Book review – Stories from the lion’s mouth

2012-11-24 17:02

Anniversary celebrations have been aplenty this year, with the ANC’s centenary festivities taking centre stage and a number of other milestones being reached. One of them is the 50th anniversary of Heinemann’s African Writers Series.

The series was the brainchild of Alan Hill, the head of Heinemann Educational Books at the time and was an important moment in African literature.

It was through the series that would-be literary heavyweights such as Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (whose Weep Not, Child was the first new fiction to be published in the series in 1964), Buchi Emecheta, Dambudzo Marechera, Dennis Brutus and Okot p’Bitek would be revered.

To find the continent’s stories, Hill enlisted the help of editors Keith Sambrook, Aig Higo, James Currey and Henry Chakava.

He also hired the great Chinua Achebe – whose critically acclaimed Things Fall Apart (originally published in 1958) launched the series – as its founding general editor from 1962 to 1972.

In Africa Writes Back: The African Writers Series & The Launch of African Literature, Currey writes: “The series was to become to Africans in its first quarter century what Penguin (Books) had been to British readers in its first 25 years.

“It provided good, serious reading in paperbacks at accessible prices for the rapidly emerging professional classes, as the countries became independent.”

The series was a platform for a generation of writers who were taking ownership of their creativity, tongues and pens, and talking to fellow Africans and the greater world instead of being spectators and subjects in a narrative ascribed to them.

It was essentially the story of the hunt told from the lion’s perspective.

But the series was far from being one that romanticised the African experience.

This was demonstrated by Bessie Head in her classic work, Maru, which reminded us that discrimination also exists among Africans.

To this day, the Basarwa/San/Khoi communities across southern Africa are still largely secondary citizens.

Reading Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born was important for me because it dismantled South African exceptionalism
in relation to the rest of the continent.

You’d think Armah’s book was written in contemporary South Africa, given the similarities of corruption in Ghana’s early independence years and what we’re experiencing now.

To engage with the series is to mend the continental ties that were broken by the colonial/apartheid experience that led to us thinking that people north of our borders are not exactly like us.

So significant was the series that of the four African Nobel prize laureates for literature, three of them – Wole Soyinka in 1986, Naguib Mahfouz in 1988 and Nadine Gordimer in 1991 – were writers published under the series’ umbrella at some point in their decorated careers.

The generation paved the way for the likes of Ben Okri, Niq Mhlongo, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Licinio de Azevedo to stride the globe with the assurance of knowing that they’re a continuation of a literary tradition strengthened by the likes of Lauretta Ngcobo, Es’kia Mphahlele, Léopold Senghor, Sol Plaatje and Olaudah Equiano.

Nothing interrogates the human condition like literature and, for a crucial while, Heinemann’s African Writers Series was an authority on the African experience.

As the continent slowly transforms itself, we Africans need to keep telling our stories from our perspective – and the series reminds our contemporary storytellers to be mindful of the legacy they carry forward.

» Sibeko is a columnist for

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