My year of conscious reading

2015-03-26 15:00

It started in December, with Mzilikazi wa Afrika’s Nothing Left to Steal. Then in January I finished Bongani Madondo’s I’m Not Your Weekend Special.

In February, I bought Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir, One Day I Will Write about this Place, ordered NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names and preordered Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child, which releases in April.

I did not know it then, but the decision had been made: for most of this year, I wanted to read books written by black writers who were mostly African.

So it was interesting to read, in the same month, a piece in The Guardian by Sunili Govinnage, titled I Read Only Non-White Authors for 12 Months. What I Learned Surprised Me.

Govinnage made a conscious decision last year to shun authors from western European backgrounds.

But let me tell you my full story first. Before picking the books I mentioned, I’d walked into the bookstore and made a beeline for The Goldfinch by American Donna Tartt, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer prize for fiction.

Although I had no idea of the book’s plot, it was already tagged as a must-read in my mind, probably because I’d seen it on numerous bestseller lists. But I set down that novel for the two titles, Wainaina’s and Bulawayo’s, I’d been meaning to read for the past year among authors I already knew, respected and followed in one medium or another.

To be honest, picking “white” books has been my default reading pattern. I bet it’s been yours, too.

As an English literature major, I’ve read everything from Middlemarch, which was a chore, to Mrs Dalloway, which I enjoyed; Catch-22 I consumed blankly with little comprehension; Heart of Darkness, a great work, infuriated me.

Books by black authors, or where black characters are central, were a fringe benefit, texts added in to spice up the literary canon occupied by dead white males.

Although I’ve read more African and some Asian, Indian and South American writers since then, my bookshelves are still filled with novels in which the race of the characters is never mentioned unless they are black or where white American or European characters are the standard.

In the December 2013 piece for The Guardian – in which she commits to her 2014 reading list – Govinnage says she made her choice to break from convention to stop the “reiterations of the same formulaic fables we’ve heard time and time again”.

By February this year, she’d read 25 novels, and says this selective reading had not restricted her, as her critics argued, but opened her up to new authors and widened her repertoire of genres.

“Instead of my usual crime/procedural/legal thrillers, I actually read some science fiction. And some fantasy.”

In that report, Govinnage gives another reason, set out by Ben Okri before her – that reading widely will help set African writers free from the pigeonhole the world is boxing them in, that they can only be great if their works depict historical, racial or political accounts.

I agree. For the many readers who praise Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, the “Biafran epic” as The Guardian described it in a review, there was not enough talk about The Thing Around Your Neck, a rich collection of short stories published in 2009.

They think Adichie’s turn to feminism started with that We Should All be Feminists TEDx talk.

In my focus on mostly black African authors, I will be going back to the old literary texts I ignored during my academic years.

But I’m also looking forward to coming-of-age tales like Wainaina’s and authors who interpret the modern human experience.

I want to read more Chris Abani and discover writers I can enjoy just for their acerbic and sardonic tone.

Since reading Govinnage’s piece, I have been inspired to pick a few novels from other black writers outside the continent.

I’ll certainly be reading God Help the Child about “midnight black” Lula Ann, because I’m a Morrison disciple. Maybe I’ll even dabble in genres I usually avoid, like thrillers, romance or fantasy novels.

In this, my year of conscious reading, I’m looking forward to expanding my mind. Because when Chinua Achebe commanded, “If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own,” I think he fully expected that we would meet the writers halfway.

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