Williamson Tea Award for Social Progress
One day in 1957, writes Alan Hill, Heinemann's London office received a manuscript from a young graduate of Ibadan University, Nigeria. "We recognised its quality and accepted it. The manuscript was entitled Things Fall Apart; the author was Chinua Achebe."
There might, Hill surmised, be other comparable writers hidden in Africa, needing only a publisher with the faith and resources to publish them in their own countries and to expose them to a global audience. It was, he says, a deeply exciting prospect.
Hill, then educational books director at Heinemann, visited Africa and also enlisted the help of a West Africa specialist, Van Milne. They decided to produce a cheap paperback of Things FaII Apart and find other books to go with it.
Achebe had written his second novel No Longer at Ease. Milne got in touch with Kenneth Kaunda who was just out of prison and writing a book about Zambia's struggle for independence. Milne also approached the Nigerian novelist Cyprian Ekwensi who gave him the manuscript for Burning Grass. These four books were launched as the African Writers Series which has now expanded to over 300 titles and is celebrating its 30th anniversary.
Alan Hill adds in an article in Logos magazine: "We needed an editor on the ground to act as our eyes and ears. We offered the job to Chinua Achebe; he accepted it and we were in business.
"There followed a wonderfully fruitful decade during which we published 100 titles - fiction, drama and poetry - mostly of high literary quality. "Today, the series includes most of those writers who - unknown when first published - have become the leading names in African literature: Achebe, Ngugi, Ekwensi, Kwei Armah, Ali Mazrui, as well as some who achieved fame as statesmen such as Mandela, Kenyatta, Kaunda."
Though profit was not the primary concern, the series made money. "Things Fall Apart sold only 2,000 copies in its first two years. It then went on to sell several millions. We have always used the profits of big-selling books to support the many worthwhile titles which would be less economically viable. So any young writer of merit can find publication in the African Writers Series."
Adewale Maja-Pearce, who now edits the series, reads all the new manuscripts. Of the 11 titles he chose for 1992, four are first novels. What can the series be said to have contributed to African culture, development and publishing?
It brought modern African literature to readers previously reliant on English classics, and established it with African education authorities. The books are widely borrowed from African libraries. They are now found in school and college syllabuses throughout the world.
They include poetry by Jack Mapanje, recently released after long imprisonment in Malawi. They include short stories by Nadine Gordimer, Nobel prize winner from South Africa, who asked to be published alongside her African peers.
The series has provided a platform for politicians to explain their thinking. The fact that several of the writers have had their work banned indicates that what they wrote has influence and that it seemed threatening to governments.
One observer suggests that Heinemann writers have fulfilled their ambition of helping create Africa's image of itself and may have contributed to the pressure for multi-party democracy, even if they had few hopes of great change.
The series has been criticised for being accessible only to an English-speaking elite. However, given the vast number of African languages, 400 in Nigeria alone, it at least enabled writers to be read in much of the continent, And the number of Heinemann books in African languages is growing. Ngugi's latest were published in Gikuyu. His and Achebe's have been translated in Zimbabwe into Shona. Heinemann are translating Achebe into South African languages and have published in Setswana the Botswana Writers Series.
Another criticism is that Heinemann and other British-based multinational publishers creamed off the best writers and overwhelmed local publishing. The alternative view is that, though they initially went to Africa to sell British schoolbooks, they went on to recruit local writers and create a market which local publishers (including the now locally- owned Heinemann Kenya) can exploit. Heinemann titles are published by African publishers, an important facility given the book famine resulting from economic crisis. "The African Writers Series set a standard to which both authors and local publishers could aspire" writes a university teacher.
Publishing in Africa by Heinemann and others has created jobs in printing and the book trade and even for lecturers in the new subject of African literature. Vicky Unwin, international director of Heinemann Educational, says that the success of the African Writers Series and its impact on school syllabuses encouraged the formation of Heinemann Nigeria and Kenya and their launch of other textbook publishing. Heinemann Nigeria now employs about 100 people. She adds that Zimbabwe Publishing House licenses many Heinemann titles and its profitability is largely based on them.
Alan Hill writes that Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe now have a national literary culture supported by local publishing. These are also the countries where multinational publishers have operated with only light government interference. In contrast, the Kaunda government in Zambia opposed private publishing as undermining its control of education; so Zambia has had hardly any literary publishing locally.
Even in Kenya, the government has begun producing the full range of school textbooks, depriving local publishers of their main income. In Nigeria, where the Ministry of Education prescribes the books, publishers have to go cap-in- hand for contracts; and the tariff on paper makes bookshop prices expensive. In these difficult circumstances, Heinemann's African Writers Series has performed a real service.