Creating Postcolonial Literature: African Writers and British Publishers

By Caroline Davis. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 255 pp. $90.00 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0230-36936-8.

This is an account of the activities of Oxford University Press (OUP) in Africa from 1927 to 1980, and of its Three Crowns series from 1962 to 1976.  Three Crowns (taken from the University of Oxford’s coat of arms) started with African history, politics and development and went on to include drama, poetry and short stories. It never received the acclaim of Heinemann’s African Writers series, but its story does make a valuable addition to what we know about publishing for Africa and by Africans in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Oxford University Press has one purpose only, to advance scholarship and education” (32). These were the words of a senior OUP staff member from the United Kingdom at the opening of a new warehouse in Nigeria in 1971. But OUP’s advancement of scholarship and education resulted in substantial profits from the African market, profits it used to subsidize its scholarly Clarendon Press at home in Oxford. Davis argues that the relationship between the metropole (OUP in the UK) and the periphery (OUP’s African branches) involved exchanges of economic and symbolic capital. The Oxford brand conferred prestige on the schoolbooks and the Three Crowns literary texts to be sold in Africa, while the sales brought money back to the UK. The Three Crowns emphasis up to 1966 was on literary quality, but after this it was on the market.

Davis identifies three factors through which OUP continued to dominate educational publishing in West Africa well after independence. These were the Nigerian branch’s good relationship with the country’s federal government, its investment in West African writers, and its association with the West African examination boards. In East Africa OUP took care to publish the books of the first presidents of Tanzania (Julius Nyerere) and Kenya (Jomo Kenyatta). In South Africa OUP moved from publishing academic works critical of the apartheid regime towards the less risky and more profitable market in schoolbooks for Black children (Afrikaner publishers favored by the government dominated the schoolbook market for White children).

Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, the first African to do so. He started as an OUP playwright in the 1960s. According to Davis the editor of the Three Crowns series, Rex Collings, traveled to West Africa in search of an African Shakespeare, and found Soyinka with assistance from the British theatre director Joan Littlewood. Davis maintains that this literary partnership between writer and publisher has been ignored in critical studies of Soyinka, and indeed in Soyinka’s own autobiographical writing. When Collings moved from OUP to Methuen Soyinka moved with him. When Collings later set up his own imprint Soyinka became one of his authors. When Soyinka was imprisoned for more than two years by Nigeria’s military rulers during the Biafra war Collings campaigned in the UK for his release (the UK government was supporting the Nigerian federal government in the war). Davis found no evidence that OUP staff in either Nigeria or the UK campaigned for the prisoner, and says that after his release he had little contact with the firm.

Soyinka’s plays were set as examination texts and sold well, especially in Nigeria, the most densely populated country in Anglophone Africa. His international reputation was to take off later. Publication by OUP conferred prestige and helped a writer to become accepted internationally as well as in Africa.

This book argues that studying the archives of publishers enables us to understand their involvement in the process of the production of literature in a way that studying the actual publications themselves could not. It makes extensive use of OUP archives in Oxford, although the author could not go beyond the early 1980s because of the publisher’s thirty year embargo on access. She acknowledges metropolitan bias, explaining that OUP’s Cape Town archive is not open to outside researchers, and that little remains in Nairobi and nothing at all in Ibadan. She has also drawn on other archival collections in South Africa and the United Kingdom, and interviewed surviving publishers and editors. The unpublished memoir of Charles Richards is listed as having been consulted at the University of the Witwatersrand (Richards founded and directed the East African Literature Bureau from 1948 to 1963, after which he worked for OUP Eastern Africa for two years). Given that Caroline Davis is based at Oxford Brookes University the papers that Richards deposited at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London would have been closer to home.

Anthony Olden, University of West London