The News (Lagos)

2 June 2003

Nigeria: Shop Closed for African Writers

Lagos — Heinemann International finally rests The African Writers Series (AWS) which, since the 1950s, has published over 300 works of African writers, and launched the likes of Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah and Mungo Beti. The series' Last submission Editor, Becky Clarke.

For the African Writers Series (AWS), the Heineman's International special initiative that has published over 300 novels, plays and poetry collections, written by Africans since 1958, the music is over. Succumbing to the lull in the book industry, the publishing giants have finally rested the tabloid, thus casting a huge cloud on the fate of new fictional works from Africa.

Not unexpectedly, several authors are afraid the decision is another sturdy nail on the coffin of the future of the creative writing on the continent.

These were the series that launched modern African fiction into global limelight. It is the series that launched the legendary Chinua Achebe, who was the AWS' founding editor. Apart from Things Fall Apart, over 15 million copies of which have been sold, and which have been translated into over 30 languages the world over, it is the same series that published most of the other works that are drawing him closer and closer to the Nobel prize.

It is the same Heinemann's initiative that published compelling works such as Peter Abraham's Mine Boy, T.M Aluko's One man, One Machete, Elechi Amadi's The Concubine and Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born. So also were Soyinka's dry-meat-that-fills-the-cheek. The Interpreters, Dennis Brutus's Letter to Martha, Nardine Gordimer's Some Monday for Sure, J.P. Clark's America Their America, Buchi Emecheta's The Joy of Motherhood, Olaudah Equiano's Equiano's Travels and Ferdinad Oyono's The Old Man and the Medal.

Till 2002, Heinemann International had maintained the series, and indeed remained a custodian of an authentic African culture, history and landscape. But Okey Ndibe's Arrows of The Rain that came out in 2002, had only become the last of the flock, because the door is now finally closed.

It is a painful but a business decision which the publishers just had to take, says Becky Clarke, the last submission editor of the AWS, whose position had automatically become redundant with the scrapping of the series. In an interview with TheNEWS last week, a highly philosophical and optimistic Clarke wants African literary enthusiasts to understand why Heinemann had to take the crucial decision. She even wants them to be thankful to the publishers for coming into the continent's literary life at a time history badly needed an outfit to do so. If her compatriots are angered at all, she adds, they should be thoughtful and reflective in their anger, and direct their worries at how to build from where the expatriates are stopping. The Ghananian Clarke, who is now a consultant with Heinemann International, further reminds the public that there is a consolation: the company would still be-issuing the back list, while Heinemann Nigeria is still very much in business, still publishing new titles as evident in the recent publication of Kunle Ajibade's Jailed for Life. "I realise that the decision is a painful one. But we have to accept that this is a new age; we are in a new millenium. We need to move on. Now we have the challenge and the opportunity to look at the future of African writing. This is the time for us to look at what we can do. African writing has come of age. It is 40 years of age. Heinemann has done a fantastic job, and now we need to move on and look ahead.

"The African Writers Series (AWS) have been the keeper of our literary culture; our literary heritage. The AWS for the first time allowed Africans to communicate with each other. Although it is in foreign language, it at least allowed us to dialogue with each other. If you consider what the AWS has achieved for us in terms of cultural, social and other values we cherish in Africa in diaspora, the AWS is second to none. The AWS epitomises everything that the African continent is about; its about our beliefs, our land, the landscape, and about everyday events in our society. And as far as I am concerned, nobody has done more than Heinemann in promoting this aspect of our culture.

"But you have to realise that Heinemann is a business. They are a business people, and for business to prosper, you have to make profit. Without making profit, you can't have a business. So, in December, they made a decision that the AWS no longer fits with the rest of what they do. It became an anomaly." Clarke would want to note that the series were still doing well. According to her, Heinemann are basically educational publishers and prefer to concentrate on the publication of textbooks. Forty years after, the company would rather emphasise the backlist rather than put money into publishing new titles.

Last year, Clarke had a running battle with the management of Heinemann International. She had gone through the manuscripts of Ngugi Wa Thiongo's new novel, Accadia and Ajibade's prison notes, Jailed for Life. She found them compelling and had to go beyond the roof to convince her bosses that the works should be published. But, unknown to her then, the carpenters were already rounding off work on the coffin of the AWS; "I was very concerned. Very very concerned. And I was very excited at working with the two important, very talented and very famous writers. But again, I will return to the question of a business. Publishing is a business. It is a creative business. There is a creative angle, there is a business angle. The two must meet some where in the middle.

"In this instance, both titles I felt would do very well. But I don't have the final say. It is up to Heinemann to decide. I recommend to my bosses. I think at a time they had already made the decision that they were not going to publish any more new titles.

"Ngugi has over seven titles in the series. I wanted Kunle Ajibade's book to come into the series because Kunle's experience is unique. It also speaks to a lot of African countries. I think his experience could be used as a metaphor for what is happening in other African countries - writers, journalists being harassed for publishing the truth. And I think we need to get beyond that stage. So, I wanted, so badly, to publish Jailed for Life in the African writers series. The work he is doing now is what people like Wole Soyinka started. He was also in prison. Mandela and other people who stood against apartheid in South Africa were also imprisoned. Unfortunately, Kunle too fell in the same category. Now, I wanted his recounting of what he went through in prison to be used as a modern metaphor for African government and African dictatorship. In a way, if the book is used in school, it would help our children to understand what Africa has gone through. But unfortunately, I was not successful. But I am happy to say Heinemann Nigeria picked it up and has done a good work on it.

Apart from the critical vacuum that the scrapping of the AWS has created, pundits are still eager to see what becomes of the battle between Heinemann and one of its former choice writers, Ayi Kwei Arma. The author of The Bitter Satire, The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, The Fragments, Two Thousand Seasons, among other works, had vehemently accused the publishers of unholy contractual execution, and the battle is still on. Clarke says the matter is being handled at a level higher than hers.

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