Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Pacesetter novels and popular reading culture in Africa

If you lived in Nigeria in the 80s, then you probably remember Pacesetter novels.

These were a series by Macmillan (I think) which featured contemporary writers from across Africa. Unlike the Heinemann African Writers Series, they did not aspire to any great literary pretensions and were unabashedly popular in their slant.

I remember my first was The Undesirable Element in which a young virtuous Hausa woman (Bintu or Binta...can't remember now) went to work in a big city (Kano , perhaps) and fell into the evil clutches of a lascivious Alhaji, which I think she eventually escaped. I also remember The Mark of the Cobra by Valentine Alily which featured a sort of Nigerian James Bond dashing around in submarines and all that kind of stuff and The Smugglers by Kalu Okpi which was a sort of thriller featuring the Nigerian Police. And then you had Helen Ovbiagele's Evbu My Love and You Never Know which I suppose could pass for a sort of Nigerian 80s chick-lit with its young professional working women battling to keep their romances alive.....Anfd there were others from across the continent...Christmas in the City from Ghana, For Mbatha and Rabeka from Eastern Africa and so on.

Even the cover designs were classics in contemporary African pop art, colourful and amateurish, a stone throw away from the barber shop and hairdressing salon boards which I have seen decorating some English homes here in London. (somewhere in Africa, a barber shop is missing it's sign board....)

The good thing about them was that they were churned out on a regular basis (I remember the thrill of walking through the booksellers section in the market and finding a Pacesetter that I hadn't read) and they were cheap...when I went away to boarding school, my grandfather gave me the princely sum of ten naira which bought me the two latest Pacesetters.

And yet looking back now that was the golden age of African publishing and popular reading.......everyone read them- from semi literate traders in the markets to snooty secretaries in posh Lagos offices to spotty secondary school students and semi sophisticated undergraduates- and they constantly introduced new writing from across the continent, exposing us to everyday life in other African countries. Plus for some writers it gave them the first opportunity to thinking seriously about writing......

Sadly, in the 90s as structural adjustment programmes swept across the continent and the value of local currencies crashed, these books disappeared and with them, an entire reading and writing culture.

The attempt to keep a popular culture of reading struggles on though in such areas as the Hausa street literature of Kano in Nigeria, the valiant efforts of Caine Prize winner Binyavanga Wainana's Kwani? in Kenya http://www.kwani.org/ , Farafina Books in Nigeria http://farafina.dbweb.ee and now the New Gong Press publishing from Lagos www.newgong.com

But the good news for the nostalgic is that Pacesetter novels are back. I stumbled across a website with a link to them https://sslrelay.com/www.pacesetternovels.com and you can sneak a peek at the catalogue and relive those feelings of the 80s as you admire the covers which may look slightly garish now.....

It's not clear who's behind them- presumably Macmillan's sold the backlist- but at 5 pounds, and sold over the internet, they probably will not spark off any major African reading renaissance...... but then I suppose the target market is nostalgic old gits like me who now live abroad and have regular access to the internet, and credit cards to boot......

28 comments:

Gone Away said...

Wonderful article, sensitive, incisive and redolent of nostalgia for a time that was good.

I want to thank you, too, for your excellent comment on my blog; it was much appreciated. For a long time I have avoided writing of the political aspects that must occur as soon as one thinks of Zimbabwe - it would be like stirring up the past unnecessarily, I have thought. But lately, I have begun to see that any stories of my growing up there are incomplete without a look at the politics that shaped the country's present. Your comment has encouraged me to think that I just might be able to do it.

isioma said...

LOL i read these when i was 10 or 11. probably was too young, but i hid them in the bible and got away with it that way. thanks for the flashback.

Just Thinking Out Loud! said...

Love your article, my guy! It brings back unspeakable memories, I must say. I can't wait to get me some of those books from the site. I bookmarked it already. I was just thinking about those books sometime last week as I was writing about Chinua Achebe.

trae_z said...

yep, good old Pacesetters. "Toads for supper" readily comes to mind. the setting is in my school UNN, and i can definately relate with the main character...what's his name again? good to know they're back though.

Nneka's World said...

After graduating from mills and boon, pacesetters came into my hand. Definetly brings back memories

Jeremy said...

Its looking for good for literature in Nigeria - what with the new Media Store in Lagos and the emergence of a local publishing industry. Watch this space for more activity in this direction..

afrofunkycool said...

i think i read quite a lot of the pacesetter series back in the 80's. Thanks for the memories

Anonymous said...

this is takes me back memory lane. I often wondered whatever happended to them. they were my first my first form of addiction. And my mother regularly fed this addiction. i love the covers. looking back now though, they can hardly be claimed as litary master pieces. but what they did do was to open up the world of books to and ignite my obession with the work of the imagination.

thanks for a trip to memory lane.

Harmattan Ray

Anonymous said...

My favourite Pacesetter was 'Teardrops at Sunset', the story is so original and the tragedies, my! I read it years back but misplaced it. I just got it again.
Check out this discussion forum - http://www.nairaland.com/nigeria/topic-1149.0.html

Dulue Mbachu said...

Thanks for mentioning The New Gong in your blog. For the of all who are interested, there's been a slight change in the web address. It's now www.thenewgong.com

ken said...

thanks for echoing my thoughts as a young film director, i have been thinking of trying to contact some of the writers and converting these stories to movies and maybe by so doing stir peoples intrest and maybe help bring the series back.
k.d

Anonymous said...

Memories-I preferred pacesetters back then rather than the Mills
& Boon books that most of my school mates read.

Anonymous said...

I am not nigerian, I am a zim woman but was certainly obsessed with pacesetters in the 80's and starred in a Nigerian written play at school ie. the Lion and the Jewel, I was the Jewel of course,

Anonymous said...

Boy, Pacesetters lived to their name, I loved Pacesetters, my favourites were Evbu my love, tear drops at sunset and Wages of sin, at least the stories appeared more real to Africans than Mills and Boon, When I think of pacesetters I feel 16 again, but well that almost 20 years ago

Anonymous said...

mi started reading pacesetters at the age of ten im zimbabwean.all my classmates were competing on who will read the most number of the books

Stells said...

Hi, i google searched for information about the Pacesetters and found your article. thanks for the information, just what i needed. I want to get as many of the books as i can get my hands on. Thanks again

In My Own Words said...

I've practically fallen in love with your blog and, believe me, I started reading from the very first post.

This post brought back so many cherished memories about the reading culture we had while growing up...my parents and grandparents bought us so many books and the lovely thing is I even learnt to read in Yoruba! Unbelievable to so many people!

It's so bad that I can read anywhere - in the loo, while eating (bad habit, I know), on the train, buses, name it. I go through airports and I leave enough space in my carry-on bag for like 3 or 4 books I'm sure to buy!

Thanks for that link...duly bookmarked for my purchase of all those Pacesetters books to relive part of my childhood.

Anonymous said...

My good God! a colleague of mine and i were talking about books and suddenly we went back in time on remembering the series PACESETTERS!

i must admit it brought back fond memories and nostalgic ones at that! its such a shame that the younger generation of today are not even aware that African writers wrote that well and even had a series that kept the reading culture alive at that time.

Suffice this to say, Pacesetters was the BOMB and going over the Catalogue of the series, i couldnt help but smile and allow my mind to wander at the titles and stories of the books that made my youthful years worthwhile.

Thank you PACESETTERS for bringing the reading culture to Africans.

eki said...

OMG!!! you mean pacesetters is back? I had said good bye to the good 'ol novels.
Please where in Nigeria can i buy pacesetters?
cheers

eki said...

OMG!!! pacesetters is back!!
Please where in NIgeria can i purchase these novels?
Cheers

pierce79 said...

Experience the vibrant, captivating, intriguing stories capturing timeless adventures of falling in love, ethno-religious conflicts and political anarchy.
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pierce79 said...

Behind these vividly illustrated covers are beautifully written stories that explore social and economic problems brought about by rapidly changing modern life.

Pacesetters is a Macmillan novel series written by established African authors who write on societal realities, personal concerns, contemporary issues and problems faced by Africans.
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Oladapo said...

I had not thought about these novels for a long time. Actually i just did when I stumbled on your blog. Do you think books can be mad in to films? How well do you thin they would do at the box office?

Anonymous said...

Pacestters novels were really fantastic. A wonderful series of good writings of authors from various countries across the African continent. I miss them greatly and really wish that we had newer authors with very great novels to keep up the lovely tradition of old

Tessa Doghor said...

loved the novels
Isn't it possible to start up pace setters again?
Who has the copy right?

Batabile said...

Wow!Guys you just took me back to the days when I was still a youngster.I am a South African who read a lot of pacesetters,especially the ones by Nigerian authors.That is when I came to know a lot about Nigerians,their tribes,cultures and lifestyles.I developed much love for Nigeria even though i never knew that one day i would ever set my eyes on Nigerians or the country itself.After the late tata Mandela was released,for the first time I laid my eyes to a Nigerian and I wana tell you I am now a proud wife of a Yoruba man.He is the best I can ever want in a man.All i read came in handy for I never had much challenges in getting along with him.From the onset,we clicked like we have known each other for a long time.Seeing Lagos for the first time was a dream come true,for I so longed to see the city in those days.I had a lot of expectations and was i happy to see all i read in the books happening for real.I read about the overcrowding of people and traffic,people selling on the streets,okadas and keke napeps...I can go on and on...!I wish the books were still available,for I know that some of the xenophobic attacks happening here are caused by a lot of myths concerning foreigners.Thanks

ken rowley said...

Thanks for your interesting comments. I'm still happy to be known as a Pacesetter author ('Small Affairs'); it was a happy time. Kenneth Rowley

nantambi phionah said...

I read that Ken n it was great, but i found those in the early 2000s in high school. Good thing about the books is they were short and interesting and helped alot shaping our English composition exams.