racing the Nigerian Civil War through Heinemann’s African Writers Series

Thursday 18 November 2021

Tracing the Nigerian Civil War through Heinemann’s African Writers Series archives: an undergraduate research project and its afterlife


As is well known, Heinemann Educational Books’ African Writers Series was particularly significant for the development of postcolonial literature in Africa and when the series was first established in 1962, Nigerian authors, including its editorial adviser Chinua Achebe, were among its most significant contributors. But, when in 1967, civil war broke out as the south-eastern part of Nigeria (Biafra) attempted to secede from the rest of the country, Heinemann was left in a potentially difficult position; publishing a significant number of authors from the secessionist side of the conflict (including Achebe himself) whilst trying to maintain its offices in the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

This summer I supervised an undergraduate research project funded by the University of Reading, in which a second-year student, Temiloluwa Odugbesan, conducted research into where and how the civil war was discussed in the papers of the publishers (held in the Heinemann archives at the University of Reading’s Special Collections) during the civil war period (1967-70). The purpose of the project was two-fold: 1) to conduct some initial research that would support my longer term research into how Heinemann handled the implications of the civil war for its business in Nigeria; 2) to introduce undergraduate students and others not familiar with the AWS archives to them, through the production of a short series of blogs and an online exhibition to be hosted on the University of Reading’s Special Collections website.

This is the story of that research project, what Temiloluwa found and how she put together an engaging set of blogs and a fascinating online exhibition intended to introduce people to some of the greats of Nigerian literature, to the African Writers Series Archives, and to give some brief background to the civil war and its implications for the publishers at Heinemann and their authors.

Sue Walsh

I’m a lecturer in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. My original specialism is in children’s literature and theory and I am a member of the Graduate Centre for International Research in Childhood: Literature, Culture, Media, and I have published a monograph in this area (Kipling’s Children’s Literature: Language, Identity and Constructions of Childhood, was published in 2010 by Ashgate)

More recently however, having been born in New Bussa in north-western Nigeria in 1967, I have always been interested in Nigerian literature and particularly in the literature of the civil war period. I teach a third year module in Nigerian prose literature (from Achebe to Adichie) and have become more and more engrossed in archival work, looking into what Heinemann’s papers can tell us about this period and its impact on the authors and publishers.

Temiloluwa Odugbesan

I’m a current 3rd Year Spanish and Economics BA student and, during the summer of my second year, I undertook a unique research project ‘Tracing the Nigerian Civil war through Heinemann’s African Writers Series’.

My name is Temiloluwa and I am one of the Nigerian speakers for this event, which you may have been able to tell by my devastatingly wonderful name. I look forward to sharing my research project with you because not only is it relevant but also because the African Writers Series holds a special place in my heart as it celebrates Nigerian literature alongside many other great works. Growing up I have always appreciated literature and to explore it from an indigenous perspective this past summer has been amazing, you truly get to see how every writer has their story.

Furthermore, through understanding the context this adds to the ambience and feel of the writers – more to come in the talk!

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