Africa39: New Writing from Africa south of the Sahara -
Africa39: New Writing from Africa south of the Sahara, ed. by by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey. Bloomsbury, 2014.
Africa has produced some of the best writing of the twentieth century from Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, and the Nobel Laureates Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee and Doris Lessing, to more recent talents like Nuruddin Farah, Ben Okri, Aminatta Forna and Brian Chikwava. Who will be the next generation? Following the successful launch of Bogotá39, which identified many of the most interesting upcoming Latin American talents, including Daniel Alarcon, Junot Diaz, Santiago Roncagliolo and Juan Gabriel Vásquez, and Beirut39 which published Randa Jarrar, Rabee Jaber, Joumana Haddad, Abdellah Taia and Samar Yazbek, Africa39 will bring to worldwide attention the best work from Africa and its diaspora. The judges will select from up to 200 submissions researched by Binyavanga Wainaina, the founding editor of the acclaimed Nairobi-based literary magazine Kwani?, and the writers' names will be unveiled in Port Harcourt and at the London Book Fair in April 2014. Africa39 will be published in English throughout the world by Bloomsbury.
In 2007, Britain’s Hay Festival collaborated with the Unesco World Book Capital project to publish Bogotá39, a literary collection that showcased the talents of 39 Latin American writers under the age of 40. The book’s resounding success led to a second anthology three years later, the more ambitious and equally acclaimed Beirut39 which brought together the finest young Arab authors.
Now, as Unesco bestows its World Book Capital title on Port Harcourt, Nigeria, there comes another laudable cultural initiative. Africa39 – again, 39 writers under 40 – wisely reduces its selection to authors from south of the Sahara, or Africa’s diaspora.
A cursory overview reveals a healthy variety. Some writers are familiar, some not. Some of the stories exist as stand-alone tales, some as fragments from novels. Several pieces are set on the writer’s home turf, others play out in adopted homelands. The majority was written in English, but a handful has been ably translated. Nigerian authors preponderate, but there is an attempt to reach out to more distant or less-covered countries (Ondjaki from Angola, Recaredo Silebo Boturu from the island of Bioko in Equatorial Guinea).
Perhaps most interesting is that after scanning the informative notes on each author we see that not all are, primarily, authors. Sifiso Mzobe is a freelance journalist in South Africa. Hawa Jande Golakai is a medical immunologist in Liberia. Eileen Almeida Barbosa works as an adviser to the Cape Verdean prime minister. All have produced absorbing tales. With luck, this collection will ensure lucky breaks and greater exposure, and allow those who want to commit to full-time writing the opportunity to do so.
The only streamlined consistency is that each story, bar one, clocks in at around 10 pages. That sole exception is the opener, The Shivering, by arguably the biggest name here: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her longer tale, one of the book’s highlights, deals with two strangers, both Nigerian expatriates in Princeton, who are united by tragedy. The woman fears for her ex-boyfriend, who was on board a plane that has crashed in Lagos; the man, “a crude and rude person from the bush”, still hurts from his former lover’s game of subterfuge. The story has undertones of Adichie’s 2013 novel, Americanah – American student life, immigration problems, unrelinquished home customs – but offers new and insightful views on religious faith, particularly in the face of adversity: “She wanted … to tell him that life was a struggle with ourselves more than with a spear-wielding Satan; that belief was a choice for our conscience always to be sharpened.”
Africa39 opens with its star turn but in no way does it peak too soon. The Pink Oysters by Shafinaaz Hassim is a thrilling but sordid corpse-and-diamonds caper featuring Afghan émigrés and Somali traders running wild in Johannesburg’s Muslim quarter. Ukamaka Olisakwe’s This Is How I Remember it is a clear-eyed account of a girl’s romantic awakening in Nigeria, which traverses adolescent peer pressure, cruelty and confusion before culminating in deep longing and the deceptive promise of reciprocated love.
Both these stories are emblematic of many others here in that they are carefully constructed but at the same time feel tightly compressed. They have potential to unfurl and expand and unload more narrative riches, but are prevented from doing so, presumably because their hamstrung authors were forced to meet a set word count. However, griping that a story is so good it leaves us wanting more is not real griping – indeed, it is the kindest criticism a writer can get. If the stronger ones here are capable of so much in such little space, then think what they will be like with freer rein to produce longer, more sustained pieces.
We get glimpses of greater scope from the many excerpts from completed novels, forthcoming novels and novels in progress. The Nigerian-born Rotimi Babatunde’s The Tiger of the Mangroves hints at a gripping tale of empire in the wake of the 1884-85 Berlin Conference which precipitated the so-called Scramble for Africa. The British consul Henry Hamilton, mandated to “oversee” the affairs of Chief Koko’s kingdom, is gently mocked for referring to Africa as the Dark Continent. “If your people spend so much time in darkness,” Koko scoffs, “why do you attribute darkness to this place, where the sun always comes out, rather than to your homeland?”
Another novel in progress, Tope Folarin’s New Mom, deals with two Nigerian brothers adapting to life in Utah without their mother. America is still a mystery, a land of unanswered questions and foster homes, but Nigeria is even more puzzling: “merely a chorus of scratchy voices over the telephone, a collection of foods and customs that our friends had never heard of”. The Wayfarers, by another Nigerian, Chibundu Onuzo (the youngest ever to be signed by Faber), disturbs and dazzles with, surprisingly, the collection’s only tale of war. Just as unsettling is Our Time of Sorrow by the Ugandan writer Jackee Budesta Batanda, about a religious sect called the Movement which conducts exorcisms on its supposedly sinful conscripts.
As is the case with most anthologies, Africa39 is marred by some glaring omissions. If Folarin, born in America to Nigerian parents, can be included, why can’t Teju Cole, a writer with the same origins and two remarkable novels under his belt? The Sierra Leonean author Ishmael Beah impressed with his memoir of his time as a boy soldier in A Long Way Gone, yet he too fails to make the cut; and the Zimbabwean wunderkind NoViolet Bulawayo, whose stunning debut novel, We Need New Names, made the 2013 Man Booker shortlist, is also conspicuous by her absence.
The other surprise is that, Adichie aside, the book’s established acts are outperformed by lesser-known talent. The woefully brief extract from Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names is an offcut that does little justice to the Ethiopian’s Naipaul-flavoured novel. The clip from Taiye Selasi’s much-hyped Ghana Must Go is as average as the book. And although Nadifa Mohamed’s Number 9 perfectly captures the bustle of London’s streets (in the same way that A Igoni Barrett encapsulates the chaos on the roads of a Nigerian city in Why Radio DJs Are Superstars in Lagos) the crux of her story – a face-off on a bus with a ranting Irish drunk – is sadly unconvincing.
Africa39 is thus carried, even held aloft, by its rising and slow-burning stars. The book’s standout story comes from a Ghanaian-American based in New York called Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond. Mama’s Future begins with the line “Mama was on her deathbed” and then immediately proceeds to reveal its allegorical intent.
“Mama” has been ill for nigh on a century. Doctors are undecided on what is killing her. It could be poverty or it could be corruption. Some even say it could be the loss of her children. She was once the richest, most sought-after woman in the world with suitors from England, Portugal and the Netherlands. Now she has “bled what money was left, after her lovers had stolen what they hadn’t been able to dupe out of her”. So it continues, its wry symbolism thinly masking bitter truths. One lasting image is of a pancaked, rouged and bewigged Mama incensed at the notion of “aid” (“They had built empires on the backs of her children … Anything they gave her was remittance”) and holding out for new suitor China to save her.
At the end of Wole Soyinka’s elucidatory if overly political preface, he informs us that “Literature derives from, reflects and reflects upon – Life”. There is no unifying theme within these pages – how could there be for a continent so huge and diverse? – but what we do get is a series of sharply focused snapshots of life. And then there are the wonderful, culturally enhanced genres: how many western readers can claim to have read Kenyan experimentalism, Malawian sci-fi, Liberian murder-mystery or Côte d’Ivoire chick-lit?
As with those best-of-young-writers lists compiled by fellow talent spotters Granta and The New Yorker, Africa39’s selection comprises authors who have been picked not just on their current merit but also their future potential. They may or may not constitute the next generation of African writers whose work “promises to inspire readers for decades to come” as the editor’s note gushingly proclaims, but what is clear is that all fully deserve to be read today. - Malcolm Forbes
I. Why read yet another new “African” anthology of short fiction?
New anthologies of African fiction seem to materialize virtually every year, if not more often in recent years. When presented with the physical fact of yet another new anthology of African fiction, the immediate question, one which I was asked when I pressed the warm, bound pages of the Africa39 anthology into the even warmer hands of a new acquaintance, was: why should I read this?
One might consider merit and credentials. For African writers and readers there are a clutch of big-ticket prizes, scholarships, and fellowships that are relevant (in order of increasing size of cash payout): The African Poetry Prize, The Commonwealth Short Story Prize, The Caine Prize (which The Guardian calls “the African Booker”), The Etisalat Prize, The Morland Scholarship. These endowments are, to coin a phrase, optimally relevant because they guarantee the authors (roughly in order of priority): international exposure (The New York Times recently hailed, as a trend, the “new wave of African writers with an internationalist bent,” some of whom are part of the Africa39, others who are friends or mentors to a number of the less well-known Africa39), Africa-wide recognition, reliable publishing opportunities, renowned mentors/editors, future awards, a sustainable life as a professional writer, and lots of travel. These award recipients are the authors who, in the decades of their ascendancy, will be read widely, will speak prodigiously, will be quoted and cited extensively, and whose names will come to characterize (if not define, and even represent) who African writers are and what African literature is on the world stage.
Selected and promoted under the auspices of The Hay Festival, the Africa39 authors are considered to be those authors from south of the Sahara and its diaspora who show the most promise. Their very designation, however, presents us with a tautology: which authors were selected? Those who were most promising. How do we know they were the most promising? Because they were selected. This also provides the taut logic, endemic to almost all the rather opaque prize-giving on the continent, that governs the future: those African authors who will be considered important are precisely these authors, the ones who were thrust into the mainstream by these prizes. There will, of course, be a few exceptions which will prove the rule: those who will simply fade into silence or choose other life paths, and those who emerge via other routes. The economy of African Literature—within the economy of that matryoshka doll of World Literature—seems to remain a somewhat self-contained and even limited one, a circulatory system of letters and lives that renews itself in a particular way. That is, for those African writers who, while reading the Africa39 anthology, puzzle over how to one day win a prize, a fellowship, a scholarship, or get short-listed for something major, there are material conditions to consider which can only be glimpsed through a curtain, darkly.
When Tope Folarin (U.S.A./Nigeria; Rhodes Scholar), who had not been published previously, casually mentions that it was Helon Habila who told him to submit a short story to the 2013 Caine Prize, we note that Habila, who edited the celebrated (and lamented) Granta Book Of The African Short Story, himself won the prize in 2001 and was appointed as a judge in 2014. Folarin subsequently won the prize on his first foray.
When Okwiri Oduor (Kenya) won the 2014 Caine Prize and, later in the year, her very close friend, long-time collaborator, and fellow Africa39 author, won the Morland Scholarship, our eyes were drawn to the gossamer threads by which literary lives and cohorts are tugged into possibility. We also recall that Oduor’s winning short story, “My Father’s Head,” had won the Short Story Day Africa competition in 2013. One of the judges in that competition was Novuyo Rose Tshuma (Zimbabwe)—it was once mentioned to me in passing, though never confirmed, that when the histories are written it will be Aminatta Forna (also a Caine Prize judge) who will be credited, or claim credit, for “discovering” Tshuma.
We note also that Taiye Selasi (U.K./Ghana/Nigeria; Granta’s 20 Best Young British Writers) is good friends with Toni Morrison’s niece, was mentored by Morrison herself, championed by Salman Rushdie, blurbed by Teju Cole, and that Selasi is a very big deal in spite of the fact that there is no clear consensus on how good or lacking her debut novel, Ghana Must Go—excerpted in this anthology—actually is (in The New Inquiry, Aaron Bady elaborated on how it is “ambitious”; in the Make literary journal, John Murillo III said her “metaphysical meditation is varied and intricate, all emergent in the thick, gorgeous writing itself”; the caustic London Review of Books misfire is perhaps best forgotten).
It’s also useful to take note of the important work done by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, former Granta editor, who some would claim is the new doyenne of African literature, and who sits at the tables where many of these funded decisions are made. (It is perhaps no coincidence, for instance, that she was the editor of Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s debut novel Kintu and that the Ugandan author then went ahead to win the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2014, of which Allfrey was the chair of the judging panel—Makumbi, born in 1967, wasn’t eligible to be longlisted for the Africa39 but, had she or her Kenyan coeval, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, been eligible, they would have certainly been worthy of places on the shortlist.)
In 2013 Allfrey chaired the well-appointed Kwani/Granta writing workshop in Nairobi. Four writers who attended that workshop later became a part of the Africa39. Allfrey is the deputy chair of the Caine Prize, which Oduor, who had attended the aforementioned workshop, later won. Oduor’s close friend, Ndinda Kioko (Kenya; lauded film-maker, Teju Cole’s friend and collaborator) won the 2014 Miles Morland Scholarship; Allfrey is the chair of the judging panel of the Morland Writing Scholarships as well. Allfrey is also the editor of the Africa39 anthology and, as such, the proximity of these thirty-nine authors to her can (and has) only lead to many good things happening. In literature as in life, it matters not merely to be known by the right people, but also to be known in the right way and at the right times. There are power relations and there are personal relationships. Even though they are much of the story they are not the whole story. There is chance and talent, luck and skill. There is timing and place. There is work and waiting. There is even conjecture and coincidence. There is, finally, the text and there is the reader.
Of course, the big names in African literature: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria/U.S.A.; MacArthur Fellow 2008), Dinaw Mengestu (Ethiopia/U.S.A.; MacArthur Fellow 2012), Nadifa Mohamed (Somalia/U.K.; Granta’s 20 Best Young British Writers), Chika Unigwe (Nigeria/Belgium), Lola Shoneyin (Nigeria), Ondjaki (Angola), Taiye Selasi, Zukiswa Wanner (Zambia), and so forth—these earn their natural place in any international anthology. In addition, the Africa39 anthology is packed—as was The Granta Book—with authors who have either won or been shortlisted for the Caine Prize (as such, the anthology is likely comprised of future winners).
Africa39 judge, Margaret Busby, said that, “perhaps the best thing about Africa39 is that there is no single winner: it is a unique opportunity to showcase, celebrate and encourage a new generation of fiction writers, encompassing names that have already drawn international acclaim and others who are beneath the radar. The group is neither exclusive nor discrete, rather it is exemplary of exciting literature with African regional connections.” Exactly so: the cachet and credentials required to make the Africa39 necessary reading are manifestly present.
What are we then to make of the conditions by which such an anthology as this one is produced? What are the implications of the politics, mechanics, and logistics of prize-giving in determining the variety and range of African voices that are supported and heard? How do we reconcile those factors with how we approach and read this anthology and its authors? What does the production of the Africa39 anthology mean as an emergence in African and World Literature now? I hesitate to hazard a straightforward conclusion because I simply don’t have the necessary access or insight into how things work at the upper echelons of African literary institutions and communities. It is clear that every one of the writers whose names we see in bright marquee lights has earned their way there. But it is also clear that doing the brute work of writing, while necessary in order to go places, is never sufficient. The question, however, is not really who has earned what and if they are deserving. A coin might as well be tossed and a talented writer in Africa will always be chosen. The question, always, is how to democratize these processes by which writers get vital support, how to expand, several orders of magnitude beyond a mere thirty-nine (half of whom are already successful authors anyway) the number of writers who are provided with the means by which to live, work, and be read as professional authors.
A paltry handful of writers winning big prizes every year, in a continent with a population of over one billion human beings, could never be the path by which we build a vibrant and representative professional and intercontinentally visible pan-African literary community. Awarding prizes in golden drips and dribbles gives the impression that all that is excellent in African literature fits in a narrow, shallow pinnacle, a group that can easily be invited to a single literary festival without too much difficulty, when in reality that peak is both broad and deep, and far larger than all this cumulative prize-giving accounts for.
For those of us readers and writers concerned with certifiable merit, a celebration of the same is more than enough reason to leaf through this anthology. But if we are dubious about any hierarchical assertions of merit attached to market dynamics and institution-making—in this case, the towering figure of The Hay Festival—then we consider other reasons.
II The “African Writer” is dead?
It is the case that each new anthology of African fiction that emerges from a major publisher is treated, a priori, as a necessary intervention even when, as sometimes occurs, its composition is flawed. In the past few years, however, there has been an explosion of African literary writing and anthologizing online. New collectives, little magazines and journals, and small presses are publishing at a terrific rate. Bloggers too, are accumulating and making available a tremendous amount of necessary and original work. There is vastly more writing—and of vastly more uneven quality and variety—being published on “the African Internet” than any single anthology can represent. In fact, in 2015, the idea of a print anthology of “African writing” seems quaint, more useful for that reader who is eager to reduce a continent’s literary output to a manageable size, a reduction which is somewhat lazy when there’s free WiFi. As has often been said, it remains the case that no snapshot of African writing can be representative of the continent’s actual literary diversity. If one wants to really know what’s up, as Helon Habila hinted at in his introduction to The Granta Book, one has to dive into the Internet as though falling out of an aeroplane into the middle of an ocean—the swim for land, even if land is never found, is the discovery of the sprawling publishing underway, a doomed but rewarding attempt at the near infinite volume of reading to be done, and as such will be instructive.
After all, the simplest reason for reading a new anthology of African short fiction such as this one is not—as Elif Batuman infamously and dismissively asserted as the only reason to read “third world literature”—because “it has anthropological interest.” (London Review of Books, 23 September 2010) Batuman’s quip seemed to narrowly channel Fredric Jameson’s lingering insistence on “the radical structural difference between the dynamics of third-world culture and those of the first-world cultural tradition.” (Social Text, No. 15 (Autumn, 1986)) Jameson contended that “[a]ll third-world texts are necessarily allegorical, and in a very specific way: they are to be read as what I will call national allegories. . . . The story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society.” Vertiginous statements such as Jameson’s and Batuman’s, when the “African writer” is considered, saturate the word “African” with meaning at the expense of the word “writer.” As early as 1965, thinkers such as Chinua Achebe (in The African Writer and the English Language), and later, in 1985, V.Y. Mudimbe (in African Literature: Myth or Reality), were challenging the category preeminence of “African” in considering cultural production from the continent of Africa and its diaspora.
Most recently, in 2013, the inimitable Taiye Selasi declared that “African literature does not exist,” a pronouncement which showed that the state of “the African Writer” is as unresolved now as it was a decade ago. In her contentious and divisive lecture—the response on Twitter that day was enthusiastic, to put it mildly—she said that by uttering “African,” “[w]e insist that there is some knowable space implied by the adjective “African,” a monochromatic entity that exists in our minds alone,” and that, “[t]he challenge of the African writer—or the writer with relatives from sub-Saharan Africa—is to be treated as ‘artist’ first, ‘citizen’ second,” and I would cautiously add, a historical entity third (because that is, surely, what it means to be African now: to have a share, transmitted as legacy, as heritage, as governmental and foreign policies, in an ongoing history broadly characterized by colonization, slavery, mass emigration, recent national independence, a neocolonial ravaging of the continent by the likes of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, a certain perceptible polymorphous marginality no matter where one goes on the planet).
From a certain perspective, the category of “the African writer” seems to have been inaugurated by the creation of The African Writers’ Series by Chinua Achebe in the 1960s, a series which remains canonical. Writing on the legacy of Achebe’s A.W.S., critic David Kaiza observed that for a long time, to be thought of as an African writer meant to have been published in this series. (Transition 106, 2010) What followed was that the A.W.S.’s ethos became, de facto, prescriptive: It represented the “limited expectations of what an African writer could achieve in writing.” It prescribed that “a particular way of looking at the world was so pervasive that an ‘African writer’ was not really considered ‘African’ if his literary creation strayed away from the discussion of blackness.” It “set the template by which the African writer was to be read.” Wole Soyinka, author of the heady introduction to the Africa39 anthology, described the A.W.S. as “the orange ghetto.” Finally, according to Kaiza, it constructed an identity and a poetics that younger generations of writers tended to resent and avoid as a matter of sanity and survival. If the identity of “the African Writer” persists, then it does so as a collective identity that, to again invoke Jameson, “needs to be evaluated from a historical perspective.” To read these 39 authors now is to read them at a perpetually shifting distance and direction from that mirage of collective identity and those concrete historical conditions. It is to witness a new generation of authors grappling with this, though not always overtly or even primarily, as “an aesthetic dilemma, a crisis of representation.”
For it is this sense of “the African writer” as a fantastic object with an even more fantastic history that Mukoma wa Ngugi (writer, professor at Cornell; alternately tasked and blessed with being the son of Ngugi wa Thiongo) might have been trying to invoke when he characterized the overall demeanor of the Africa39 anthology as one of “mourning and melancholia.” (Los Angeles Review of Books, Nov. 9th 2014.) Rather than locate these authors around a site of loss, as Mukoma wa Ngugi does, I am rather more tempted to array them in a field of competing, dispersing desires. Mama’s Future, the ostensibly continental allegory by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond (Ghana/U.S.A.), begins with the sentence, “Mama was on her deathbed.” Mama is dying because of the various ills that have held Africa back: corruption, foreign aid, slavery, and so forth. She has summoned her children, who have returned from all over the world to claim their inheritance. But it is buried and hidden somewhere in the Future:
“Mama, you can’t expect us to go on some kind of scavenger hunt for you. We’ve made lives elsewhere,” Xiomara reminded her.
“Elsewhere is for strangers, and that’s what you’ll always be anywhere but Here. The hunt is for you and me.”
If Mama’s children are the writers in this anthology, then their interrogation of Mama for clarity about their future might be the very act of writing these stories, their continued writing the hunt itself, the “dig[ing] until you find it” which Mama urges and demands—and Mama herself the imperious construct of “the African Writer.” Wole Soyinka’s introductory prediction that “the word shall fly free!” is echoed by Binyavanga Wainaina’s resounding, YouTube’d call that “we [Africans] must free our imaginations.” As these new literary lights join established stars in the jet-set, on stages from Nairobi to the TEDs to Jhaipur to Edinburgh to Berlin, the Africa39 will, literally and figuratively, fly free from Mama, their legacies and futures securely in their notepads and hand-luggage.
If Mukoma wa Ngugi missed the mark somewhat, it might be, as Aaron Bady suggested in The New Inquiry, that he shed a useful yet partial light on the Africa39 anthology because “[t]he past isn’t what unifies them [the Africa39], because almost nothing does.”
A motley group of writers then; from diffuse Africas, mobile and spectral archipelagos which are in constant reformation and reformulation from within and without the continent, linked only tenuously to the peoples and nation-states that give meaning to the economic and developmental business of “Africa Rising.” Or something. In which case, we have another good reason to read this anthology: each author is assigned a country on the map, some countries with more authors than others (the distinctly and unfairly Anglophone flavor of the anthology has been much commented on: it is heavily weighted toward former British colonies such as Kenya and Nigeria); we might read this anthology to both mystify and complicate our understanding of what we think Africa is, or is becoming. An anthology such as this one should rapidly disabuse readers of the notion that anyone has any kind of grip on an idea of “Africa.” Perhaps that kind of correction, a not quite wholesale dissolution of the “African” as a category of cultural production, is valuable work for a collection of this size and scope. After all, that was the thrust of Selasi’s argument: to read authors for their artistry and not to presume or impose political, allegorical, sociological, or anthropological motivations for cultural production now. Selasi said, “[w]hat offends me most is the implicit suggestion that African writers’ thoughts about their writing are less interesting, less valuable, than their thoughts about Africa. The problem isn’t that we’re so often asked to speak about politics, identity, immigration, but that we’re so much less often asked to speak about our art.”
III Style (the sentence level)
Following Selasi, we turn to the art and craft of the writing therein. We make room for the reader and the text. We arrive at the question of pleasure, of seduction at the sentence level. With Francine Prose–like fervor, we attend to close reading: is this anthology worth perusing because the writing is, largely, excellent? Chinua Achebe famously said that our aim, as once British- (or French- or Belgian- or Portuguese-) protected children, is to do things with the English (or French or Portuguese) language that have hitherto been unimaginable. That might still be a worthwhile goal. And so we read for the well drawn moments, the decisive detail, the James Woodsian concretizing metaphor. A few examples might suffice. Flipping through the pages, we arrive, almost at random, where:
There is a way he fucks: in chunks, like he is about to give up, and then going back to the beginning and starting again, like a generator that is running out of fuel.
“You have beautiful eyes.” She kisses him angrily and shuts him up. . . .
She is tempted to tell him about the man who gave her that name, but by the time she decides, he is already asleep. She rests on the bed for a bit. As she watches the ceiling, a strange feeling of incompleteness engulfs her. She feels like she is part of a circle that is broken and she doesn’t know what to do with herself outside this circle. She dresses and leaves. (“Sometime before Maulidi”)
At the Nairobi International Book Fair in 2014, Ndinda Kioko told a rapt audience that “Sometime before Maulidi”emerges from a singular point in her lengthy history and interminable memory of loss. Reading the story, we find the narrator passive and adrift while grieving, letting life take her where it will. Such drifting is charged with erotic energy, as it also is in so many films about women freeing themselves to rediscover self while grieving, drifting in a sort of wilful passivity—Wild (Jean-Marc Vallé, 2014), Lucía y el sexo (Julio Médem, 2001), Y tu mamá también (Alfosono Cuarón, 2001), Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2000), Je, tu, il, elle (Chantal Akerman, 1974). The narrator—“the traveler”, the flâneuse—decamps the city and drops herself through time and space, held aloft on an accumulation of phallic symbols: First she hops onto a bus, phallic and mobile, which drives through the hinterland towards the uterine ocean in which she hopes to “in the reflection, recognize herself”; the bus charged, one feels, by her will to escape, deposits her at the coast. Her languorous gaze lingers over the man in an embroidered hat and later on his speedboat, plunging through the sea, surrounded by that endless, and “arrogant” pelagic presence. They end up at the top of a hotel building, thrust skyward, and “from the rooftop, they watch the old town orbit around the building.” The man senses then feeds the traveler’s oral fixation (she wants to watch cigarettes burn to ash and is offered and/or craves cigarettes, though she doesn’t usually smoke tobacco) when he rolls up marijuana “into a stick,” then “she smokes it, without a question.” The erotic accumulation, in counterpoint to the pervasive lassitude, seems at its peak physically (the choreography of their bodies), architecturally (atop a tall building), geographically (an island—she is at sea, freed of the mainland, the site of trauma), metaphorically, which makes it inevitable yet surprising that the sex that follows, and which takes place in a room a few disappointing floors lower, is, for her, the traveler, apparently anorgasmic. The man becomes an object, and a somewhat dysfunctional one at that—his “running out of fuel” (unlike the bus, unlike the boat) a mirror of her own existential fatigue—in the constellation of her melancholy desire.
The story, which has been described as elegiac, brought to mind David Slavitt in The Book of Lamentations, who said that “my own tribulations have made me, very probably, a better poet and a better reader. I understand some things more deeply. In order to tell the truth, it is sometimes necessary to say the almost unspeakable, but the fact remains that grief has its benefits as well as its costs.” In “Sometime Before Maulidi,” a story of haunting and mourning, eroticism and ennui, darkness and desire—easily one of the better stories in this or indeed any anthology—one gets a sense of an author whose abilities—even when they waver—and whose prose—when it soars, when it stumbles—grow stronger the more heavily she weighs the benefits of grief, and the powers she derives thereof, against its costs.
They lifted the bream out of the bucket together, the boy’s hands holding the tail, J.’s hands gripping the head. The fish swung in and out of the curve of its own body, its gills pumping with mechanical panic. They flipped it on to the wooden board. Its side was a jerking plane of silver, drops of water magnifying its precise scaling. The chicken outside made a serrated sound. (“The Sack”)
Namwali Serpell (Zambia/U.S.A.) is an academic (UC Berkely), critic, and writer of astonishing ability and range. Two recent texts serve to highlight her versatile gifts: “The Book of Faces” (n+1, Online only, 25/07/2014)—an ekphrasis of a Facebook news feed—and “Skin Her” (n+1, Issue 21, Winter 2014)—a consideration of Scarlett Johansson’s recent alien forms.
“The Sack”is a grim gothic. Three generations of men are in a house together where they are haunted by a woman—presumably dead—and her history, a part of which they have each been. Comrade J. runs the household, while “the man” awaits his death, and “the isabi boy” hangs around in disconcerting quietude. “The boy’s mind was empty but for a handful of notions—love, hunger, fear—darting like birds within, crashing into curved walls in a soundless, pitiless fury.” A big fish is slaughtered early in the day, and the big man (“bwana”) is slaughtered in the evening. They all dream of the woman, Naila. J. “dreams of her used cunt” but “had long ago decided to hate that woman: a feeling which had clarity and could accommodate the appetite he had once felt for her body.” The sick man “still loved her . . . scratched invisible messages to her in the sheets.” The thoughts of the three swirl and mix in a dismal dreamscape. Reality is slippery and unwieldy, like the bream they capture and eat, like the body in the sack of which the man dreams, like the pregnant baby slipping out of Naila—“She is gone. / She has been gone for a long time.”—of which J. dreams, and like their dreams themselves. The terrible sack about which the man dreams, which moves about as though the corpse or limbs within it are alive, recalls that other terrible sack (a makeshift body-bag) containing a brutalized and maimed undead body in the film adaptation of Ryu Murakami’s horror, The Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999). The men’s shared nightmare, Serpell’s surrealism, are chilling and enjoyable.
A final example:
In time, Mom’s absence became the most prominent aspect of our lives. Dad stopped talking about her, and he encouraged us to do the same, but we could tell that he missed her. Sometimes he’d slip up and tell us to ask Mom what she was preparing for dinner. Other times, when we passed by his bedroom on the way to the bathroom, we saw him fingering some of the items she’d left behind. Her purse. Her records. Her colourful head wraps. Her purple flip-flops.
Tayo and I continued to speak about Mom, but we always whispered when we did so, like she was a secret that only he and I shared. Like her life was a story we had made up. (“New Mom”)
The loss of a mother is always an impossible event to deal with. And yet, like all of life’s impossible events, it has to be countenanced nonetheless. Online, blogs, journals, anthologies all regularly feature stories about the loss of a mother. On Mothers’ Day every year, Twitter is awash in the same. Simone de Beauvoir learning of her mother’s death, in A Very Easy Death: “It was Bost calling me from Paris: ‘Your mother has had an accident,’ he said.” Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary: “You have never known a Woman’s body! \ I have known the body of my mother, sick and then dying.” We might think of Lydia Davis’ “The Seals“or Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life,” Rebecca Solnit’s Faraway, Nearby, or Cord Jefferson’s “On Kindness”. It is in Solnit that we find an echo to the articulate anguish in Tope Folarin’s story. Solnit writes, “Two summers before the apricots, my mother had begun to get confused, to get lost, to lock herself out of her own house, to have serial emergencies that often prompted her to call me for a rescue or a solution,” and Folarin begins: “The most confusing period of my childhood began when my schizophrenic mother left us and returned to Nigeria.” This is the territory out of and into which Folarin writes, and if Virginia Woolf were alive to read him, she might strongly reconsider her assertion that men offer no help—but only a certain pleasure—in thinking back through our mothers.
The Africa 39 anthology may well be the single most important thing to read this year out of that nebulous place recently known as Africa. And here’s the rub: in this anthology we receive not a single thing but a coruscating flurry of bright things; a multifarious swell of distinctive, disparate voices, emerging. We receive a map of a place, both here and not yet here, of places that exist as part of a region that is yet to exist. For this coterie of writers who will be at global literary festivals and bookshelves, this restive anthology has the rebellious energy of the protagonist in Day and Night by Mehul Gohil (Kenya; National chess champion) who “want[s] to mold the litfest finale into the shape of a black hole.”
I imagine the scene: thirty-nine African writers walk into a bar, and we can only imagine, because we can hardly believe, what will happen next. At the very least, we find the kind of thing that astute commentators as varied as Ainehi Edoro, Ikhide Ikheloa, M. Lynx Qualey (who writes about Arab literature), Daisy Rockwell (who writes about South Asian literature), Wole Soyinka, Binyavanga Wainaina (who was in charge of putting together the Africa39 longlist), and many others have often asked for: the Africa39 anthology is a vital part of the ongoing conversation amongst Africans for Africans with the world. The project then, for the sedulous reader, is to seek out these authors’ writing as they continue to publish, and to read, in wonderful detail, both their work and the works of the other African authors to whom they lead us. -
A FEW YEARS BACK I was in Kenya with my father, the writer, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o. We were standing on a small hill overlooking the busy Limuru Market. He looked around: “You know, this used to be our land,” he said.
But to me I was simply standing on a hill. I knew that it mattered, that somehow my life had been shaped by that loss — in the same way that I know it matters when, in my father’s book In the House of the Interpreter, he writes about coming back from school to find his whole village burned to the ground by the British colonial government. I have been shaped by that history even though I cannot account for it. It haunts, steers, and shapes me as its heaviness weighs me down.
This is the feeling that came back to me as I was reading the excerpt from Tope Folarin’s novel, New Mom, in the new anthology Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara, which begins this way: “The most confusing period of my childhood began when my schizophrenic mother left us and returned to Nigeria.” After that opening sentence, there is no putting the story down.
In the story, we see trauma handed down to the next generation like a prized family heirloom. The story is about first-generation Africans in America, or American Africans, (the name has yet to be settled upon, let alone find a hyphen) children and their immigrant parents. But this is not immigrant literature in the sense of a child of two worlds, or assimilation versus maintaining one’s culture. For the first and second generation of American-born Africans, that battle — if it was ever real — has been lost. It is, instead, the move from mourning to melancholia.
Born in the United States, the kids in Folarin’s story see a father mourning things he knows he has lost: country, wife, culture, and so on. From their vantage point on the stairs in the family home in Utah, they can see their father in the sitting room suffering after his schizophrenic wife, who returned to Nigeria in order to heal, deserted him. This Nigeria that the children do not know is a large and looming presence. But they cannot account for it. Their names are African, but having never been to Nigeria they cannot account for their names either.
Africa39 spins at this axis, between the colonized generation of Things Fall Apart and Heart of Darkness — the two best-known novels of colonialism in Africa — and the post-colonial world to which it gave birth. There will never be another Things Fall Apart or Heart of Darkness. The world that made those novels is gone. Africa39 would not exist without these novels and the world that created them. Yet this anthology — which may bookmark yet another beautiful and painful epoch in the African literary tradition — reveals something crucial about the state of the post colonial generation — my generation — today. The legacy of colonialism’s bifurcated world — on one side the European colonists, and on the other, the colonized Africans — its corrosive effects on both, and the ensuing culture clashes and alienation has given way to something harder to articulate than mere “globalization”: a metaphysical colonization in which language, and racial identity itself, gets scrambled.
Despite being written in English, Things Fall Apart features a protagonist, Okonkwo, who is assumed to be speaking Igbo, is well respected in his community, and is fluent in the ways of his culture. He does not bend to the will of the invading culture and so is eventually broken by it.
In the Africa of Africa39, the once invading culture and its language are the norm. If Things Fall Apart reflects the time of British Empire building, Africa39 reflects that of the “metaphysical empire,” a term coined by the literary critic Adam Beach, referring to a British language-and-culture empire rising out of the ashes of a dying colonial material empire. It’s a future that was foreseen by Samuel Johnson when, in the preface to the English dictionary of 1755, he wrote:
I shall not think my employment useless or ignoble, if by my assistance foreign nations, and distant ages, gain access to the propagators of knowledge, and understand the teachers of truth; if my labours afford light to the repositories of science, and add celebrity to Bacon, to Hooker, to Milton, and to Boyle.
The English metaphysical empire has overrun my generation. While the Achebe generation debated the question of African storytelling and language — Achebe making the case for writing in English, and Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o making the case for writing in the original African languages — the young writers in Africa39, and those like me who are somewhat older, are working from a consensus that African writing in English and French is the inevitable norm.
Even translation — the movement from one language to another, that Walter Benjamin claimed gives a piece of literature a second life — is not seen as an option by this new African generation. We do not write in our own languages; we write in the language of the departed yet present colonizer. Except for a few translations into Kiswahili, there have hardly been any translations into African languages, not even of writing by African authors. Despite the call for stories also originally written in African languages, there are none in Africa39. The three translated stories in the anthology were not originally written in native African languages, but in Western languages other than English.
This is how bad things are for writing in African languages: since its publication in 1958, Things Fall Apart has been translated into over 50 languages, but not Igbo, Achebe’s mother tongue. A close parallel would be if Conrad’s Heart of Darkness had never been translated into Polish — but even then not quite, since Conrad identified and was received as an English writer while Achebe identified and was received as an African writer.
And here is the irony: Things Fall Apart has been translated into Polish. Who will give African literature in African languages a second life, if not some of the 39 writers from this anthology?
To understand the aesthetics and political distance African literature has traveled between Things Fall Apart and Africa39, one would have to think of it in those terms of mourning and melancholy, of inherited traumas and memories, which define the new African literary generation. For Freud, mourning is “the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one's country, liberty, an ideal, and so on.” In contrast, melancholia describes when “one cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost,” and “is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing about the loss that is unconscious.”
The older generation in Africa can be said to be mourning — they know what they have lost, whether it is language and culture, or land and nation. And their writing is an attempt to recover a lost known object. But the Africa39 writers do not fully know the language they have lost, and have no direct memory of the land and nation that belonged to their parents. In Africa39, the characters, like their writers, have no intimate knowledge of the cultures that formed their parents and grandparents. They are in a state of melancholy.
¤To my ear, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story in Africa39 — also set in the United States — suffers from an African, middle-class aesthetic that was also present in her latest novel, Americanah. This is an aesthetic that is so concerned with not telling a single story of poor, fly-infested Africans, that it goes overboard into the academic halls of Princeton, of mansions, housemaids, and casually worn and perhaps ill-gotten wealth.
The plot breaks new ground in African writing. We meet Umkaka, a heartbroken graduate student in Princeton, and Chinedu, a gay African living without documentation. As the story unravels, we get to understand the tragedies and personal betrayals that fuel their friendship. But Adichie’s writing style does not allow her to enter her character’s inner lives, nor does it allow her a grasp of their trauma; the story reads like diaspora slumming. It is as if she has heard that African immigrants suffer when they do not have papers, and families get broken up when one parent gets deported, so she visits with those families, and then writes about them.
The Folarin excerpt, on the other hand, enters the materially cruel and psychologically punishing underbelly of the model African immigrant narrative that has become so popular nowadays. This is the narrative that showcases the achievement of African immigrants and their children, and seems to point out that African Americans have no excuse. As if with that narrative they can erase the history of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, the racism that allows white citizens and policemen to shoot unarmed young black men, and everything else that haunts black Americans from the first day in school to the last. In Folarin’s work, we get to see the United States as experienced from below.
Folarin’s promising novel excerpt points to a new direction in African literature. This literature features African characters who were born in the United States, or immigrated at a young age, and who do not feel grateful, or are caught between two worlds where one is new and the other old.
What ultimately links the Africa39 stories is an intense human connection. In an excerpt from a novel in progress, Echoes of Mirth by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, we find a father and his two sons — the younger of which happens to have a serious crush on his older brother’s girlfriend — living in the shadow of the mother’s death. That human connection is captured in the first sentence, and the story does not let go of it: “I used to like my brother’s girlfriend, until she desecrated our house with laughter not long after Mammy died.” The story ends with laughter, too.
In the short story Hope’s Hunter by Mohamed Yunus Rafiq, he does something with language that I have only seen Amos Tutuola do in The Palm-Wine Drinkard: he uses language that is lyrical, beautiful, and physical all at once, as if the words on the page are literally pregnant with the meaning they are trying to convey. For example, “This is the land: once teeming with galloping and prancing antelope, now a desert of fine dust […] But now, shrunken heads are sunk deep on the cadavers’ chests.” Or, “His countenance resembles that of a fisherman who holds a rod at which a might catch mischievously tugs.”
Speaking of language, there are no wise old African men who oil their words with proverbs, or speak slowly and deliberately in long, Africanized English sentences. “Suck. My. Dick,” a drunk cat yells at Nadifa Mohamed’s narrator in “Number 9.”
But Africa39 is not just opening up new frontiers. Some of the writers revisit familiar themes of colonialism and resistance, and the neocolonial relationships between African countries and the West. But they do so with refreshing twists and turns. In the allegorical excerpt from Mama’s Future by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, the mother figure is a personified, humanized, and literalized mama Africa. She is on her deathbed; her children out in the diaspora have returned to bid her farewell and discuss her legacy and the future. Returning to the land of their ancestors, they find a mess of extravagance, theft, and poverty.
Rotimi Babatunde’s The Tiger of the Mangrove excerpt recounts the meeting between the colonizer and the colonized in new ways — giving both Africans and Europeans a history and agency. In Things Fall Apart and earlier novels, the white characters are often cardboard cutouts of the khaki-wearing, bible-carrying colonizer. In Babatunde’s story, which is an excerpt from a novel in progress, he reimagines the first meeting between the soon-to-be colonizer and the soon-to-be-resisting colonized. The narrator observes after the meeting, “some would later say this duet of omission was the acknowledgement from the two men that Berlin had made dialogue redundant long before they met. So Hamilton spoke about his rafting down the Nile.” Berlin, here casually thrown, refers to the 1884 conference where the major powers carved up Africa. If history had already decided to cast them as enemies, why not get to know each other off the battlefield? Why not be cordial and learn a thing or two from each other? History has already dictated that they be enemies, so they take that history for granted.
Eleven of the stories have been culled from novels in progress. They are a promise of 11 excellent novels coming our way soon. In this way, the anthology as a whole is a preview of excellent writing yet to come. Mehul Gohil’s short story, “Day and Night,” which focuses on how we come to knowledge as children, and the little things that bond the child to the parent, is a longer, happier and yet more melancholic take on fathers and sons than in the poem, Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden. The care for the language, the craft, and the form are clearly present. Gohil has what Linda Gregg calls “resonant resources,” those things and experiences unique to oneself that become a “vital force that fuels.” But he has not yet found a way to use them for his writing. He tries to do too much — as if he believes that writers have to be rebels — and the story gets lost in its own cleverness.
It is necessary, too, to mention the preface to the anthology. Symbolically, it makes a great deal of sense to have Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, representing the older generation, write the preface, entering Africa39 into conversation with an African literary tradition. But Soyinka’s rambling preface is also the worst part of the anthology. He is fighting a proxy war with nameless political writers of his generation while saying nothing at all about the writing in Africa39.
When I was young, I would give books from my then exiled father’s library to that black hole I called friends. My mother sat me down and told me, “Books are wealth.” Well, I am telling you this anthology is wealth. You will find a beauty that is complex and contradictory — aesthetics true to the calling of making us see the world anew. Africa39 will leave its mark on the African literary tradition. - Mukoma Wa Ngugi