Exploding the Canon: On the African Writers Series

By Anna ClarkOctober 16, 2012

Exploding the Canon: On the African Writers Series

Weep Not, Child by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Things Fall Apart
Africa Writes Back: The African Writers Series & the Launch of African Literature

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 people. The excitement generated by this […] was very great indeed and continues to delight many people to this day, in Africa and beyond. The British poet and broadcaster Edward Blishen said of the African Writers Series, “I saw a whole new potentially great world literature come into being.”

The taste and scrutiny of the editors is evident in the number of authors who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature: every African Nobel laureate in literature, save one — J.M. Coetzee — is an AWS author. (As well, AWS published one of the earliest books by Peace Prize-winner Nelson Mandela.) Wole Soyinka became the first African writer — in fact, the first black writer — to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1986. Two years later, Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz won, a first for a writer in Arabic. South Africa’s Nadine Gordimer took the prize in 1991, and Doris Lessing in 2007. While Lessing is now a British citizen, her roots are in Zimbabwe. The series published her novel, The Grass is Singing, in 1972. Lessing’s Nobel lecture discussed the dream deferred for writers raised with a dearth of literary resources. She spoke of a Zimbabwe library she visits, where the only books on the shelves are “tomes from American universities, hard even to lift, rejects from white libraries, or novels with titles like Weekend in Paris and Felicity Finds Love.” In such a context, Lessing said, there are bound to be “books never written […] Voices unheard. It is not possible to estimate this great waste of talent, of potential.”

The last of about 350 AWS titles published by Heinemann came in 2000. By then, books were appearing sporadically under quick-shifting ownership. But after more than a decade of silence, and now in its 50th anniversary year, the African Writers Series was revived this June by Penguin Classics, with the release of two early novels by Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Weep Not, Child and A Grain of Wheat. There is nice symmetry in Penguin picking up the mantle of the legendary series. As James Currey writes in Africa Writes Back, a history of the Heinemann project:

The Series was to become to Africans in its first quarter century what Penguin 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 original AWS paperbacks visually gave a nod to Penguin by borrowing its distinctive orange color for the covers.

For its part, Penguin (which shares a parent company with Heinemann) publishes Ngugi’s novel Petals of Blood, which John Siciliano, series editor, told me is a “steady seller.” It seemed natural to relaunch AWS with two additional Ngugi titles. As they get the Penguin Classics treatment, AWS titles will appear with introductions (unlike the Heinemann books) from prominent writers. The cover design gives no indication that AWS titles are distinct from traditional black-spined Classics, but their first page features a “Message from Chinua Achebe,” in which the series’ former curator gives his endorsement to Penguin’s project: “Through the series, the creative exploration of those issues and experiences that are unique to the African consciousness will be given a platform, not only throughout Africa, but also to the world beyond its shores.”

The new AWS will be ongoing, rather than finite. Siciliano “aims to make the series as diverse as possible” while ensuring that selections are driven by editorial quality. He’s also interested in titles in translation and, if necessary, would consider commissioning new translations that would put the novels “in the best possible light.”

“This is not a passive thing,” Siciliano said about launching AWS with Penguin. “This is something I pursued […] This is about enlarging the canon.”


It’s impossible to talk about Ngugi’s fiction without talking about politics. Though Weep Not, Child and A Grain of Wheat were published before Ngugi changed his name, before he was imprisoned for his writing, before his exile to the United States, and before his pivotal Decolonising the Mind cued his shift to writing in Gikuyu (he translates his own work into English), both novels proclaim Ngugi’s interest in how politics push against the ordinary habits of students, lovers, families, and workers. Weep Not, Child, which takes its title from a Walt Whitman poem, was published in 1964, and may be the first novel published by an East African. In it, we meet two Kikuyu brothers growing up in rural Kenya just as the Mau Mau uprising is beginning to challenge the British government. Njoroge is thrilled that he’s designated by his family to attend school. Kamau apprentices in carpentry. But while Njoroge sees education as the gold-plated path to progress, Kamau is drawn to the forthright methods of Mau Mau. When loyalties to family, country, and self conflict, Njoroge struggles to find a vision he can hold onto.

In a neat 149 pages, Ngugi fits an epic sweep: this is an omniscient story, spanning a decade, hemmed in by the long dark shadow of World War II. Kenyans were conscripted to fight for the British; upon return, they found that British soldiers were rewarded with land and loans that they did not receive for the same service. Some Kenyans had farms taken from them to benefit the very British men they had fought alongside. In Weep Not, Child, the lingering chill of wartime trauma meets the looming specter of Kenya’s war of independence.

The novel carries common tics of an early go at longform fiction. Particularly after the publication of Ngugi’s childhood memoir, Dreams in a Time of War, it is apparent how richly Weep Not, Child is informed by the author’s own biography. The story is also heavy with exposition: the narrator explaining why each person says each thing slows dialogue. As a reader, I feel that the author doesn’t quite trust me to extrapolate and understand.

It is tempting to read Weep Not, Child as an allegory because of its spare style, peopled by characters that verge on emblems: The Father, The Overseer, The Loyal Friend. But Ngugi gently resists this. The story invites our expectations of how, for example, Njoroge will reconcile his personal dreams with his dreams for his country, but it sidesteps them at the last moment. The novel is also empathetic. Ngugi is attentive to the conflicts inherent in British characters who have not lived in England in decades, or perhaps ever. They know Kenya as home. But while their love for the land may be authentic, it is mutated by their grasping entitlement. Ngugi also draws out the worthiness of the Mau Mau’s fight for freedom, even as he underscores how their grand purpose could sometimes be netted by ignoble motivations: revenge, and the sheer adrenaline of brutality. In short, Ngugi writes a book that has moral purpose, but leaves just enough room for the complexity that comes with it. 

While Weep Not, Child is a sturdy story with clean, bright lines, A Grain of Wheat is sensual, mysterious, devastating; a multi-threaded novel that builds tension by refusing to resolve its stubborn ambivalence. It is remarkable that the two were published a mere three years apart. In A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi makes a great leap forward in terms of emotional resonance and sheer fictional verve. Ngugi takes on an ensemble cast and plays much more confidently with suspense and revelation in A Grain of Wheat. The story unfolds over the four days before Kenya celebrated independence from Britain in 1963, but it spends much time in flashback. Again, we are immersed in the life of a rural community, where politics are at once immediate and detached. As villagers are consumed in plans for the uhuru ceremony, we learn that all is not well. The violence experienced by those held captive by the British is still fresh; the betrayals among spouses and neighbors are not forgiven; and those marked as heroes have long, troubled memories.

Gikonyo is a carpenter who was held in the British “concentration camps — named detention camps for the world outside Kenya,” for six years of the Emergency. This was the period from 1952-1960 when the colonial government permitted itself extreme measures in a bid to keep control: it is particularly horrifying given how soon after the Holocaust this system was built. To keep himself sane, Gikonyo holds tight to the memory of his lovely and brave wife, Mumbi. But when he returns home, he finds Mumbi with an infant child that is not his — and a friend of Gikonyo’s, with whom he took the Mau Mau oath, now works as a district chief in collaboration with the British.

Mugo, meanwhile, was also in detention camps. His quiet countenance invites others to see in him what they want to see — and their vision does not include his haunting secret. While Mugo tries to rebuild his life separately from the others, he is continually lured into public spaces, where the dissonance between the demons of his past and what his neighbors want from him are violently juxtaposed.

A Grain of Wheat stokes the fires of mythology. It draws richly from Christianity — an import from the British, of course, that Kenyans in the novel adapt, use, and re-use. The title references John 12:24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” We are told explicitly that “the revivalist movement was the only organization allowed to flourish in Kenya by the government during the Emergency.” Sections in the novel open with lines from Exodus that, we are told, were underlined in red in the personal Bible of Kihika, one of the story’s young martyrs. And it does not feel like a coincidence that Gikonyo chooses carpentry, the trade of Jesus, as his life’s work. Set in this Christian context, acts of betrayal, martyrdom, and confession take on elevated meaning.

Religion and politics merge when, as in Weep Not, Child, Jomo Kenyatta’s presence looms large as “Black Moses.” His imprisonment and trial were a significant rallying point for Kenyans, who would make him their first president. Meanwhile, the stories of Gandhi’s movement in India are passed from character to character like creation lore. And the narrative style A Grain of Wheat evokes the voice of myth. While the reader follows the intimate perspectives of Mugo, Mumbi, Gikonyo, and others, first-person asides are tucked through the pages. The narration is omniscient, but personal; first-person, but dislocated.

The novel bears serious weak spots. Ngugi’s female characters are not well developed; they are never seen speaking or thinking about anything other than the men in their lives: fathers, brothers, sons, husbands, lovers. He also sometimes over-romanticizes peasant life (he revised the novel after publication to push the Marxist point further), and he continues to rely on exposition more than he needs to: particularly in this novel, characters are so richly drawn that they are better left to their own devices. But altogether, Ngugi allows himself to luxuriate in description, to more bluntly piece together the discomfiting parts of life, and to explore the crisis that comes when our delusions and visions appear with the same force. This is an extraordinary book.


Penguin South Africa first debuted its version of the revived African Writers Series three years ago, with Weep Not, Child on the inaugural slate. But it got some public pushback. In The Guardian, locked in the past” with its focus on publishing novels between 15 and 50 years old. In contrast, the Heinemann Series focused largely on contemporary titles. Writes Ajayi:

I don't have anything against the selection [of titles] itself, it's just that it's hard to see what the selection can tell the curious reader about lives lived across Africa today. These books can't say much about the challenges of globalisation, migration, or the struggle by the citizens of Africa's 53 countries to form an authentic identity, because these books are not of the moment. Classics, yes; contemporary, no. And in this sense at least, the new [Series] disappoints.

Billy Kahora dismisses the argument. Kahora is an accomplished Kenyan author and managing editor at Kwani, which publishes print books as well as Africa’s most prestigious literary journal.Ajayi cites Kwani as evidence of the contemporary literary talent that AWS might tap, but he minimizes the organization, referring to it as “a website.” (Disclosure: I worked at Kwani last year.)

Kahora said, Penguin is “doing a great service to the continent” by re-issuing classic titles. “Have you ever heard anyone in the West complaining about the republishing of Dickens, Mann, Tolstoy, Balzac?” Kahora added.

Kahora also suggested that critics who call the classic books dated “almost always” think that certain parts of life are a “contemporary phenomenon, and that these older [AWS] books have nothing to say to our contemporary condition.” To that, he points to B. Kojo Laing’s Search Sweet Country (1986), which he said, “already prophesied what our contemporary urban spaces would become.” Kahora said, “I am yet to read anything contemporary that captures the nervous condition of the African returning from the West as well as Achebe's No Longer At Ease or Hamidou Kane's Ambiguous Adventure.” “And so,” he added, “it must be understood that the books from before and those from now are in perpetual conversation.”

That is the excitement of a living canon. But that doesn’t make it easy.


The Caine Prize for African Writing is often nicknamed the “African Booker” — a frustrating comparison given that they are very distinct prizes: one for a novel, the other for a short story. But the moniker is meant to convey that extraordinary fiction can be found among the award winners and finalists. First awarded in 2000, the Caine Prize has in some ways served like the mid-century version of the African Writers Series: it brings global attention and opportunity to outstanding fiction writers from Africa. This includes Leila Aboulela, a Sudanese writer who quickly went on to publish several critically-acclaimed novels and a story collection. Helon Habila of Nigeria has written or edited five books since winning the Caine Prize. Kenya’s Binyavanga Wainana used his winnings in the Caine Prize to create Kwani.

This year’s Caine Prize winner, Rotimi Babatunde, was named on July 2nd and received a £10,000 prize. Unfortunately, though, he emerged from a set of finalists that were selected from a mere 122 nominations and only 14 African countries. (The continent is home to 54 countries). Bernadine Evaristo, chair of the prize, said she is frustrated with some of what she saw:

I’d rather a story is provocative and unsettling rather than familiar, safe and perfectly accomplished. Yet risk-takers are rare. Among the submissions I’ve encountered a lot of uninspired prose that feels so dated, so Middle England circa 1950s, even though it might have been written in Central Africa in 2012. Luckily there are a few adventurers too. But we need more experimentation and daring, stunning image-makers and linguistic explorers who might, for example, infuse English with an African language or syntax. Not necessarily pidgin, but perhaps something else, something new — the English language (and forms) adapted, mutated, re-invented to suit African perspectives and cultures.

Binyavanga Wainana, who now directs the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College, echoed these thoughts in a posting on Facebook:

So MANY boring African artists. It has to be said. The Colonial school system in Anglophone Africa was designed to create dutiful (dull) and Safe Subjects. 50 years later, much of (young) African writing in English is safe […] they have also learned what they think “is being looked for” BY PRIZES, FOREIGN PUBLISHERS and foreign NGOS. Nobody invests in Boring. Their imaginations are tame and limited. They do not provide a vision of what is possible. […] At the Achebe Center I look for talent that has bold new things to say to Africa and the world. Innovators take risks and do not behave as prescribed by the ‘Theme makers’. Artists make their own insurgencies.

How do you cultivate emerging literatures? The questions confronted by the independence generation of writers still reverberate today, not only for writers, but also readers, publishers, literary critics, translators, technologists, and booksellers. The literary experiments continue.

Ngugi now teaches at the University of California-Irvine and was a headliner at the most recent Kwani LitFest in Nairobi, which had a theme inter-generational literary conversation. Ngugi, who led the 1970s campaign to transform the University of Nairobi’s Department of English to the Department of Literature, spoke of artistic purpose in both content and language.

Writers must continue to be advocates for the expansion of the democratic space. For there cannot be democracy for writers where there is no democracy for all. And this reality, my friends, is not specific in any generation or any one country or region. Imprisonment, exile, and even death has been part of the occupation hazard in the history of ideas. [...] We must ensure that Africa does not remain a beggar at the gates of European languages, and ensure that all of the arts are surely to excite and expand the imagination. Surely we in Africa must dare to imagine a different future, of an Africa that has peace for itself, but is able to engage with the world on the basis of self-belief and confidence.

Elsewhere in Nairobi, Riva Jalipa manages AMKA, a monthly gathering designed to promote women’s literary writing and women’s voices in Kenya’s public discourse. It is another kind of literary experiment, one that unfolds quietly but persistently. Men and women attend the Saturday meetings downtown, and the crowd includes both emerging and established writers, as well as “just people passionate about literature,” Jalipa said. “Over the last two years, [AMKA] has become more and more engaging, becoming a platform not just for literary critique, but socio-cultural and political commentary.”

In the twenty-first century, a new balance must be struck between developing brave and interesting contemporary literature while keeping in conversation with classics. “There are too many good books that have been relegated to the dustbin of history and they should be re-issued and popularized as much as possible,” Kahora said. While Heinemann’s African Writers Series struck new ground, there is now an established legacy to draw from, to reject, to inspire. Penguin’s revival of the series, then, facilitates the great conversation. It will be a joy to see where this goes.


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LARB Contributor

Anna Clark is an independent journalist in Detroit. She writes reported news features, longform nonfiction, and book reviews, with a particular interest in international literature. Her stories have appeared in The Columbia Journalism Review, Salon, The Daily Beast, Grantland, The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Review, and other publications. Anna's writing is a "notable" pick in Best American Sports Writing 2012. She edits the literary blog Isak and is a writer-in-residence with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project. She also facilitates a theater workshop at a prison in Macomb County, Michigan. In 2011, she was a Fulbright Fellow in Kenya. Anna graduated from the University of Michigan and from Warren Wilson College's MFA Program for Writers.


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