“But I grope after language to describe the feeling I experience on my evening walks, the light in the air and on the sea. This pleases me: that some things remain beyond my grasp…” thus muses the jogger in Henrietta Rose-Innes’ Promenade about a significant encounter between him, a middle-aged unassuming copy writer, and a young ambitious boxer. The sense of enjoying “things remaining beyond (our) grasp” could be a leitmotiv for many of the stories in the The Granta Book of the African Short Story, encouraging us to read with open eyes, mind and heart. Collected and introduced by award winning Nigerian author, Helon Habila, this new anthology is an outstanding and wide-ranging rich smorgasbord of stories by twenty six writers from nineteen countries all across Africa – stories written in English or translated from French, Portuguese or Arabic.
Habila’s highly informative ‘Introduction’ gives us a sense of his difficulty in selecting stories from the vast available material covering “fifty three countries with more than a thousand ethnic groups”. He also comments helpfully on previous efforts to anthologize African writings and explains why his take is somewhat different and more contemporary in its objectives. Rather than highlighting the many common themes pertinent across the vast African continent, his aim is to provide examples of the diverse themes and approaches that have emerged since independence and/or are of importance to the younger, postcolonial generation of writers (“the third generation”). Of course, Habila adds, it is impossible to capture the diversity of African writing, even with the restriction on “the short story” in a “continent the size of China, Europe and the United States put together”.
The stories, many selected for this anthology in dialog with the authors, address everything from the intimate domestic to the broad spectrum of social and political tensions, from immigrant/emigrant experience to glimpses into life on the margins of society, from power games and exploitation to racial issues. Some are highly satirical, e.g. Banyavanga Wainaina’s Ships in High Transit or the re-imagined historical encounter with The Moustached Man as presented by Patrice Nganang. We find other familiar names, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose story The Arrangers of Marriage, a touching and profound story about a new immigrant to the USA, already published in her own excellent collection, The Thing Around Your Neck opens this anthology. Others are less familiar or not known at all in North America.
It is impossible for me to highlight any stories as my favourites, there is none that did not touch me and make me reflect after I had turned the page. Many of the authors live and work outside their country of birth now, for shorter or longer periods, the majority of them in North America or Europe. That in itself gives reason to pause. Reading their brief bios at the end of the book, (followed by some googling) helps us to better appreciate them and their work. Hardly any of the authors represented in this anthology collection are debut authors. More than half have won the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing, and are known also for their novels and other writings.
Friederike Knabe worked in the fields of international policy and programming concerning third world sustainable development and human rights, primarily in Africa, for some thirty years. Of German background, Friederike left Germany following her postgraduate studies in Eastern European and French languages and literatures. She now resides in Canada. She has been reviewing books, both fiction and non-fiction, since 2001.She reads books in English, French and German and has maintained a special interest in African literature. In addition to posting reviews on the various Amazon sites, she contributes to a US Bookreview website and has a monthly book reviews column with sometimes author interviews in a local community paper.