Book review – Mixed bag from Africa

2015-02-08 15:00

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The preface by Nobel prizewinner for literature Wole Soyinka – far and away the best piece of writing in this anthology – promises so much. He refers us to Nelson Mandela’s words about Chinua Achebe (the most beloved of all African writers writing in English) and how when Mandela read Things Fall Apart “the prison walls fell down”.

Soyinka ponders the restraints African writers have fought against, from colonial days to a present where “doctrinal obsession” or “conformism to any literary ideology” cripples the creative imagination. He argues artists must be free of any ideology – literary or political.

“Literature derives from, reflects and reflects upon – Life. It projects its enhanced vision of Life’s potential, its possibilities, narrates its triumphs and failures.”

What follows in this mixed bag of short stories and chapters from unfinished novels is an uneven picture of “Life” in several sub-Saharan countries, including Somalia, Angola, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa.

African literature is a genre on its own. I taught it at Wits for many years after lecturing and teaching in Nigeria.

If we try to compare a short story about Lagos traffic and radio DJs with a short story by Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham or Mark Twain, we are doing ourselves a disfavour. African literature is its own unique creation.

What Soyinka did not discuss in his preface is that literature sometimes needs to be consumed in context.

Yes, some work transcends time and place and touches a universal chord. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is proof of this. And although there is some fine writing in this anthology – particularly from some of the French authors, though some of the richness must be lost in translation – I found no one author or piece of work that assured me that greatness and universality lie ahead.

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shines – read her books if you haven’t already; Ghanaian writer Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond displays a strikingly original talent; her compatriot Nii Ayikwei Parkes has satirical wit, style and substance; and Sifiso Mzobe’s taut and vivid take on violence in South Africa is compelling and thought-provoking – to mention just a few of the 39 writers.

And I could certainly find more examples of excellence in this anthology.

But now that literary themes of oppression, slavery and occupation have been overcapitalised in some instances, today’s young African writers have to find a collective voice.

It’s not enough to describe street scenes, heavy sex or include lengthy dialogue that adds nothing to plot or character. Tighter editing, discipline and glimpses of true greatness are what is needed.

I question the decision to include “novels in progress” in this anthology.

It seems arbitrary and unfair on the writers to choose a chapter out of a novel that may or may not see publication and then display it as a finished product.

It’s a bit like visiting the ramparts of Elsinore Castle in the opening scene of Shakespeare’s play and be left wondering whether it’s Sleeping Beauty, Frankenstein, Anna from Frozen or Hamlet waiting in the wings.

Read this fascinating collection and decide for yourself which of these 39 young African writers will be or not be.

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