Discovering the African Writer’s Series in Ontario

This coming September, Toronto poet Dwayne Morgan will be taught in Africentric English  as part of a new Africentric high school program beginning at Winston Churchhill Collegiate in Scarborough. Along with him, students will also read the work of Wole Soyinka. To most Ontarian youth, Mr. Soyinka’s name is probably not as familiar as Mr. Morgan’s. But like those behind the Africentric school programs, Soyinka was part of a group of ground-breakers- the authors of the African Writers Series.

The African Writer’s Series was founded in 1962 as a platform through which African writers, who had been largely excluded from school curricula and the literary world during colonial times, could publish their work and have it widely read.  With students as the target market, Heinemann Educational Books published the series for over 40 years in various African cities and in London England.  Many of my friends have reminisced about reading books in the series such as the very popular “Things Fall Apart” by Chinue Achebe who was the first advisory editor of the series, “Changes” by Ama Ata Aidoo, and “The Interpreters” by Wole Soyinka.

Ayi Kwei Armah’s “The Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born” is only the second book from the African Writers Series that I’ll be able to say I’ve read so far.  It’s one of those books that was on the shelf in my family home that I noticed but never ventured to acquaint myself with beyond the white and yellow spine. It wasn’t until chatting with an author friend that I decided that I needed to get familiar with the works of these pioneering authors.  I’m decades behind, but still can the richness of lines like this ever expire?

“But inside the man the confusion and the impotence had swollen into something asking for a way out of confinement…”

I mean wow!  I’ve never read descriptions like Armah’s before. To tell the truth, a lot of description- especially scenic details- used to bore me to tears. I used to skip to where they get on with the story. But with “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born”, the garbage heap on which the bus driver throws his banana peel is the story,  as is the scorn in the silence of the man’s wife when he tells her he refused to take a bribe at work.

Though the writer’s series began to publish less in the 80s- only one or two books a year, I’m learning that new work is being published and older text republished and translated. I’m excited to learn that at least one of the classic books being included in a Western high school curriculum along with current poet like Dwayne Morgan. I’m yet to delve into the works of Soyinka, but I’m loving Armah’s novel so it looks like I have a few more names to my list of people to teach my children about.

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