An Interview with James Currey
James Currey, co-founder of James Currey publishers (est 1984) has been called “The Godfather of African Literature”. His publishing house is responsible for producing vast numbers of academic books, journals, fiction and non fiction books about Africa, especially in a period when it was considered not profitable to publish books about Africa. He together with Chinua Achebe under the auspices of Heinemann publishers, produced the famous African Writers Series (AWS) which have inspired many African(ist)s around the world.
We know a lot about James Currey the publisher – several great articles have been written about that subject matter, and his book Africa Writes Back is an excellent source for that and more. In my interview with James, we spoke about his publishing work, but also his life before, around and outside publishing as we sat surrounded by books in his lovely upstairs living room overlooking the Thames.
His mother was a playwright and his father a poet, so it is really no surprise that James Currey has always been an avid reader. He first came to Oxford at the age of 16 where he met Clare Wilson (BA History, St Anne’s College, 1958) who later became his wife, and Terence Ranger (BA History, Queen’s College). After he finished his studies in History at Wadham College in 1958, he interviewed for a job with the Oxford University Press (OUP). In his interview he was asked to pick a country for his apprenticeship. He chose South Africa, and the rest is history. His choice to go to South Africa was rather surprising at the time, and he was not familiar with the place at all except for having a grandmother who was part South African. He was also curious to find out what apartheid was like, and so off he went in 1962 with Clare after convincing her to marry him, to begin an exciting 18 months in Cape Town.
Their time in Cape Town was memorable, James had a great apprenticeship and Clare recorded the last moments of the Rivonia Trial which led to the imprisonment of ANC leaders such as Nelson Mandela. One of her articles about the trial was a reflective piece on what the wives of the accused were going through as they watched their husbands in that dock. The stint in Cape Town ended on a frightening and dramatic note – after helping their friend Randolph Vigne to flee South Africa to Canada without knowing about his role in a plot to sabotage the apartheid government, they found themselves in trouble. James recalls having to jump about 9 feet off the ship they snuck Vigne on at the last moment as it left the port. Luckily, they succeeded in fleeing the country in 1964 and returned to England and started a family. They had two kids – Hal and Tamsin. James continued to work with the OUP until 1967 when he moved on to Heinemann Educational Books to work with Chinua Achebe on the AWS.
African Writers Series published between 15 – 20 books every year, transforming the publishing landscape in many ways. By the time James joined, it had been going on for 5 years, published 30 books and had its biggest market in the educational sectors of African countries due to educational programs with required African students to study literature authored by Africans about Africa. In the 1980’s in a period of economic downturn, nearly all the major Western publishers stopped publishing African/ Africanist books. Cambridge University Press kept publishing, but only in hardback. James Currey was ordered to stop all his African publishing work by the new owners of Heinemann, and that was when he knew it was time to leave. By the time he left, the AWS had published 270 books.
In 1984, he and Clare founded James Currey Publishers and they worked out of their flat in Islington, London, a 12 minute cycle away from SOAS. As publishing books on Africa was no longer thought of as a profitable venture, most people thought that they would fail. It was quite the career change for Clare – her previous work had been at the Cambridge University Department of Aerial Photography where she worked on locating ancient Roman ruin sites from above. In her time there, they doubled the number of sites discovered in Scotland in one summer. She used to say that she was neither an Africanist nor a publisher, but had suddenly become both.Sadly, Clare passed away last year. She and James were together for 60 years.The children were also very involved in the business – James recalls they used to bring friends from university over to help stuff delivery envelopes in their basement. Their daughter Tamsin did much of the typesetting for books at the time and now works in theatre design. Their business thrived, and with authors such as Terry Ranger, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Ali Mazrui firmly in their camp, many of the best Africanist authors soon turned to them to publish their work.
For someone who did not set out to become a publisher of books about African topics – he wanted to work for Jonathan Cape publishing novels – James Currey is phenomenal in his impact on the Africa publishing field in the UK, in African Countries and around the world. He donated his AWS Collection to the Terence Ranger Reading Room at the African Studies Centre, and the new library at St Cross College will house all books by James Currey Publishers on Africa. His passion and dedication to supporting Africanist scholarship, especially for Africa – Oxford collaborations has resulted in a legacy of excellence
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