IN THE MIDST of a continent’s roar of independence, the African Writers Series was launched 50 years ago by Heinemann, a London publisher. This was the same year Uganda, Algeria, Burundi, and Rwanda emerged from colonial rule. Tanzania and Sierra Leone did the same the year before; Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia were next. It is no coincidence that the cascading declarations of independence came just as African writers were afire with their own stories. Unsatisfied with a colonial canon that filtered stories of Africa through the perspective of white Westerners and pretended those were the only stories worthy of the printed page, the independence generation of artists claimed space for their own voices, their own leaps of imagination, their own fanciful styles.
An ambitious group gathered in that pivotal year, 1962, for the African Writers Conference at Makerere University in Uganda. Among the attendees were Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, as well as Ngugi wa Thiong’o of Kenya (then James Ngugi) and Rajat Neogy, a Kampala native who would soon launch Transition Magazine. Langston Hughes, who had a particular interest in anthologizing African writers for publication in the US, made the trip from America. The young and thoughtful group discussed the formidable legacy of colonialism for African writers. How do you cultivate emerging literatures? Is it inauthentic for African writers to write in colonial languages like English and French, rather than indigenous languages? Are there certain kinds of stories that are more or less ‘African’?
These questions are hardly settled today, but the literary experiments attempting to resolve them reached a global audience thanks to the unprecedented African Writers Series. The series published authors like Achebe, who advised the project for its first 10 years. Indeed, the first title published was Things Fall Apart, a new issuing of the book that first appeared in 1958, just shy of Nigeria’s independence. Shortly after the AWS launch, Things Fall Apart became required reading by the Cambridge School Certificate Examinations for overseas students in the United Kingdom. This singular move led to Heinemann immediately selling 20,000 copies.
AWS published fiction, poetry, plays, and nonfiction, including reprints and original work, from a list headlined by authors like Ngugi, Ama Ata Aidoo of Ghana, Tayeb Salih of Sudan, Bessie Head of Botswana, Dennis Brutus of South Africa, Ayi Kwei Armah of Ghana, and Nuruddin Farah of Somalia. While many titles were written in English, others were translated from French, Arabic, Portuguese, Swahili, Achioli, and Yoruba. While the series brought international attention to the diversity of literature in Africa, Heinemann paperbacks were primarily designed in affordable editions for African students. Achebe, in his collection of essays Home & Exile, writes:
The launching of Heinemann’s African Writers Series was like the umpire’s signal for which African writers had been waiting on the starting line. In one short generation an immense library of new writing had sprung into being from all over the continent and, for the first time in history, Africa’s future generations of readers and writers — youngsters in schools and colleges — began to read not only David Copperfield and other English classics that I and my generation had read but also works by their own writers about their own...