My 2015 Africa Reading Challenge

A website called Kinna Reads initiated an Africa Reading Challenge with a simple rule: read at least 5 African books in the period of January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2015. I thought this was a great excuse to venture into a large range of quality African books which the world is finally starting to notice. It also fit in very conveniently with the personal challenge I had already given myself a few years ago to read more African books. The goal of my challenge was to begin to familiarise myself with African writing, since my intention is to be published amongst that group. I grew up preferring western novels for reasons I have discovered have more to do with the global industry (availability, advertising, what type of African books get published) than actual quality.

Without venturing into what can and cannot be defined as an African book, I made my choice based on accessibility (to me) and  interest. I sourced them from a variety of places, secondhand book stores in South Africa, a South African shopping website, a flea market in Zimbabwe, a bookstore in Malawi, my mother's garage, and book swaps with my fellow writer friends.

The sad thing about this list is that recommending these books only takes them so far. There are still big problems with availability, especially in countries which do not yet have an online payment system - most likely to be African countries! There is no single source of African books, but they are around for those who wish to find them. 

Here are my reviews in the order I read them - they are just my opinions, I encourage you to read the books and decide for yourself.

Purple Hibiscus (Nigeria)

In the past, one of my excuses for avoiding African books is that they tended to be depressing at their core. One bad thing after another happens to a more or less passive protagonist, and they tended to not overcome their difficulties at all. I'm afraid Purple Hibiscus fit that mold. The story follows a young Nigerian girl who grows up as one of two siblings in a home with a strictly religious father who abuses her mother. External political circumstances result in the girl and her brother being sent to live in a poorer household with her father's sister and their grandfather - who their father considers to be a "heathen" as he still practices African religion. The girl has to reconcile adolescence, her differences with other children whose parents raise them differently, and a forbidden crush on a young pastor. 

The story was not hugely about character arch (although there was some character growth), but more an analysis of morality, society dynamics in Nigeria, poverty and wealth, and a few other themes, all seen through the lens of a girl who, for the most part, did not have the power to change them. It is more reality-based than the fantasy books I usually hunt for like a bloodhound, so I'm aware that my assessment of it is biased. My favourite fantastical idea that the young protagonist can change the world was conspicuously absent for me. It was nonetheless an interesting read, which I recommend to anyone whose taste leans more towards books that hold a mirror up to the status quo, showing the good, bad and ugly alike.

A comment about the cover - although I'm here to review the story, the chosen cover was very distracting. From the research I have done in the publishing industry I know that the author rarely has control over the cover, so I fault the publishers. The girl on the cover is shown to be of light, possibly Caucasian skin tone, but there is no girl of that ethnicity in the entire book. The main character's racial descriptions are very clear, down to vivid descriptions of her natural African hair - this is not an ambiguous black Hermione situation. The reason I'm so emotional about this is that I wonder why they were trying to mislead readers. Was there a presumption that fewer people would buy a book with a black female on the cover? That sends chills...

Half of a Yellow Sun (Nigeria)

This book used the "mystery title" hook for me - I drove forward with the question in the back of my mind - what does Half of a Yellow Sun mean? I won't spoil it here, but will assure you that it does answer the question.

It was another book which deals with depressing topics (although admittedly not to the extent Hibiscus does) with the second half immersed in war, and some quite vivid violent imagery which stayed with my imagination long after I put the book down. While I would much rather absorb happier things like I have mentioned, the book taught me a great deal about a war which I had no idea happened (due to the near absence of African history in my entire primary and secondary school curriculum). I even had to do further research to find out to my surprise that it wasn't fictional. 

In this book Adichie dealt with relationship dynamics better than Purple Hibiscus, addressing how an intercultural/interracial relationship copes, how infidelity impacts a relationship, how a drastic change in lifestyle from having plenty to having nothing impacts different relationships, and other fascinating scenarios. 

One of the protagonists has a non-identical twin sister like me, which I haven't seen explored much - writers are usually more fascinated with the "what if I could swap places with an identical twin" trope. Instead Adichie wrote their relationship quite pragmatically, as they realistically have different personalities and tastes. The author's pragmatism extended to all the characters' relationships, writing them in a way that made them feel like fully fleshed people.

The publishers finally created a cover representing the true ethnicity of the character, but I noticed for the next Adichie book Americanah they pretty much redid the cover, as if it was a continuation of a series instead of an independent book. The version I read was published in Kenya so you won't see that twin cover of Half of a Yellow Sun here (Google was invented for this precise purpose however).

Americanah (Nigeria)

At last my perseverance with Adichie's books paid off. This book is not just my favourite of her books, it isn't just my favourite African book, it's one of my favourite books ever. It made me realise how important representation truly is. For the first time, I encountered a character who, like me; was an educated black African female; who grew up believing her hair was out of place; and lived in a foreign country which firmly differentiated her own blackness with the local blackness (breaking initial assumption that the black experience is the same everywhere - it's not).

The story begins with an introduction to Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman studying in America at Princeton, but has to leave town just to get her hair braided because there are no black hairdressers in the predominantly white town. The salon is used as a base scene, from which the various aspects of Ifemelu's life are explored through flashbacks; her observations about race, nationality and immigrant life in the African diaspora, the life changing decision she has made about moving from America back to Nigeria, and her love life in all of its complexity. Her frank observations about the world around her are eye-opening and immediately relatable, so that the story feels realistic enough to seem like a documentary on the human experience through a black female perspective. 

One of the things I love about this story is that it actually shows black love instead of domestic abuse or some other messed up situation. There are challenges in the relationships portrayed, but not because one of them is a Scary Black Man or a Conniving Black Woman, which are too often the go-to characters in African relationship plot lines. Instead through her story, Adichie explored the impact of distance, miscommunication, cultural traditions, and careers on relationships. 

Rumours have said there will be a movie based on this story and I just can't wait.

Smouldering Charcoal (Malawi)

I was lucky enough not to have studied that book in secondary school like my fellow writers. That means I picked it up by choice, when I was arguably at the right age, maturity and level of political consciousness to appreciate and understand it. I think it might have bored me if I had read it as a teenager, unable to appreciate what it meant for my direct history.

The book is set in post-colonial, pre-democratic Malawi. The viewpoint takes two perspectives, that of a poor character, and that of a well-to-do character. They have two different experiences of the regime, but what they have in common is a sense of restricted freedom, and the ever present possibility of their lives being forcibly changed for the worse in a single moment.

When I finished reading it, I suddenly realised how brave this book had to be, because it was published when Kamuzu Banda was still in power. It was loosely coded, with no mention of what country it is based in, nor the name of the Leader or his political Party. However, anyone with any knowledge of Malawian history will know "The Leader" is Kamuzu Banda, and "The Party" is the Malawi Congress Party. The coding was not a marketing gimmick like I initially thought, it was the author's survival technique. I am not even certain if the author used their own name or a pseudonym, because I heard of many Malawian citizens who had to change their names in order to escape harsh prosecution for opposing the one party government.

Smouldering Charcoal was history in the form which I prefer to consume it - through the eyes of characters in a story. I was born in the last few years of Kamuzu's life, so was never really aware of the oppressiveness, but I got to learn about what life was really like in my parent's time. It was too recent for my history teachers to cover.

Africa 39 (Pan-African)

This concept behind this anthology is not theme, but rather a collection of 39 of Africa's emerging writers from Sub-Saharan Africa. Among the themes which the authors are free to explore, there are stories about the key historical figures on both the African and European side of colonialism; a friendship between two different people who have heartbreak in common; a futuristic society where some of the population is kept in the dark about what is really happening; the dilemmas of a white Nigerian who does not fit into either of the two worlds he is from; and a metaphorical piece about Mama Africa who is dying and how her children (who represent various groups of people of African heritage) respond to this sombre news. The stories explore many different avenues, the future, the past, the present, and the mind itself. 

The Granta Book of the African Short Story (Pan-African)

This anthology is grounded primarily in realism, with stories depicting segments of lives lived around the continent. The exception was a story named Faeries of the Nile, which dealt more with an abused woman's response to mystical creatures which she is unsure even exist. 

At times the stories are violent, brutal, depressing and often shows the ugliest sides of life and humanity. Honestly, there was too little hope in these stories for me to enjoy them very much. I am glad I read the book because I learnt about different places and cultures as well as different styles of writing, but ultimately it was not my cup of tea. A story which I did like, although it took the same tone of staring into the face of society's ugliness, was "Preference Nationale". It portrayed a francophone African's difficulty earning a decent life in France. The irony struck a cord - an African coming to the country which had historically colonised her own, changing her identity down to the language, yet was rejected by embedded xenophobia and racism. 

Omenana (Pan-African)

Those with keen eyes may notice that my name is in there... I will try and be as unbiased as possible! These series of anthologies are produced in Nigeria, but Pan-African in content. They are beautifully illustrated collections of speculative fiction stories - in other words science-fiction, fantasy, magical realism, horror, any genre which explores that which is beyond what we perceive as possible. Many stories build on the existing superstitions and mystical beliefs within the hugely diverse African mythos, and blend them into the modern world. This juxtaposition between the familiar and strange make for some memorable tales which capture the imagination. 

There are stories of a massage client with disturbing but seductive abilities; a jinn man who is distanced from the love of his life because of his body's tendency to burn boiling hot; an epic short story which traces a mixed race bloodline from the past to the present to the future; and an 18th century African slave imprisoned in a French dungeon struggling to use his remaining energy and magic to create an invention which is destined to change the world. 

The best thing about the Omenana series is that they are available right now, for free, downloadable here! They also showcase visual art, both on their covers and as stand alone pieces next to the stories. If you're an African spec-fic writer or an artist, I'd encourage you to take a look and submit your material to them. 

Imagine Africa 500 (Pan-African)

This is a book I am still reading, and feel a little bad about promoting it since it is not yet widely available! But for sure it is one to look out for soon. This is a matter of pride because it is the first science fiction anthology produced by a Malawian, including stories by five Malawian writers I personally know. It is the direct product of the Imagine Africa 500 workshop which I have blogged about.

The stories in the anthology dream up different versions of the future, some dystopian, post-apocalyptic, others hopeful and fantastical. Some predict we will go back to basics, rejecting the technology and economic systems of the present day to embrace sorcery, swords and kingdoms. Others warn us that the future may make us pure survivalists at the complete mercy of nature, having ignored it for far too long. Others paint a future with many of the same problems of economically unequal societies, of education only favouring the wealthy, and large groups of people trapped in a hopeless future which is reinforced by authority. The best thing about science fiction stories is that they can show us on the vivid plane of the imagination, where we could end up, and where we should avoid ending up. We need both the positive and negative stories to guide us, and this anthology has a delicious blend of both.

(For an in depth review of one of the stories written by Malawian Muthi Nhlema, visit Joanna Wood's website Zwelethemba: 'Land of Hope')

End Note

It doesn’t have to end in 2015 - you can challenge yourself next year! I certainly have not finished my personal African book quest, especially now that sci-fi and fantasy are becoming easier to find.

After African books, I want to read books by other non-western writers, like Asian, South American, middle eastern and so on. I have become more open-minded about where great stories can come from - they are not always the ones which shout the loudest. Let me know if you hear of a great book from an unusual source!

Honourable Mention
Zoo City (South Africa), which I read in 2014 and already reviewed here.

Dishonourable Mention!

Perhaps there was a time when I had enough willful ignorance to finish a book like this, but I actually had to put this one down. It is clearly Africa through the white male gaze, an unapologetic macho adventure through deepest "darkest" Africa, conquering it one adrenelin gun fight at a time. I hated how a third of the way through, there was still no significant African character with their own motivations that weren't sneaky or bloodthirsty. I skipped through and found that the only black female was described as "the biggest ugliest woman Dirk had ever seen" (paraphrasing). I put it down when I reached a scene where 3 westerners were gleefully gunning down a crew of Africans - all justified of course, they attacked first, and they clearly had evil intentions. But the fact that the Africans were split between "those you gun down" and "those you rescue from their African-ness" totally repulsed me. Those have watched the movie adaptation may notice that the racism and sexism has been vastly played down for a diverse movie audience. As a matter of fact I personally enjoyed the film before I had the displeasure of reading the source material.

Of course it is not Cussler's responsibility to represent a variety of dimensions of Africa which reflect a dignified Africa. He is good at appealing to the audience he aims for. It is our duty as African writers to tell better stories about ourselves. 


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