A Roundup of International Literary Series: University Presses

By Anderson Tepper

This March, when Indiana University Press publishes Alain Mabanckou’s early novel, Blue White Red (first published in French in 1998), it will be the fourth book by the irrepressible Congolese author to appear in the US and the first by a publisher other than Soft Skull Press. It will be issued as part of Indiana University’s Global African Voices series, which will also publish the groundbreaking 1954 novel Cruel City by Cameroonian Mongo Beti. These two books recently caught my attention—I’ve devoured all the past books of Mabanckou, who manages to be both entertaining and subversive in his edgy tales of hapless African serial killers, shantytown scribes, and talking porcupines; and Beti, I know, was one of the major figures of Africa’s independence era—but I was even more intrigued by the idea of this series. Here was a university press helping to blaze a trail in contemporary African writing, reclaiming and reissuing works other publishers had ignored. And not only that, Global African Voices wasn’t the only academic press series doing this now—several other university presses, I realized, had impressive lists of their own worth checking out.

One of the most notable is Ohio University’s Modern African Writing series, which has already published some of the most vibrant and influential new works of post-apartheid South Africa, from Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow to Niq Mhlongo’s Dog Eat Dog and After Tears. This Spring, they’ll also publish K. Sello Duiker’s 2000 Commonwealth Prize–winning first novel, Thirteen Cents, a gritty, dagga-infused tour through a Cape Town underworld of street children, hustlers, and cruising “johns.” Seagull Books, the arty and proudly intellectual publisher based in Calcutta, has its own Africa List series, distributed in the U.S. by the University of Chicago Press. Past titles have included such gems as The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories, by the heady, unclassifiable South African author Ivan Vladislavic (whose Portrait with Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked is a must-read on any list of modern South African writing) as well as Djiboutian author Abdourahman Waberi’s equally eclectic and multilayered novel, Passage of Tears. (Waberi, whose novels tend toward collections of fragments or refracted shards, is also, like Mabanckou, somewhat ubiquitous: Another novel, Transit, recently appeared in the Global African Voices series.) In coming months, Seagull will also publish a novel by leading South African writer Zakes Mda, The Sculptors of Mapungubwe, and The Shadow of Things to Come, by the young Togo-born author Kossi Efoui. 

But that’s not all—there’s more, especially when it comes to Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American writing, too. Texas Tech’s Americas series has recently issued some powerful, genre-bending work of its own, from Timote, a reimagining of the kidnapping and interrogation of a real-life Argentine general held by urban guerillas in the 1970s, by José Pablo Feinmann; to The Neighborhood, by postmodern Portuguese trickster Gonçalo M. Tavares, in which the spirits of literary masters such as Italo Calvino, Paul Valéry, and Robert Walser wander through an imaginary Lisbon cityscape. Meanwhile, Yale University’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series revisits Pinochet-era Chile in Arturo Fontaine’s upcoming La Vida Doble, as well as Franco’s Spain in Carlos Rojas’s The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico García Lorca Ascends to Hell.

Lastly—and though it’s not a university press series—the Penguin Global Classics series is perhaps something of the father to them all. Picking up where the famed Heinemann African Writers series left off (according to a note to the reader from the grandmaster of African literature himself, Chinua Achebe), these reissues are as noteworthy for the authors as for their inspired introductions. Among recent African titles are Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s early novels, Weep Not, Child (introduced by The Famished Road author Ben Okri) and A Grain of Wheat (with an introduction by Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Zanzibari author of By the Sea and other works). While for two short novels by the Brazilian Jorge Amado—whose lusty literary output was as expansive as his country—The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray and The Discovery of America by the Turks, the introducers are the young novelist and critic Rivka Galchen and the Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago. Good company for Amado’s rescued tales, and—like all these series—truly welcome company for us all.


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