If you have read an African novel written in the past 50 years, Heinemann was probably on the spine. Starting in 1958, Heinemann Publishing brought out most of the important African writers, including Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Dennis Brutus, and Bessie Head.
“It was the most successful postcolonial publisher in history,” says Olabode Ibironke, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University who grew up in Nigeria and is writing a history of the London publishing house and its shaping force on the African literary canon. News in 2004 that Heinemann planned to discontinue its African Writers Series spurred him to redirect his graduate career.
In 1958, Heinemann had the good fortune to publish Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and soon launched a search for other African authors. The African Writers Series began in 1962, and its list of African novels eventually grew to about 350. Achebe was its first editorial adviser.
Heinemann influenced ways of talking about Africa and writing about Africa, Ibironke says. “The imitation of Achebe was widespread: The simple language but profound African cultural and ideological vision. And the notion of reflecting village cultural life.” Also, he says, the novels helped bridge a divide that colonialism had created. “It was possible for a child in Nigeria to know the literature of Senegal. And that goes a long way toward the constitution of the consensus by which you embrace and accept these writers as your own.”
Today, African writers compete for general publishers on the open market. “We may have writers in exile,” Ibironke says. “New writers have either migrated or live in between worlds. The new ideology of these writers is more diasporic…than before. It is increasingly difficult to define African writing.”
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