For over 40 years, Heinemann’s African Writers Series published canonical twentieth century texts of African literature. The online edition by ProQuest’s Chadwyck-Healey includes over 250 volumes of fiction, poetry, drama and non-fictional prose, including works by Chinua Achebe, Ama Ata Aidoo, Steve Biko, Buchi Emecheta, Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head, Christopher Okigbo, Okot p’Bitek and Tayeb Salih.
The African Writers Series (AWS) of Heinemann Educational Books was founded in 1962 with the publication of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (originally published in 1958) as AWS No. 1, and with Achebe himself as Founding Editor. Achebe remained Series Editor until 1972, by which time the series included 100 titles. “The list of names of editorial board members drawn from different academic disciplines reads like a ‘who’s who’ in African literary studies.” (Clarke 2003, 165) The initial aim was to produce a paperback series featuring writing by African authors (initially, this was limited to black African authors) that would be affordable for a general African readership. Most of the works in the Series come from English-speaking countries in Western, Southern and Eastern Africa, but there are also a number of volumes translated from French, Portuguese, Zulu, Swahili, Acoli, Sesotho, Afrikaans, Luganda and Arabic (compare the About section of the database).
Africa Writes Back
As African nations won independence, writers like Achebe began to forge distinctive national literatures throughout the continent. Contrary to the colonialist perceptions they want to demonstrate that Africa had a history and a culture in its own right (Okyerefo 2001). „The series gives agency to the African because the novels, short stories, plays, poetry, and autobiographies are written by Africans about Africans, telling their own stories in their own voices for both Africans and non-Africans.“ (Clarke 2003, 168) The series not only launched the national but also triggered a pan-african literature discourse. Programmatically, one of the series’ editor, James Currey, called his memoir “Africa Writes Back. The African Writers Series & the launch of African literature” (Currey 2008). Authors from East Africa now could be read in West Africa, and works by Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o entered the world market. The English translations of Mongo Beti’s „Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba“ or Sembène Ousmane’s „Le Docker Noir“ were sold much more often than the French editions.
The series editor James Currey reported extensively about the history of the AWS and his personal achievements:
“My connections with South African writers in exile as well as with writers surviving in that country made books available internationally that could not have appeared in South Africa. Later, David Philip, the Cape Town publisher, found a legal loophole which with Heinemann’s co-operation enabled writers such as Alex la Guma to be reprinted in South Africa; this evaded the banned list operated by South African customs at the ports of entry.” (Curry 2003, 580; see also Curry 2008, 183)
However, in the beginnings it was a male Africa. In the first 100 titles only one female author features: Nigeria’s Flora Nwapa (Fraser/Bejjit 2005).
Online advantages & peculiarities
The full-text format allows new approaches to the old literature:
“Researchers can run searches across the whole corpus of texts to find instances of specific words or phrases: one can search for key terms of African nationalist discourse such as ‘Azania’ or ‘black consciousness’, for terms associated with politics and class distinctions such as ‘socialism’, ‘democracy’, ‘middle class’, ‘accent’ or ‘elite’, or simply for references to specific tribes or languages, such as ‘Yoruba’, ‘Xhosa’ or ‘Tswana’.” (Kibble 2005, 66)
The AWS online edition may be useful for studies
- on the self-conception of an African writer and intellectual
- on English language and literature and the establishment of a canon of great literature
- on gender and on cultural contacts, e.g. in the work of Amma Darko (Beyond the Horizon, 1995) with Germany
- on postcolonialism, e.g. with the question on how colonial structures survived after independence
- on Romance literature due to the translations from the Portuguese and French (the search can be restricted to translations or the original language of origin)
- on history, e.g. with the autobiographies of Kenneth Kaundas and Olusegun Obasanjo
- on the construction of ethnicity, e.g. of the Ibo and
- on the history of publishing in Africa.
Useful links for users of the Chadwyck-Healey Literature Collections like Case Studies, Sample Searches, or How to Cite Texts from the Chadwyck-Healey Literature Collections.
Each volume is reproduced in full, including accompanying text by the author, introductions, notes, glossaries and other editorial matter, and illustrations. Each volume, including anthologies and collections, can be browsed in its entirety via a Table of Contents. All authors are indexed by gender, nationality and dates of birth/death, and all texts by details of first publication (date, place, publisher and language) and details of first publication in the AWS (date and AWS series number). These index fields are all searchable from the Search page, and are displayed in the bibliographic details for each volume. The names of translators and anthology editors, and alternate name forms of authors, are also searchable via the Author field. Original pagination is preserved, and the page layout of poems is reproduced as accurately as possible. Scanned images are used as a supplement to the keyed text for illustrations, figures and unusual page layouts. Typographic characters that cannot be displayed using a web-safe extended Latin character set have been mapped to standard-character equivalents, and scanned images have been provided for cross-referencing (see Editorial Policy).
The Librarians view
Since 2005 the first three attempts to get the National License funding for the African Writers Series were unsuccessful, luckily in 2011 things changed. It took seven years to make this important corpus available to all researchers in Germany.
This corpus is one of the seldom undertakings where literature which is still under copyright protection is digitized:
“The digitisation of the AWS is a substantial undertaking […]. Almost all of the texts included in the AWS are in copyright, which means that the first task has been to identify a rights holder for each title and negotiate a license for electronic reproduction of the text.” (Kibble 2005, 66)
An overview about the printed books gives Frankfurt University’s library catalogue; further studies on the African Writers Series can be accessed via ilissAfrica.
AWS supplements the German National License „Corpus de la littérature francophone de l’Afrique noire“.
Now, please do explore the wealth of the online edition of the African Writers Series!
- Clarke, Becky: The African Writers Series: celebrating forty years of publishing distinction, in: Research in African Literatures 34 (2003), 2, pp. 163-174, online.
- Currey, James: Africa writes back : the African writers series & the launch of African Literature, Oxford : Currey, 2008.
- Currey, James: Chinua Achebe, the African Writers Series and the Establishment of African Literature, in: African Affairs 102 (2003), 409, pp. 575-587, online.
- Fraser, Robert / Nourdin Bejjit: THE TIGER THAT POUNCED: THE AFRICAN WRITERS SERIES (1962–2003) AND THE ONLINE READER, 2005, Introductory Essay, http://collections.chadwyck.co.uk/infoCentre/products/aws_hist.jsp.
- Information Centre : About African Writers Series: http://collections.chadwyck.co.uk/infoCentre/products/about_ilc.jsp
- Kaiza, David: But Why, Father? looking back on the legacy of the African Writers Series, fifty years on, in: Transition 106 (2011), pp. B88-B105.
- Kibble, Matt: The African Writers Series reborn: an electronic edition, in: Wasafiri 46 (2005), pp. 66-68.
- Okyerefo, Michael Perry Kweku: The Cultural Crisis of Sub-Saharan Africa as Depicted in the African Writers’ Series. A Sociological Perspective, Frankfurt am Main: Lang 2001.
Note to our German users:
Since September 2013 the works are indexed as individual titles in the catalogue of Frankfurt University Library.