Literature, like many of the arts, has a far greater reach than many people believe, and is often influential in shaping broader society. Of particular importance is what children read in school, as it forms the majority of the information that they consume. So it was an issue for Alan Hill of the publishing house Heinemann, when he arrived in Nigeria in 1959 and realised that all of the prescribed books in African schools were written by British authors and published in the UK. The colonies represented a massive captive market for the British publishing houses, and they were making full use of it. Not only were African children not being exposed to authors relevant to their lives, but no one was promoting local writers, with no money being injected back into the African economies.
Hills’ response to the situation was to start a new department that would go on to become Heinemann Educational Books. The African Writers Series (AWS) published by Heinemann started in 1962 with the publication of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, with Achebe himself employed as Founding Editor. Books published as part of the series were produced in paperback so that they would be affordable for a general African readership.
As African nations won independence, there came a demand from African schools and universities for contemporary African writing to replace the European bias in the existing syllabuses. The AWS took on this role and published works by all the major African authors of the period, together with earlier classics, giving the series a unique importance in African cultural history. All of the AWS publications were in English, however a number of works were translated into English from other languages, including Zulu and Afrikaans. Notable South African authors that form a part of the African Writers Series include Nadine Gordimer, Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela.
The University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Time of the Writer festival, that draws to a close tomorrow, has similar aims to those of Alan Hill when he first arrived on African soil. The festival promotes African authors, both established and up-and-coming, and offers a space for discourse on the future of writing on the continent through it’s roundtable discussions. Developmental programmes such as workshops, master classes and motivational talks will help to grow the next generation of African writers so that in years to come our children are able to read stories written by their mothers and fathers, brother and sisters.
The Heinemann African Writers Series is now available for purchase online