Tuesday, August 13, 2019

We Should Read African Literature

Halfway through our time in Kenya, I joined a book club with other U.S. Embassy Nairobi women. We selected works of African literature to read together - one book per month. I'm ashamed to say I'd never read a book by an African (excluding African-American) author before. If there are readers of this blog who are similarly lacking, I thought I would offer mini-reviews of the works we read in book club. I hope this piques the interest of someone who would like to explore African literature but may not know where to start. Please see the full list below, in the order I read them:

  • A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong'o: This was the first book in our book club series, and I won't lie: it was intense. It focuses on Kenya during the lead-up to independence, following an array of characters through the struggles of Kenya, their village, and their own lives. I found certain parts especially difficult to read as a woman, as I found the book repeatedly reinforced female sexual weakness and objectification with only a few moments of sexual empowerment. The emotions of shame and selfishness are dominant themes throughout the work, with some (but not all) finding redemption (or at least making their ways toward it) in the end. I would recommend reading this book for the historical and cultural knowledge it yields on not-too-distant Kenyan history as well as the intense passion the author successfully evokes by writing so powerfully about the inner torment of the characters in situations that would otherwise appear mundane. I do, however, recommend reading only a little at a time.
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: After reading this one, I understood why it's hailed as the most widely read book in modern African literature. Achebe beautifully weaves in folk stories, local language, and culture into the plot of the book. Although there are still parts that I struggled as a woman to read (i.e., many passages from the protagonist's perspective on the inferiority of females or anything feminine), the most extreme views were tied to the specific character's own inflexibility and closed-mindedness. No culture is perfect in the book, and what I found most interesting was the delicate tracing of the African characters' issues either with their society, religion, or culture that Europeans were able to exploit for the benefit of Christianity and their empire. It was well-written and profound - a must-read in the genre.
  • Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: This was probably my favorite book of the whole bunch, even though it wasn't quite as popular with my fellow book club members. Adichie is best known for her book Americanah, which I haven't yet read but plan on doing now, and her viral TED Talk (which I also highly recommend) titled "The danger of a single story". Purple Hibiscus is a powerful novel that hits themes of colonialism, religion, and community in the context of a very unhealthy and disturbing family dynamic that - in my view - resonates with the darkness and complexity of humanity across eras and cultures. The imagery of Nigeria is rendered beautifully so that I found myself drawn in (even if I didn't know specifics like how cashew trees smell).
  • West with the Night by Beryl Markham: This book is vastly different from the others in several ways. First, it's a memoir instead of a novel. Second, it's written by a white British settler/colonialist. Even if she did consider Africa home, her perspective is inevitably wildly different from a native, black African's. Her poetically written stories are romantic but prejudiced. They're also thrilling but devoid of gossip, especially coming from a woman whom scandal and drama followed throughout her life. Markham was truly an extraordinary woman, aviator, and writer, but she and her book are clearly a product of their time.
  • Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela: I just have to be honest with this one... it's a "long walk" through this book. At over 900 pages, the nitty-gritty details from preferred childhood games to specifics about the many meetings leading up to the freedom struggle were too much for not only me but the other members of the book club. Despite many devoting multiple months to reading this one, I'm not sure a single one of us fully finished it in time. There are a number of great documentaries about Nelson Mandela and South African history available that are honestly easier for a layperson or outsider to digest.
  • The Return by Hisham Matar: Pretty much everyone in the book club liked this one, a Pulitzer Prize winner by a renowned Libyan author. The book provides snapshots of Libya's history while recounting the author's family's moving firsthand experience with the cruelty of oppression and authoritarianism. The pain of grief and loss is beautifully rendered, and touchstones of African and Arab cultural experiences are somehow made accessible even to the most ignorant reader. I highly recommend this book, but it definitely has a different flavor that might put it in better company with Arab literature than sub-Saharan African works.
  • Unbowed by Wangari Maathai: This autobiography of environmentalist, feminist, and human rights activist legend Wangari Maathai was another one of my favorites, although like Mandela's book it is on the longer side. (I acknowledge that I had more references for the events and sites in Maathai's book in Kenya, so if I'm ever lucky enough to spend a while in South Africa I could try Mandela's book again.) I was inspired by the author's resilience, courage, and hope for Kenya in the face of serious challenges across the board. This is a fantastic read for anyone who cares about women's rights, democratic freedom, the impact of colonialism, and/or the environment.

So I hope I've convinced at least one person to pick up a book by an African author they might not otherwise have considered. I've enjoyed the books above, but most importantly I learned a lot by reading them. Although I regret not exploring African literature earlier in life, it's never too late to broaden our reading material. Let me know in the comments below if you have any other recommendations for African literature. Happy reading!

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