Thursday, 24 September 2009

African Literature


Recently I have been contemplating gaps in my reading or areas of literature where I would like to be more knowledgeable. I am a relatively diverse reader and do read a number of books in translation. Primarily any reading in translation that I've done this year has been French; there has also been a handful of texts ranging from Eastern Europe to Russia to Japan. However, this isn't necessarily about reading books that aren't written in English, my native tongue, but more about continents and cultures that I want to read more about.

The noticeable gap in my reading this year has been African Literature. So far I have only read The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Disgrace and Summertime by South African writer, JM Coetzee., which is hardly encompassing of a disparate continent. Tackling literature from any continent is always going to result in gaps that can't quite be painted over and would be quite the undertaking in full. My experience of Africa is so slim that some of the countries are unknown to me and geographically I wouldn't know Afrikaans literature from Zimbabwean, which is partly why I want to read more to fill in the gaps and become less ignorant. I intend to take it a book at a time, mostly from the collection of African literature I have built up over the last few ears. Nigerian literature is rich and varied and where most of my African reading experience comes from; I intend to read more from the Nigerian authors I have on my shelves -I have thoroughly enjoyed what I have read so far- as well as sampling from different countries where I can.

This is a list of books I currently have unread on my "African" shelf. Have you read any of these? If so, which would you recommend? More importantly, have you read any African literature not on my list that you enjoyed (especially something that isn't Nigerian to move me out of my obvious comfort zone)?

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwean)
The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga
The Famished Road by Ben Okri (Nigerian)
The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola (Nigerian)
The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah (Ghanaian)
The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta (Nigerian)
Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe (Nigerian)
Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe
Weep Not, Child by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (Kenyan and referred to as Ngũgĩ)
Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ

Tomorrow I will be reviewing a title not on the list that is West African in origin.

27 comments:

Eva said...

Ok, so I know I'm a new to your blog, and this is a ridiculously long comment, but I thought it might help. :)

I really enjoyed Nervous COnditions. That Kenyan author looks interesting! I've read several African authors this year...here's the run-down:

A Time of Angels by Patricia Schonstein (South Africa) - I loved this, it's a kind of fable-ish, magical realist foodie novella about the Jewish community in Cape Town. Haven't reviewed it yet.

Notes From the Hyena's Belly by Nega Mezlekia (Ethiopia) - this is a memoir vs. fiction, but it's definitely a literary memoir. I loved it and actually wrote a review.

The Book of Secrets by MG Vassanji (Tanzania) - a parallel-story novel set in colonial East Africa and modern Tanzania. Vassanji was born there, although he's also considered Canadian. My review.

A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn (South Africa) - a historical (1950s) mystery. The writing was excellent, although the mystery was a bit hardboiled for me. My review.

Sleepwalking Land by Mia Couto (Mozambique) - I have mixed feelings about this one. It has a kind of fable/magic edge to it, and I liked how the different stories/plots all came together at the end, but it was a slow read. My review.

Aya by Margeurite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie (Cote d'Ivoire) - a graphic novel set in the 70s. Another one I have mixed feelings about-loved the peek into everyday life, but the plot was almost on existent, and Aya was on the periphery most of the time. My review.

Your Madness Not Mine by Makuchi (Cameroon) - a short story collection. Almost all of the stories are pretty bleak, but I got a good sense of what life in Cameroon is like. Didn't review this one!

Two older memoirs of East African white colonists that have beautiful writing, if horrible attitudes towards native Africans are Outof Africa by Isak Dinesen and West With the Night by Beryl Markham.

"Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad is a classic for a reason! :)

Another memoir I liked was Monqiue and the Mango Rains by Kris Hollaways, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali. It's not at all literary, though-a book for the story vs. the style. My review.

In the vein of memoirs that tell good stories w/o great writing is The Translator by Daoud Hari (Sudan). It got a lot of exposure in the blogosphere last year!

Not sure if you consider Egypt to be part of Africa, but The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany was awesome, and Naguib Mahfouz is one of my fave authors!

Finally, back in June I did an annotated South African reading list. And African books I'm reading for challenges this year are The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo Angualusa (Angola) and A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah (Sierra Leone-a memoir). And Oprah's newest book selection, Say You're One of Them, is a short story collection set in a variety of African countries. However, the author himself is Nigerian.

farmlanebooks said...

The only book from your list which I've read is The Famished Road. I loved it, but it is a difficult read in places. It contains a lot of African mythology and so I'm sure a lot of it went over my head.

I should read more African books too. I look forward to finding out which ones you enjoy.

Nymeth said...

I really liked The Famished Road. It's beautifully written, but also very non-linear, and one of those books that are better appreciated if you read them slowly. I have Ben Okri's Starbook on my wishlist. It also sounds like a beautiful book.

I'd love to read more African literature myself, so I'll keep an eye on the comments here!

Rachel said...

I am hopelessly ignorant of African Literature too.

I read a lot of African American literature at university, does that count? A lot of slave narratives, etc. They're very interesting in understanding how African traditions can survive being trodden down by colonists. Frederick Douglass' is very good, as is Harriet Jacobs'.

I've read Things Fall Apart and I liked it but I didn't feel I really 'got' it. I've also read Foe by J M Coetzee but that wasn't set in South Africa.

And Out of Africa by Karen Blixen of course, very interesting from a colonial perspective.

Another really good South African novel is 'The Story of an African Farm' by Olive Schreiner, about the relationships between Africans, Afrikaaners and European settlers in the late 19th century.

Steph said...

I haven't read much African fiction either, I'm afraid. I think Disgrace by Coetzee might be very first. Ever. Eeps!

So, needless to say, I haven't read any of the titles on your list, but I do have Things Fall Apart on my bookshelf, as well as The Famished Road.

I'm hoping to do more literary exploration of this continent, so I look forward to tomorrow's review!

leaningtowardthesun said...

I enjoyed Things Fall Apart. I think it's been long enough now that it's time for a re-read. I have a book of essays by Chinua Achebe,that I have yet to read.

Another book that moved me was Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane about the author growing up in Aparthaid South Africa. I also enjoyed So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba. This is about a recently widowed woman living in Senegal (if my memory serves me on the location).

I recently bought Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi Wa'Thiong'O who is on your list and a collection of short stories by Sindiwe Magona, called Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night. Hopefully I'll get to these soon!

The suggestions you've gotten so far look wonderful.

claire said...

I also liked The Famished Road, which is the only one I've read on your list. It's very surreal and original.

I'd like to read more Chinua Achebe as I really loved Things Fall Apart (your cover is beautiful, by the way).

As for recommendations, you've probably heard this from me many times, but I'll always keep saying WHAT IS THE WHAT by Dave Eggers. Seriously, why are not more people reading it????

I'm also reading The Translator by Daoud Hari in a week or so. It looks to be a good one.

Paperback Reader said...

Thank you for the comments, everyone! That's probably the quickest multiple response one of my posts has ever received.

Eva, thanks so much. I'm going to make a note of all your recommendations and read the reviews you have written.

I'm glad you enjoyed Nervous Conditions and A Time of Angels and Notes From a Hyena's Belly sound fasinating.

You reminded me that I read a review on the other Claire's blog of Aya recently and another graphic novel (Rwandan), Deogratias, on Nymeth's.

I forgot all about Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen and have always been intrigued by Out of Africa.

I know Heart of Darkness well :).

I may pick up Oprah's choice as it is both relevant yet topical.

I've read The Book of Chameleons and really enjoyed it; I love animal narrators.

I certainly have enough to be getting on with research-wise (not to mention the reading) just from your suggestions! I really appreciate it.

Jackie, The Famished Road is one I will definitely be reading because it is of course also a Man Booker winner. So happy to hear you loved it!

Ana, Okri is a definite and now I need to go have a look at Starbook...

Rachel, I read a lot of African American literature at University too so I'm trying to stick solely to literature of the continent. Slave narratives were incredibly interesting and you have highlighted two very good ones that I must revisit one day.

I've read Things Fall Apart a couple of times and love its style; I'm not sure if I'll ever fully 'get' it either.

I'm noting down the Schreiner and of course I plan to read The World that Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein :).

Steph, I highly recommend Things Fall Apart; it is a deceptively easy read. I hope you enjoy tomorrow's review.

Danielle, I have a volume of Achebe's essays too and poems. Things Fall Apart is such a quick read that it is ideal for a reread (and highly deserving of one too!)

I have heard of Kaffir Boy and will add it to the list as I will So Long a Letter.

I love recommendations and have so many now!

I look forward to your reviews, especially of Wizard of the Crow as I've been eying that for some time.

Claire, I'm looking forward to The Famished Road ... I think I'll read that soon.

I loved Things Fall Apart too and am very attached to that cover - isn't it striking? I remember noticing it in a bookshop before I knew anything about the book and thinking how beautiful it was. I think Penguin were crazy to change the cover from this one.

Okay, I'm definitely adding WHAT IS THE WHAT to the list!

mee said...

Check out my post on Purple Hibiscus. I noted books that are recommended by Chimamanda. A couple are on your list too. My gosh Eva has given so many recommendations! I should come back again to check it out.

My African literature is limited too. I've read Purple Hibiscus and Disgrace this year. Last year I read A Long Way Gone (memoir of a child soldier in Sierra Leone). I could recommend all of them whole-heartedly. I wonder why I don't read more African literature!

Samantha said...

I am rather woefully ignorant in this area and unlike some of your other commetors I found The Famished Road hard going but magic realism is really not my cup of tea.

I remember having to read Cry, The Beloved Country for school and also the Olive Schreiner, as one of your earlier commentors noted, in university.

If you want a "page-turner" I would suggest a couple of novels by Bryce Courtney (born in South Africa and now lives in Australia). He is very popular in Australia and I enjoyed his first two novels - The Power of One and Tandia (both set in South Africa).

Paperback Reader said...

Thanks mee. I remember reading that list at the time of your post but had forgotten about it; I'm happy to see that I already have a few of the titles suggested and recommended by Adichie.

I think that there is so much good literature out there from every area of the world that it is difficult to balance it all fairly and often we retreat to what and who we know.

Samantha, I love magical realism so I'm sure I'll enjoy The Famished Road more. Thank you for the suggestions, especially Bryce Courtney whom I was unaware of until now.

verity said...

What a wonderful post and stream of comments. It's given me much food for thought. I've read the same ones that you have, and most of the rest of Coetzee. Otherwise I've read Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun.

I've just been looking on our shelves at work and we don't seem to have much African literature in our "non-English" section, so I might take some of these ideas. Obviously it hasn't been studied as much yet!

Story of an African Farm has also been recommended to me, and guess what - it's a Virago!

Paperback Reader said...

Verity, I definitely recommend Things Fall Apart. I don't think the study of African literature is as popular here as it is in the States.
I noticed whilst in the library yesterday that October is Black History Month and there was a display of seminal African and African American texts.

Paperback Reader said...

P.S. I'm intrigued by the Virago!

savidgereads said...

I have The Famished Road... but I havent read it. I have to say your list has lots of books that I haven't read on it and thats very intriguing, I would like to read more of this fiction too!

Merenia said...

Cry the Beloved Country, Alan Paton is beautiful writing, moving, heartfelt, eloquent.

Eva said...

I'm glad to hear you enjoyed The Book of Chameleons! Makes me more excited to read it. :)

Oh, and I know you've read Adichie's short story collection, but you should read her novels too! I adore them-she's one of my favourite authors.

litlove said...

One author I'd mention, to combine the delights of France and Africa, is Marianna Ba. She has rave reviews from my students, although can be a bit hard to get hold of.

Paperback Reader said...

Simon, I'm looking forward to reading them and sharing my thoughts!

Merenia, I've added it to my wishlist! Thanks for the recommendation.

Eva, I've read Adichie's novels and adored them too :). She's also one of my favourite authors.

Victoria, that's another author for me to take note of and try to hunt down. Thanks!

verity said...

Story of an African farm has been published quite widely, and the VMC is pretty rare. I read it a long time ago, and will definitely need to reread it for VVV.

I've just discovered that we have got some Achebe so if you give that a go, I might do too...

Paperback Reader said...

I'll let you know advance, Verity, in the meantime if the library has Things Fall Apart then borrow it!

Rebecca Reid said...

I just got a beautiful cheap copy of Things Fall Apart at the library for sale cart this am! Because I am also realizing I need to read more Africa books.

Paperback Reader said...

Great find, Rebecca! I hope you enjoy it. It's such a central text in African literature and so great that I think everyone should read it.

enisio said...

Hello! I stumbled across this blog as I was doing some research for my own blog -- a new blog about African writers! http://aboutafricanwriters.wordpress.com/ I am passionate about African writers so I just created this blog. It was good to see all these recommendations here. I will definitely find out more and write about some of them.

Paperback Reader said...

Hi enisio, thank you for commenting! I am looking forward to reading your blog and discovering even more African writers and texts.

Umbagollah said...

Daniachew Worku's The Thirteenth Sun is a wonderful piece of Ethiopian modernism, if you can find it. I was lucky enough to come across a used copy that had been published in the Heinemann African Writers Series back in the late 1970s. If African literature is what you're after then secondhand copies of the HAWS might be worth watching out for.

Paperback Reader said...

Hi Umbagollah, thank you for commenting and for the recommendation. I will look out for The Thirteenth Sun. A few of the texts mentioned in my post are HAWS editions and I will definitely look out for more of those.