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...
I'm so pleased that my first essay for the wonderful Los Angeles Review of Books is published today. This story brings together a number of threads that have haunted for the last couple years, as I engaged more deeply with African literature, and Kenyan literary culture in particular.
I discuss the groundbreaking AWS and Penguin's revival of it this year with the (re)publication of two Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o novels, Weep Not, Child and A Grain of Wheat. I'm questioning what it takes to cultivate emerging literatures -- and how the answer to that question is different for the 1960s independence generation and today, in the era of African Nobel literature laureates (nearly all AWS authors), as well as literary agitation from the likes of the Caine Prize for African Writing, Kwani Trust, and the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists.
As a reader and simply as a curious being, I'm fascinated. I'm provoked. I write a lot of articles and am, of course, attached to each one of them. But this story out today: I am so passionate about it.