Published by Imbada in 2008, Stanley Gazemba’s “Grandmother’s Winning Smile” is a gripping tale about the challenges many children in today’s Kenya are facing to access education and improve their lot. The future looks particularly sombre for Gazemba’s main character Kinuthia, when his father leaves the household and gets lost in the anonymity of Nairobi, the faraway capital city. The man sold their cow before escaping, the milk of which was their only reliable source of income. The boy is left alone with his grandmother.
Born in the US to Nigerian parents in 1975, Teju Cole was raised in Nigeria and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Cole attained international fame in 2011 with “Open City”, an innovative and powerful first novel set in New-York, USA. Before that, he wrote “Everyday is for the thief” (2007), a novella depicting joys and ordeals of everyday life in Lagos, Nigeria. He is also famous for the small stories he crafts on “Small Fates”, a Twitter project he initiated. A writer, art historian and passionate street photographer, Teju Cole contributes to important literary publications such as “The New Yorker” and “Qarrtsiluni”. In this interview with Africa Book Club, he explains why this double identity gives him freedom, how limits are actually an opportunity for the writer and why big cities are so interesting.
Chris Van Wyk is an important figure on the South African literary scene. Born in 1957 in a coloured township of Johannesburg, he experienced at first hand the inequality and deprivation reserved to “non-whites” during apartheid. Fascinated by literature from a very young age, Van Wyk rose to fame in the 1970s for his engaged poems where absurdity and humor brought a daring counterpoint to the harsh realities they were referring to. In 2004, his acclaimed childhood memoir “Shirley, Goodness & Mercy” gave a delightful account of his special relationship to the township he grew up in and its inhabitants. In this interview with Africa Book Club, Chris Van Wyk discusses his writing, the challenge of finding a readership in South Africa and the present state of his country.
Noo Saro-Wiwa is a Nigerian travel writer who lives between London and Africa. Her début work Looking for Transwonderland (published in 2012) is a travel book praised by critics as an affectionate yet irreverent guide to Nigeria. Sparked with humour, “Looking for Transwonderland” is also a moving and tentative attempt by the author to come to terms with her homeland and the death of her father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, the famous Ogoni activist hanged by Nigeria’s military junta in 1995 for his environmental struggle against Big Oil in the Niger delta. In this interview with Africa Book Club, she talks about her literary demeanour, the insight she gained by living between two continents and her opinion about contemporary African literature.
Born in 1973, Niq Mhlongo is part of a young generation of black writers who depict their country without concession. In a casual style made of humour and powerful dialogues, Mhlongo never hesitates to tackle the heavy issues South Africa is plagued by – joblessness, AIDS or latent racism to cite only a few. His latest novel “Way Back Home” which has just been published by Kwela Books, reads as a fierce critic of the corruption of the South African elite. In this interview with Africa Book Club, Niq Mhlongo talks about his literary endeavour, today’s South Africa and the expectations that lay on the shoulders of young black South African writers.
In “Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty” (Serpent’s Tail, 2013), his latest novel to be published in English, the Franco-Congolese adds tenderness to his signature ironic tone. Through Michel, his young alter ego, Mabanckou mischievously recalls his childhood in the port-city of Pointe-Noire, on the Atlantic coast of Congo-Brazzaville. Michel is caught in a whirl of minor events he describes with touching candor: the hiccups in his love relationship with Caroline, the witch tricks of Ousmane the Senegalese shopkeeper, the unfairness of the teacher’s ranking system… But Michel is also concerned with the stories he hears through his father’s radio, from the exile of Iran’s Shah to the craze of Uganda’s Idi Amin. Domestic and historic events intermingle hilariously in “Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty”, offering a moving depiction of how it was like to grow up in Africa in the late seventies.
Where his earlier novels staged characters struggling to find their place and fully grasp the possibilities of the new, post-racial era; Mhlongo’s new novel proposes instead a vision from the top of the ladder. The book’s central character is Kimathi Fezile Tito, born in exile in Tanzania during the worst years of apartheid, son of a freedom fighter and himself soldier of the revolution. Kimathi’s years in combat fatigue are far away though, and he now prefers to dress in the Prada suits that best reflect his new status. A past comrade who uses his connections to flourish as a “tenderpreneur”, Kimathi embodies the new South African ruling class’ evils.
With nine novels, five collections of poems and a bunch of essays to his name, Franco-Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou is a literary phenomenon in the Francophone world. Renowned for the derisive drollery of his prose but also for his candour when talking about Africa, he has become an important voice of African literature – a subject he now teaches at UCLA. We talked to him on the occasion of the publication in English of his novel “Tomorrow I will be 20 years old”, in which he evokes with mischievousness and emotion his childhood in Pointe-Noire, the Congolese port city on the Atlantic coast. In this interview with Africa Book Club, Alain Mabanckou speaks about African identity, his eclectic influences and why it is difficult to define an “African literature”.
By any account, to entitle a début novel “The Book of War” can seem presumptuous. Yet, the book brilliantly lives up to the promise of its ambitious name. For war is everywhere here – but not romanticised with the usual bravery, indestructible friendship and clear divide between the camps of good and evil that justify the violence. No. In a sober style made out of short sentences, hand-picked words and balanced rhythm Whyle shows war for what it really is. A physical ordeal against nature and fellow humans. A defeat of minds and souls. A horror of which the only beauty lays in the vast, unspoiled landscape it is set in. From this ocean of brutality paradoxically emerges a subtle tale that reads as an engaging reflection on manhood and humanity.
Everything has been said about Idi Amin’s ruthless reign over Uganda (1971-1979). Expelling Ugandans of Asiatic descent after a dream, offering shelter to terrorists hijacking a plane or officially claiming to be the uncrowned “King of Scotland”, this trooper-turned-president pushed the limits of the absurd while in power. Against this background, Foden’s attempt to grasp Amin’s character without falling into the cliché of the usual African despot, was a daring enterprise. To his credit, Foden brilliantly avoids the trap.