africa
Chinua Achebe Week
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“Good Lord, these Africans are writing books!”

Asha Rogers

Postcolonial Writing and Theory Seminar, University of Oxford
Chinua Achebe and the African Writers Series at 50
2nd May 2013

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“Where were you on the 22nd March of this year?” James Currey asked a captive audience at the Postcolonial Writing and Theory Seminar at Wadham College, Oxford on 2nd May. Both James Currey and Becky Ayebia Clarke, two former editors at Heinemann’s pioneering African Writers Series (AWS), could instantly recall where they had been the day the news broke of Chinua Achebe’s death, at the age of 82. Currey had just arrived in South Africa (where he was hounded, almost immediately, by Channel 4 journalists requesting comment and contacts), while Ayebia Clarke was in Charleston, South Carolina, at the conference of the African Literature Association. The news about Achebe “dropped like a bomb”, she recalled, as the many leading figures in African studies gathered there quickly began making their tributes.

The significance of Achebe’s many-sided contributions to the field of African literature (as writer, editor, critic, broadcaster, to name a few) made it clear that the celebrations of 50 years of the AWS at Oxford’s Postcolonial Seminar should rightly focus on the first, and most popular, author of the Series.

James Currey, manager of the AWS for seventeen years (he also founded the Arab Authors Series and Caribbean Writers Series) and author of the rich memoir Africa Writes Back (2008), recounted Achebe’s generous contribution to the AWS not only as a writer, but as an editor as well. A “magnet for young writers”, Achebe spent ten years working unpaid for the AWS, wading through manuscripts of all kinds. He played a crucial role in the dynamic editorial processes that characterised the truly expansive character of the AWS. “He was the sort of person who would attract scripts, and my goodness did he,” Currey added.

The encouragement of emerging writers in Africa was the biggest success of the AWS according to Currey, and was inextricably linked to the belief that African writers could write and get published. Achebe was proof of both. Currey described the sight of the stacks of AWS paperbacks lining the walls of campus bookshops in the 1960s and 70s. The characteristic orange covers and black and white author photographs captured the attention of the book-buying public in Britain. With tongue firmly in cheek, Currey recounted their initial surprise: “‘Good Lord,’ they thought, ‘these Africans are writing books!'”

A submissions editor at the AWS between 1991 and 2003, before setting up her own company Ayebia Clarke Publishing Limited, Becky Ayebia Clarke testified to the appeal the AWS exerted on its junior readers in Africa. The orange covers “caught like wildfire”, she explained, recalling the playground competitions to see who could recite what from which title. Amassing over 350 titles by the time Harcourt decided to discontinue the Series in 2012, African Ministries for Education accounted for roughly 80% of all AWS sales. In April 1982 the collapse of the Nigerian Foreign Exchange prompted Heinemann Educational Books to turn its attention to the expanding educational markets for African literature in Britain and the US.

For Ayebia Clarke, the significance of AWS came from its critical position at the frontline of what she described as a new modern identity for Africa and its people, both at home and abroad. The AWS was seen as “the canon and carrier” of the African struggle, she claimed, citing titles such as Things Fall Apart (1962, AWS no.1), Kenneth Kaunda’s Zambia shall be free (1962, AWS no. 4) and Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1969, AWS no. 43). Clarke concluded by recounting her experience of Achebe the man, including his response to the news that higher powers had decided to close the AWS. Tasked with conveying the bad news to the writers themselves, Ayebia Clarke’s interchange with Achebe (who disapproved of the publisher’s exercise in damage limitation) prompted her to set up her own independent publishing company. Celebrating ten years of Ayebia Clarke Publishing this year, she remains committed to breaking down the dependence of African literature on publishing conglomerates. Taking her inspiration from the pioneering work of Currey, Achebe and others at the AWS, Ayebia Clarke acknowledged the crucial financial support of the Arts Council England in the tentative stages of setting up shop.

Currey and Ayebia Clarke are collaborating once more in 2013, as editors this time, on a book of tributes to Achebe with contributions as wide-ranging as Bernth Lindfors’ enigmatically titled piece, “Achebe in Texas”. As the accounts of Achebe’s impact continue to rise to the surface, the anecdotes offered by Jame Currey and Becky Ayebia Clarke gave Oxford a unique glimpse of the complex histories of writing, publishing and collaboration that have shaped the development of a modern category of African letters.

Asha Rogers is reading for a D.Phil. in English literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford.