Continental drift: Africa39, an anthology of writing from south of the Sahara, is too good to miss
In 2007, Britain’s Hay Festival collaborated with the Unesco World Book Capital project to publish Bogotá39, a literary collection that showcased the talents of 39 Latin American writers under the age of 40. The book’s resounding success led to a second anthology three years later, the more ambitious and equally acclaimed Beirut39 which brought together the finest young Arab authors.
Now, as Unesco bestows its World Book Capital title on Port Harcourt, Nigeria, there comes another laudable cultural initiative. Africa39 – again, 39 writers under 40 – wisely reduces its selection to authors from south of the Sahara, or Africa’s diaspora [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk].
A cursory overview reveals a healthy variety. Some writers are familiar, some not. Some of the stories exist as stand-alone tales, some as fragments from novels. Several pieces are set on the writer’s home turf, others play out in adopted homelands. The majority was written in English, but a handful has been ably translated. Nigerian authors preponderate, but there is an attempt to reach out to more distant or less-covered countries (Ondjaki from Angola, Recaredo Silebo Boturu from the island of Bioko in Equatorial Guinea).
Perhaps most interesting is that after scanning the informative notes on each author we see that not all are, primarily, authors. Sifiso Mzobe is a freelance journalist in South Africa. Hawa Jande Golakai is a medical immunologist in Liberia. Eileen Almeida Barbosa works as an adviser to the Cape Verdean prime minister. All have produced absorbing tales. With luck, this collection will ensure lucky breaks and greater exposure, and allow those who want to commit to full-time writing the opportunity to do so.
The only streamlined consistency is that each story, bar one, clocks in at around 10 pages. That sole exception is the opener, The Shivering, by arguably the biggest name here: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her longer tale, one of the book’s highlights, deals with two strangers, both Nigerian expatriates in Princeton, who are united by tragedy. The woman fears for her ex-boyfriend, who was on board a plane that has crashed in Lagos; the man, “a crude and rude person from the bush”, still hurts from his former lover’s game of subterfuge. The story has undertones of Adichie’s 2013 novel, Americanah – American student life, immigration problems, unrelinquished home customs – but offers new and insightful views on religious faith, particularly in the face of adversity: “She wanted … to tell him that life was a struggle with ourselves more than with a spear-wielding Satan; that belief was a choice for our conscience always to be sharpened.”
Africa39 opens with its star turn but in no way does it peak too soon. The Pink Oysters by Shafinaaz Hassim is a thrilling but sordid corpse-and-diamonds caper featuring Afghan émigrés and Somali traders running wild in Johannesburg’s Muslim quarter. Ukamaka Olisakwe’s This Is How I Remember it is a clear-eyed account of a girl’s romantic awakening in Nigeria, which traverses adolescent peer pressure, cruelty and confusion before culminating in deep longing and the deceptive promise of reciprocated love.
Both these stories are emblematic of many others here in that they are carefully constructed but at the same time feel tightly compressed. They have potential to unfurl and expand and unload more narrative riches, but are prevented from doing so, presumably because their hamstrung authors were forced to meet a set word count. However, griping that a story is so good it leaves us wanting more is not real griping – indeed, it is the kindest criticism a writer can get. If the stronger ones here are capable of so much in such little space, then think what they will be like with freer rein to produce longer, more sustained pieces.
We get glimpses of greater scope from the many excerpts from completed novels, forthcoming novels and novels in progress. The Nigerian-born Rotimi Babatunde’s The Tiger of the Mangroves hints at a gripping tale of empire in the wake of the 1884-85 Berlin Conference which precipitated the so-called Scramble for Africa. The British consul Henry Hamilton, mandated to “oversee” the affairs of Chief Koko’s kingdom, is gently mocked for referring to Africa as the Dark Continent. “If your people spend so much time in darkness,” Koko scoffs, “why do you attribute darkness to this place, where the sun always comes out, rather than to your homeland?”
Another novel in progress, Tope Folarin’s New Mom, deals with two Nigerian brothers adapting to life in Utah without their mother. America is still a mystery, a land of unanswered questions and foster homes, but Nigeria is even more puzzling: “merely a chorus of scratchy voices over the telephone, a collection of foods and customs that our friends had never heard of”. The Wayfarers, by another Nigerian, Chibundu Onuzo (the youngest ever to be signed by Faber), disturbs and dazzles with, surprisingly, the collection’s only tale of war. Just as unsettling is Our Time of Sorrow by the Ugandan writer Jackee Budesta Batanda, about a religious sect called the Movement which conducts exorcisms on its supposedly sinful conscripts.
As is the case with most anthologies, Africa39 is marred by some glaring omissions. If Folarin, born in America to Nigerian parents, can be included, why can’t Teju Cole, a writer with the same origins and two remarkable novels under his belt? The Sierra Leonean author Ishmael Beah impressed with his memoir of his time as a boy soldier in A Long Way Gone, yet he too fails to make the cut; and the Zimbabwean wunderkind NoViolet Bulawayo, whose stunning debut novel, We Need New Names, made the 2013 Man Booker shortlist, is also conspicuous by her absence.
The other surprise is that, Adichie aside, the book’s established acts are outperformed by lesser-known talent. The woefully brief extract from Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names is an offcut that does little justice to the Ethiopian’s Naipaul-flavoured novel. The clip from Taiye Selasi’s much-hyped Ghana Must Go is as average as the book. And although Nadifa Mohamed’s Number 9 perfectly captures the bustle of London’s streets (in the same way that A Igoni Barrett encapsulates the chaos on the roads of a Nigerian city in Why Radio DJs Are Superstars in Lagos) the crux of her story – a face-off on a bus with a ranting Irish drunk – is sadly unconvincing.
Africa39 is thus carried, even held aloft, by its rising and slow-burning stars. The book’s standout story comes from a Ghanaian-American based in New York called Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond. Mama’s Future begins with the line “Mama was on her deathbed” and then immediately proceeds to reveal its allegorical intent.
“Mama” has been ill for nigh on a century. Doctors are undecided on what is killing her. It could be poverty or it could be corruption. Some even say it could be the loss of her children. She was once the richest, most sought-after woman in the world with suitors from England, Portugal and the Netherlands. Now she has “bled what money was left, after her lovers had stolen what they hadn’t been able to dupe out of her”. So it continues, its wry symbolism thinly masking bitter truths. One lasting image is of a pancaked, rouged and bewigged Mama incensed at the notion of “aid” (“They had built empires on the backs of her children … Anything they gave her was remittance”) and holding out for new suitor China to save her.
At the end of Wole Soyinka’s elucidatory if overly political preface, he informs us that “Literature derives from, reflects and reflects upon – Life”. There is no unifying theme within these pages – how could there be for a continent so huge and diverse? – but what we do get is a series of sharply focused snapshots of life. And then there are the wonderful, culturally enhanced genres: how many western readers can claim to have read Kenyan experimentalism, Malawian sci-fi, Liberian murder-mystery or Côte d’Ivoire chick-lit?
As with those best-of-young-writers lists compiled by fellow talent spotters Granta and The New Yorker, Africa39’s selection comprises authors who have been picked not just on their current merit but also their future potential. They may or may not constitute the next generation of African writers whose work “promises to inspire readers for decades to come” as the editor’s note gushingly proclaims, but what is clear is that all fully deserve to be read today.
Malcolm Forbes is a regular contributor to The Review.