Published by Heinemann in 1992, Contemporary African Short Stories is an anthology of stories edited by CL Innes and the late Chinua Achebe. The two are also editors of an earlier work entitled African Short Stories, published also by Heinemann in 1987. The later work features 20 stories written between 1980 and 1991 and which, once again, showcase the range and depth of African writing. They tell of adversity, strife and endurance in a mostly unsympathetic post-colonial environment, and examine the place of realism, superstition and fantasy in those struggles.
Book of the Month
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.
Three Strong Women (by Marie NDiaye) is an intricately crafted, complex and thought provoking book. It doesn’t initially feel like a novel as it comprises three ‘novellas’, three fictional accounts that each explores one individual’s life at a crucial moment in time. Yet, reflecting on the content, the writing and the structure it falls clearly into the category of novel: the stories are linked in subtle ways through imagery, peripheral character and atmosphere.
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.
Waiting for an Angel is told episodically through linked stories, focusing on well-drawn and believable characters and their daily lives. He writes with great compassion and empathy, bringing to the fore not only the place and its atmosphere but also emphasizing the individuals’ capacity for hope and courage, friendship and love, beauty and poetry, despite the disturbing circumstances that they have to confront. The book was first published in 2000 in Nigeria as a story collection with one of the stories, “Love Poems”, winning Habila the 2001 Caine Prize for African Writing. The collection was later published in a revised format as Waiting for an Angel in 2002.
Gilbert Gatore’s The Past Ahead tells the story of two Rwandans, Isaro and Niko, whose destinies are intimately linked. Both are survivors of the horrors of the massacres in their country. Distinct in their voices, complete opposites in the reflecting on their experiences, their combined stories, told in parallel, create a deeply affecting portrayal of the limits of human endurance in times of greatest traumas. They are the two sides of a tragedy that is difficult to comprehend even now, almost twenty years later.
Christopher Mlalazi’s Many Rivers, published by Lion Press Ltd in 2009, is a chilling account of a border jumper’s ordeal when he leaves his native Zimbabwe for South Africa in the late 1990s. Qinisela who is from Bulawayo, in southern Zimbabwe, is escaping a low-paid factory job and an economic crisis which is just beginning to bite. Like other like-minded, he has his sights on Egoli – the place of gold – as Johannesburg is famed.
Published by Heinemann in 1979 and set in colonial Nigeria, Buchi Emecheta’s Joys of Motherhood is a satirical look at the supposed thrills of motherhood. Her focus is an Ibo woman, Nnu Ego who through endless pregnancies, toil and degradation and a Nigeria in transition, struggles with a motherhood role defined for her by tradition, patriarchy and superstition.
Sindiwe Magona’s To My Children’s Children is a memoir that covers the first 23 years of Magona’s life. It is a tale of growth and survival within the restrictions of Apartheid and the African traditional system. Magona’s style is easy and compelling and never descends into monologue or documentary. The story begins in 1940 in a Xhosa village called Gungululu, near the Cape Province of the Union of South Africa. It is here that Magona was born and where, up to age 4, she and some of her siblings, and a plethora of cousins, grow up in a matriarchal household headed by a maternal great grandmother.
For a first time novelist, Yejide Kilanko writes with a level of maturity, elegance, and power that belies her relative newness to the writing craft. Published by Penguin Canada, her debut novel, Daughters Who Walk This Path, is set in modern day Nigeria and tells the story of a young girl growing up in a society that remains largely patriarchal and where old traditions, good and bad, still abound.