Things Fall Together; or, the different hats that Chinua Achebe wears

by zunguzungu

A friend of mine has the annoying habit of reading African novels that I’ve read long enough ago to have more or less forgotten. The other day, in fact, he returned Nuruddin Farah’s Knots, a novel which I’ve not only not read, but which I forgot I even lent to him. The selfish jerk. Plus-which, the fact that he’s writing on Joyce and James and Stein and people like that makes it prick my conscience all the deeper that he has smart things to say about Soyinka’s The Interpreters.

This irritates me because there was a time when I told anyone who asked that I was studying “African Literature” and I feel a certain sense of loss and nostalgia for that kind of project, for the sense of a definable object of study that one can speak authoritatively about. Because, after all, what is African literature? The more one thinks about it, I find, the more it falls apart as a category. Which is to say, while it certainly exists in a phenomenological sense, trying to place that phenomenon in any kind of empirical context is a project of fast diminishing returns: the more seriously you attempt to group the literary production of an entire continent into a single term, the more you occlude the fundamental fictions of that categorization from your vision. I’m not going to go over all the different kinds of linguistic, cultural, historical, geographical, and racial categories that different critics have tried out in their search for a securely definable field of “African literature” (each of which is at least usefully wrong) but to treat any of them as anything but imperfect fictions is to naturalize (and thus sacrifice the ability to think critically about) those very discursive narratives.

If once wishes to wax Foucaultian, though (and “one” does wish, in this case), it does exist as a set of institutional practices that produce a coherent discourse. And if we are invested in thinking empirically about the basis on which the literary production of African literature happens, that institutional discourse certainly does exist as an expression of a commercial desire mediated by a particular messy set of critical taste-making devices. Which is to say, somewhere between the publishing industry’s attempt to create a product to market (and a market for their product) and the desire by writers and readers to have a relationship through by that marketplace we find the effort by critics of all sorts to make it happen, and concrete institutional structures through which they do it.

With that in mind, I’ve gotten interested in thinking about the famous Heinemann “African Writers Series” for which Chinua Achebe was the original founding editor, and the question of how important a point of mediation in defining what African literature it was.

In 1962, to tell the story as simply as possible[1], Heinemann’s Alan Hill decided that the British Empire’s loss could be the British publishing industry’s gain, and he set out to create a fairly low cost series of educational publications that he could market to the sudden up-tick in demand (from newly independent African nations) for a thing which had never existed as such, a thing which is now called “African literature.” And while there are all sorts of ways to  critique what that product turned out to be, it is absolutely unquestionable that Alan Hill’s establishment of an “African Writers Series” for Heinemann was the most important and most influential publishing infrastructure through which “African literature” was first developed. I’ll do some empirical number games in my next post; for the moment, trust me when I say that the extent to which what passes for “African literature” is a function of how it was framed by the AWS in the sixties is somewhere between substantial and overwhelmingly dominant.

So, how was it framed? The series was initially dominated by West African male Anglophone novelists, and though there were a great many exceptions to prove that rule, we need to start there: while Alan Hill was the important name on the publishing side, Chinua Achebe was the West African male Anglophone novelist who provided a face for the series during its formative early years, and according to whose image a great deal of writing (for reasons not quite his responsibility) was modeled. For one thing, his 1958 Things Fall Apart was the series’ first publication, and while some accounts of the AWS emphasize that Hill’s original idea had simply been a way of keeping TFA in print by producing a low cost paperback version of it (and two of the original first four publications were his novels), Achebe’s novels were the cash cow that kept the entire enterprise profitable, in a broad sense, for many years after that. Graham Huggan, for instance, claims that at third of the series’ revenue came from Achebe, and though I’d love to see how he arrived at that figure, it certainly seems in the right ballpark.

More than that, though, Achebe was also the series’ “Founding Editor,” and he become increasingly important to it (and to the explosion of creativity it fostered) not just as an influence but at least as importantly as a gatekeeper and patron. As he put it in Home and Exile, the launching of the series was “like the umpires signal for which African writers had been waiting on the starting line” and his sense of how quickly Heinemann became the backbone of a continent’s literature is pretty much the consensus opinion: what is often called the “first generation” of African literature came into existence this way, and however limited and narrowly focused it might have been (by comparison, especially, to the succeeding generations to which it enabled and gave way), the difference between what was available before and after 1962 is quite stark. It is the difference between a few scattered anomalous writers here and there, each a different kind of sui generis figure, and an institutionally defined literary continuity which has continued to the present. Unless we want to get all rhizomatic and Deleuzian (and we may, but not yet), the entire infrastructure of African literature traces its lineage back to this originary moment.

Part of the drama of the AWS, then, is how random things were in those days and how easily it would have been for historical accident to make things turn out very, very differently. History, after all, is as often the story of retrospectively profound accidents as it is of immanent forces and contradictions working themselves out in predictable ways, and the story of African literary publishing is clearly more in the former category than the latter. The example of Things Fall Apart’s almost-nonexistence is pretty typical, in fact, and worth recounting: Achebe had been working on it for some time, but when he sent the only written copy he had to a typing agency in London, he waited in Lagos for almost a year to hear back (and only did because he called in a favor to get someone to find the manuscript, gathering dust, in a filing cabinet somewhere). In other words, the book could easily have been lost and never heard from again, and whether or not Achebe would actually have given up if it had (as he has said he would have), the story of African literature would have been very different.

When Things Fall Apart started making the rounds of London publishers, it was initially greeted with great skepticism; there was seen to be no precedent for African fiction, and even when Alan Hill convinced Heinemann to take a chance on it, they gave him only a very small print run. And although Things Fall Apart deserved the success it quickly had, my point is how precarious that success (which made possible so much of what came next) actually was. Had Achebe not been the standard bearer for the AWS, both the model that made it seem profitable enough to attempt and the hand that guided its development, “African Literature” would look like something very, very different now. To say that Achebe is pretty darn important then, is only partly a statement on his personal achievement (which, as I‘ve made the case here, is still profound in literary terms[2]) but it’s also a recognition that the cards more or less happened to fall in his favor (while to continue the metaphor, if he had lost his first bet, he might have lacked enough of a stake to stay at the table). And illustrating how contingent the form that “African Literature” has taken has been gives us a certain perspective on the  “West African male Anglophone novelist”-centricity of its emergence. In short, what we think of as “African Literature” is a function of how it was first institutionalized, in Achebe’s image and under his guiding hand, through the African Writers Series.

If you’re going to define “African literature,” it seems to me, you define it this way. But while some great studies of the AWS exist, the reigning field imaginaries of “African literature” are not as securely or as critically derived from this line of thinking as I’m increasingly thinking it should be.[3] So in thinking about how to better understand what it was that Achebe did in 1958 and in 1962 the question is of how to think about how — roughly — the West African male Anglophone novel of ethnographic tragedy came to be the mold out of and into which “African literature” was expected to fit, how Things Fall Apart became the way things fell together.

Without Hats

So although I’m still noodling around on the idea, which I’ve had for a few weeks, I’m thinking about actually reading the African Writers Series, or at least doing a rough informed survey. Ideally, given world enough and time, I would read the entire thing from the beginning to either the enc of the sixties (when Heinemann’s hegemony was less complete) or to the early 1980’s when everything changed and the “golden age” or “first generation” or whatever it was clearly over. Given that I’m talking about either seventy or several hundred novels and book-length collections and poetry books — and there are other things I’m hoping to do in the interim — I’m not sure that’s really feasible. But I’m going to start out by at least mapping the terrain. More to come!


[1] Huggan’s Postcolonial Exotic is a good source for a longer version, though there‘s an awful lot of stuff out there that I‘m only starting to dig into


[2] In the wake of the yearly “who?” that follows the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature, it is particularly a propos to note that Achebe’s non-Nobel is one of the most important judgments against taking the Nobel prize too seriously. It’s nice to spotlight writers that notoriously insular Anglophones have never heard of, but if it were to represent something like lifetime literary achievement without taking the correction of Anglo-Saxon parochialism as the prime imperative, the case for Achebe is overwhelming. How many writers can you think of who not only wrote the classic novel of a continent but presided over the publication of its dominant literary institution, from practically the very beginning? The Nobel committee would certainly dignify themselves if they gave Achebe the prize, but his achievement as a literary figure is already so profound that he hardly needs their recognition; it’s now more a judgment on them than on him. But giving Soyinka the Nobel in 1986, however deservedly, was probably the sign that Achebe was not going to get the nod: given how seriously the committee seems to consider the question whose turn it is, being the second Anglophone Nigerian Male to get it was just always going to be a tough hurdle for him to clear, and non-European literature is increasingly a low priority of theirs, it seems.

[3] Or at least the American and British versions, whose Anglophone-centricity reflects its absence of a practical account for the francophone, lusophone, or non-colonial-Kiswahili-Yoruba-or-Arabic-phone literatures, but which never quite (to my satisfaction) theoretically accounts for that absence. This approach has the benefit of being defined from the start as the story of Anglophone African literature, and though it also includes a variety of translated works (which are part of Anglophone African literature), it has the virtue of promising no more than it delivers.