By Dan Ojwang, Michael Titlestad
Initiatives such as the Kwani Trust and Femrite are helping to keep a beleaguered readership alive.
It is timely to reflect on the past, present and possible future of African literature. We need to do so in ways that are neither sentimental nor purely ideological.
For close to 40 years, between the 1960s and the close of the 1990s, the image of African literature cohered around the famous African Writers Series (AWS), published by Heinemann. There were, of course, several other publishers, some of them locally owned (such as Ravan in South Africa and the Nairobi-based East African Publishing House) and some of them international (such as Longman, Oxford University Press and Evans Brothers), but none had the global reach that the AWS had in its heyday.
Although its headquarters were in the United Kingdom, Heinemann could make claims to respecting, diligently editing and promoting the work of the many African writers on its lists. It was also well represented in different regions, production staff and distributors.
The work of the publishing houses based on the continent was, in turn, complemented by a number of local institutions that nurtured writers and also mediated the ways in which their writing would be received. Such institutions included universities such as Ibadan, Legon, Makerere, Nairobi and Wits, in which many of the founding debates on the work of African writers first occurred.
A large number of emerging writers, especially in the 1960s, were first published in journals and literary magazines of the period, such as the Kampala-based Transition, the Nigeria-based Black Orpheus, and Drum and Contrast in South Africa. For Francophone African writers, there was Présence Africaine, which also doubled as a magazine and publishing house.
Those who experienced literary success in this period, figures such as Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ousmanne Sembene, Ferdinand Oyono, Mongo Beti, Wole Soyinka, Flora Nwapa, Grace Ogot, Bessie Head and Okot p’Bitek came to constitute the canon of African literature. They would serve, in many ways, as the implicit interlocutors for many of their successors.
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