Thursday, July 14, 2011

Guest Post: African Fiction

Today we are delighted to have a guest post from Christina's friend Leslie! Leslie has been a law librarian for three years, but she has been addicted to all things Sub-Saharan African dating back over ten years to four fantastic months she spent in East Africa. In fact, she just returned from two wonderful weeks in South Africa (you can read about her trip and see pictures on her blog). So when Christina offered her the opportunity to share some of her favorite African fiction with you, she jumped at the chance.

I am a Southerner, and I grew up pretty convinced that no other region could rival the Southern knack for stories. With all due respect to Eudora Welty, I was wrong. In college, when I was more thoroughly introduced to African fiction, I reassessed my traditional Southern bias and realized that when it comes to brilliant storytelling, writers from the African continent have a tremendous amount to offer. After all, they have a tremendous amount of writing material: colonial legacies; shifting alliances; corrupt leaders and political struggles for power; tradition wrestling with modernity; gender roles and feminism; rapidly changing social structures; beautiful landscapes; all combined with a wonderful tradition of meaningful storytelling as a way of communicating knowledge across generations.

In compiling a list of my favorite African fiction works, a few caveats and criteria: First, the writer has to be African. This means that they must have been born in Sub-Saharan Africa and be a citizen or national of an African country. I know, I love Out of Africa too. If it hadn’t been for Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen, I might never have fallen in love with Africa, but she isn’t an African writer. Second, the book must be fiction, not a memoir or other work of non-fiction. It is my personal opinion that you will soon develop an addiction to Africa by reading these books, and you might then find yourself longing for some African non-fiction and history books to offer up some context. When that happens, please feel free to drop me a line if you are in need of some suggestions for those too! Happy African reading!

1. The Wizard of the Crow, Ngugi wa Thiongo (Kenya): Ngugi is probably my favorite African writer, and it was hard choosing just one of his books. I picked this one because, in addition to being one of his most recent, it is a compelling, simple story that is a perfect allegory for modern African politics. Part mystical fantasy, it showcases the disparate worlds of the powerful and powerless in a fictional African country, that too closely fits the profile of many modern African political states. Also try by this author: A Grain of Wheat, Devil on the Cross.

2. So Long a Letter, Mariama Ba (Senegal): What is so great about African literature is that in spite of the unequal status of women that exists in several African countries, there is no shortage of powerful and strong African women writers. Ba is just one example, and her female protagonists showcase that power and strength can be found in African women despite their treatment as inferiors. In So Long a Letter, Ba (deceased) wrote from the perspective of a woman wronged by her husband’s decision to take a second, much younger wife. The entire book (which is rather short), is written as a letter from the first wife to her husband. There are so many passages in this book that I underlined, highlighted and memorized; I don’t even know where to begin. Ba wrote in French, but the English translation I found was pretty perfect. Also try by this author: Scarlet Song.

3. The Ambiguous Adventure, Cheik Hamidou Kane (Senegal): This book is also a book in translation from the original French, but is a great introduction to how keenly Africans can write about navigating growing up in a world of conflicting cultural expectations. In this coming of age book, the central character must wrestle with his traditional African, Muslim upbringing and the modern world.

4. July’s People, Nadine Gordimer (South Africa): Gordimer wrote this book in 1981 as her prediction of how she believed apartheid would end in South Africa. The central characters, a white family more liberal in their sensitivities than the apartheid government, ultimately must flee their home and seek the protection of their former servant as violence envelops their country. I don’t want to ruin the story, but in particular, the metaphor presented by the family’s gun still gets to me. If you read it (or have read it), I would like to hear your thoughts on it. This book was banned in South Africa when it was published. Interestingly, Gordimer, a member of the African National Congress when it was a banned political organization in South Africa, also had her book banned in some schools in the Gauteng province by the post-apartheid ANC government. The ban was later overturned after an outcry from writers and other people across South Africa. Gordimer’s works are unparalleled in their ability to naturally question the privilege people of European descent in Africa encounter. If you spend any time in Sub-Saharan Africa, you should spend some time ruminating on that unfair privilege, and Gordimer’s books are a great place to start. Also try by this author: Burgher’s Daughter, The House Gun (her first post-apartheid work).

5. Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria): The central character is fifteen-year-old Kambili, daughter of a wealthy, Catholic father, who is subject to his harsh punishments. When political instability breaks out because of a coup, Kambili and her brother are sent to her aunt’s home, where she experiences happier family life. The plot takes off from there, and untangles complicated family relationships set against the transition from youth to adulthood. Also try by this author: Half of a Yellow Sun

6. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe (Nigeria): Achebe is a must if you are really going to tackle with any depth African writing. This is a classic. Also read No Longer at Ease.

7. To Late the Phalarope, Alan Paton (South Africa): Sadly, Paton died before apartheid ended in South Africa. But his work seen as a part of the battle to end apartheid will stand the test of time. Also read Cry, the Beloved Country and Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful.

8. Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangeremba (Zimbabwe): Told from the point of view of a young girl, struggling to attend school and deal with cultural conflicts, this is an unparalleled work of African feminism.

9. The Joys of Motherhood, Buchi Emecheta (Nigeria): The epitome of an African woman writer. Also read The Bride Price.

10. Song for Night, Chris Abani (Nigeria): This novella is written from the point of view of My Luck, forced into the life of a child soldier. It is powerful beyond measure.

On my reading list next:
Maps, Gifts, and Secrets, Nuruddin Farah: The “Blood in the Sun” trilogy by the Somalian author.
Snake Pit: Moses Isegawa (Uganda)
By the Sea and Paradise: Gurnah Abdulrazak (Zanzibar/Tanzania)