Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 February - 3 March 2010
Issue No. 987
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

James Currey: Godfather of African publishing

In a recent memoir, British publisher James Currey looked back on a career spent introducing Western audiences to African and Arab writers, among them Tayeb Salih, Ghassan Kanafani and Naguib Mahfouz. He spoke to David Tresilian at his home in Oxford

Click to view caption
Publisher James Currey with Somali author Nuruddin Farah

Though now spending a well-earned retirement among the dreaming spires of the English university city of Oxford, British publisher James Currey still keeps up with work in African and Arab studies, fields in which he spent much of his long career.

Not only does Currey still have his own academic imprint in James Currey Publishers, now part of a larger concern, which specialises in work on modern and contemporary Africa, but he has also recently produced a memoir of a career spent introducing Western audiences to African and Arab writers when he was in charge of the African Writers Series and Arab Authors at the British publisher Heinemann.

These two series, managed by Currey from 1967 to 1984, provided the first international exposure for African writers such as Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, Kenyan playwright and novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o and South African novelist Bessie Head and sponsored the first English translations of works by Arab authors Tayeb Salih and Naguib Mahfouz.

According to Currey's typically modest memoir, entitled Africa Writes Back: the African Writers Series and the Launch of African Literature, which appeared from his own imprint and from publishers in Nairobi, Dar Al-Salam, Ibadan, Johannesburg and Harare in 2008, such has been the perceived importance of his work in promoting African writers both in Africa and internationally among the writers themselves that he has now got used to being introduced as the "grandfather of African literature," as happened for the first time at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in Harare in the 1980s.

Currey was reluctant to accept the accolade, and not only because he was only 46 years old at the time. He explains in his book that he felt rather abashed at being greeted by the South African novelist Nadine Gordimer with the words "hello grandfather," preferring a headline that subsequently appeared above an interview in the Zimbabwe Herald that hailed him as the "godfather of African publishing".

People were delighted with the appellation, he writes, "which, according to them, was closer to the truth."

Born in England in 1936 and educated at Oxford, Currey spent his formative years in publishing in South Africa, working for Oxford University Press in Cape Town in the early 1960s. These were the years of the Sharpeville massacre and the Rivonia trial, and Currey got to know writers Dennis Brutus, Bessie Head and Alex La Guma through contacts on the radical monthly The New African.

As the situation in South Africa deteriorated, and with states elsewhere in Africa gaining independence from European colonial control, Currey became more and more interested in the new generations of African writers then appearing across the continent, an interest that stood him in good stead when he went to work on the African Writers Series in 1967 at Heinemann in London.

Founded in 1962, the aim of the series was to promote the work of young African writers whose work was crying out for recognition both in Africa and abroad as the countries from which they came achieved independence. There was a need to make this work more widely known, even as Africa itself was undergoing something of a cultural renaissance as it emerged from European colonialism in the heady years of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Heinemann, among other things an educational publisher, decided to take on the risk of promoting writers who were then largely unknown both in their native countries and abroad. As Currey explains in Africa Writes Back, though there had been some wider international interest in writers sometimes now described as "post-colonial" in Britain and the United States, in other words writers coming from the formerly colonised countries of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, when the series began this interest was largely confined to writers of Caribbean or Indian origin.

While Caribbean writers could find London publishers and an outlet on the BBC's radio programme of the time, Caribbean Voices, as did the young V.S. Naipaul, African writers had to wait until the success of Achebe's Things Fall Apart in 1958 before they could find an inroad into international publication. When the African Writers Series began some four years later, Achebe's novel about the impact of European colonialism on the Igbo people of what is now Nigeria was the first title to appear, followed by the same author's No Longer at Ease.

Soon, ten or more titles a year from across Africa were appearing in the orange paperback format used by the series, with 20 or so works of fiction, plays and poetry appearing each year throughout the 1970s. These included works that have since become classics of African and modern literature, such as those of Achebe, Soyinka, Head, Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the Nigerians Cyprian Ekwensi, Christopher Okigbo and Gabriel Okara and Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera, among many others. Many of the most outstanding novels were translations from the French of Cameroonian writer Mongo Beti and Senegalese film-maker Ousmane Sembène.

Some 350 works by African writers had appeared in the series by the time it wound down in 2003, including many titles appearing on the Africa's 100 Best Books of the 20th Century list, drawn up by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair jury.

The Series was particularly important in its early years, Currey commented in interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, because "it established that there was not just an educational market, but also a general market, for literary writing in Africa. There was quite a lot of foreign exchange, and people bought widely, particularly from university bookshops. This situation only changed with the advent of the 'African book famine' in the early 1980s," as African countries began sinking into debt after the closure of the Nigerian foreign exchanges in 1982.

"If you're lucky in life, and you get a job that is a massive self-indulgence," Currey said, you will recognise that "we were absolutely fascinated by what was going on in the world, which was part of the atmosphere of the time. We were missionaries for African writing. We were always trying to do hardback editions, get reviews in the literary supplements, and get the paperbacks to a wider audience. Bessie Head, who wrote about schizophrenia, was turned down by seven or eight publishers, whereas if she had been writing in Hampstead [an area of London], instead of South Africa, she would have had no trouble at all."

In the 1970s, a decision was made to extend the African Writers Series by establishing a separate Arab Authors series under the editorship of veteran translator Denys Johnson-Davies, who has himself probably played a greater role in introducing modern Arabic literature to Western audiences than any other person.

Currey knew Johnson-Davies from his work at Oxford University Press in London, and, as he explains, when the latter series began modern Arabic literature was still very little known outside the Arab world, with only a few titles by Taha Hussein and Tawfiq El-Hakim being available in translation and these generally in hard-to-find editions.

The Arab Authors series set out to change all that, and soon works by many of the Arab world's most important modern and contemporary writers were appearing in the familiar format of the Heinemann editions, including the first English translations of works by Sonallah Ibrahim ( The Smell of It, 1971), Youssef Idris ( The Cheapest Nights, 1978) and Tayeb Salih ( The Wedding of Zein and Season of Migration to the North, 1969).

Translations of Mahfouz's Midaq Alley, Miramar and Children of Gebelawi [ Awlad Haretna ] in the Arab Authors series were the only titles available in English until Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize in 1988. Ghassan Kanafani's novella Men in the Sun appeared in 1978, and The Music of Human Flesh, a collection of poetry by Mahmoud Darwish, was published in 1980.

These translations, undertaken either by Johnson-Davies himself or under his guidance, were done to be read by ordinary readers, and the writers whose works appeared in Arab Authors, like those appearing in the African Writers Series as a whole, were paid the complement of having their works presented as works of literature, rather than as academic documents or works of anthropology. It was probably the first time that a major Western publisher had made such a commitment to either African or Arab writing.

Much of this history is described in Currey's memoir, which also contains fascinating first-hand material on working with writers like Achebe, Ngugi, Head, the Somalian writer Nuruddin Farah and the brilliant, mercurial Marechera. This material alone makes the book an essential resource for those interested in 20th-century African literature by a man who played an important role in its distribution.

However, in the theoretically self-aware climate of today questions have sometimes been asked about the scope and limits of the Heinemann series and particularly about the ways in which this British publishing venture, responsible for shifting modern African and Arab literature across international and cultural boundaries almost for the first time, itself produced certain ways of reading and understanding, arguably promoting some authors and kinds of writing over others.

Currey himself is aware of such issues, and in his book he points to the African Writers Series' use of African editorial advisors, at first Achebe, in deciding which books and authors to publish. There was no sense in which what counted as African literature, or who counted as an African writer, was something to be decided on in London without reference to Africans themselves.

Certain books were very popular and sold well, notably the titles by Achebe, which were well adapted to the educational books market and could replace the British classics on reading lists in African schools. Money raised from the sale of such titles could then be ploughed back into the series and used to finance the publication of works perhaps less well adapted either to the needs of the education market or the tastes of an educated African or international public.

Such works might include works drawing on the African oral heritage, poetry, plays, works having obvious contemporary political resonance, or works that came across as eccentric, fragmentary, chaotic, or not like familiar Western literature. In dealing with the "vast manuscripts of [South African writer] Mazisi Kunene's Zulu epics... was I distorting African traditions by London- based demands for cutting, organisation and presentation," Currey asks. What were we "trying to do in the African Writers Series, which was centred on the un-African concept of the novel?"

Working on the manuscript of D. M. Zwelonke's Robben Island, published in the series in 1973, Currey describes a book "trying to escape from the author's lack of formal education", the task of the editor being to help that book to find itself. Answering "politically correct accusations that Heinemann imposed 'metropolitan standards'" in selecting and shaping materials, forming a canon of African literature according to Western criteria, Currey points to the detailed editorial work done on Nuruddin Farah's Sardines following a first reader's rejection of the material as only "exploratory notes for a novel, of intolerable wordiness".

Farah was determined to become internationally accepted as a writer, Currey comments, and in this he was supported by the Series, even if this meant some rewriting to match the demands of London editors.

Starting in the 1960s, with communications rudimentary by modern standards, air fares high, and little opportunity for African writers to find a publisher or an audience for their work even within their own countries, "we set out", Currey writes, "to provide the links to get the best of the authors noticed outside Africa. We wanted to persuade the industry to take writing by Africans seriously."

However, issues like those pointed to above will not be lost on Arab authors or critics, some of whom have long suspected that what counts as Arabic literature in the minds of Western readers may not always correspond to what is actually being read, or written, in the Arab world.

In conversation with the Weekly, Currey responds to such issues, explaining, in the cold winter light of a snow-bound Oxford afternoon, that one of the major differences between the two series was that the African Writers Series published work originally written in English for African and international audiences, whereas Arab Authors was affected from the beginning by its presentation of Arabic work in translation.

Some translators produced English versions that did justice to the originals, with Philip Stewart's pioneering version of Mahfouz's Awlad Haretna, published in 1981 as Children of Gebelawi, benefiting from Stewart's stay in Egypt in the late 1950s during which he had pasted sections of the novel into a scrapbook as they appeared in Arabic in Al-Ahram. Stewart discussed his translation of the novel with Mahfouz, who "seemed amused by this long thin Englishman cutting out each episode from the newspaper and said that he did not even have a full set himself."

However, other translations turned out to be wooden or unreadable, with a "pile of dead translations accumulating in a corner cupboard in my office," for which there was no conceivable market.

The aim was always to get the books to a general market, Currey says, even if this meant labelling writers in advance and risking their exoticisation. He points to the success of Johnson-Davies's translation of Salih's Season of Migration to the North, which has now been republished in a mainstream edition, thereby enjoying wider circulation. There is what he describes as a "marvelous over-the-top French statement" in Salih's introduction, which cites novelist François Mauriac as saying "we have never read anything like this before, we who have read everything!"

One thing that Currey is sure of is that British literary publishing has been open to different types of writing. He cites the notorious example of Ivorian writer Ahmadou Kourouma's Les soleils de l'independence, which had to be published in Montreal, rather than in Paris, because it was not written in "proper French". Nothing like that could have happened in the African Writers Series, Currey says, where "the most we did was ask a writer to shorten and sharpen his material."

Some books that appeared in the African Writers Series and Arab Authors could only be published with the aid of grants, Currey mentioning a UNESCO grant that supported the publication of Kunene's Zulu epics -- "Taha Hussein's son got the money through for that." The translation of Youssef Idris's short stories was also supported by UNESCO. But these grants, too, are often few and far between.

Parochial even in the glory days of the 1950s and 60s, when British publishing was characterised by a set of competing middle-size houses, many of which had impressive pedigrees, British publishing today has emerged from a long process of consolidation that saw all but the strongest firms swallowed up by corporate interests whose first business may not be publishing. "Excellent publishers, ones willing to take risks, like Andre Deutsch or Allen & Unwin, have been swept away." Currey admits that the best days of British publishing may now be over. "Everything now is either very big or very specialist," he says.

When Heinemann was sold in the early 1980s, the new owners closed Arab Authors and radically cut back the African Writers Series, citing profits and the bottom line and prompting Currey himself to start his own specialist business. In a world where publishers can seem forever to be running after the next bestseller, ignoring work of more permanent value, but where new technologies are bringing with them new forms of transparency and electronic distribution, how might the climate have changed for Arab or African literature in the English-speaking world? The lists of mainstream and specialist publishing houses in Britain and America do now much more regularly include new young writers from Africa and the Arab world.

Is there still a role for an African Writers Series, or an Arab Authors, today? This is a question Currey himself turns to at the end of his memoir, having reflected on developments in British publishing since the 1980s. Pearson, the new owners of Heinemann, have risen to Currey's challenge at the end of Africa Writes Back and are backing a revival of the African Writers Series.

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