The African Novel

I remember Sheikh Yassir saying that when you love something, you want everyone to see what you love. Here is something I love, and its a relatively new love. It’s the African novel. I have read a few over the years, beginning with my first African history course at Santa Clara. But over the past few months, I have realized how much the writings speak to me.

Ali A. Mazrui and others mention seven conflicts as themes: the clash between Africa’s past and present, between tradition and modernity, between indigenous and foreign, between individualism and community, between socialism and capitalism, between development and self-reliance and between Africanity and humanity.

African novels speak to me, not because my experiences are the same. But they speak to me because of what the common struggles we share as human beings. We are able to speak because those commonalities manifest themselves in different ways. I find part of myself as fragmented reflections in the characters and their struggles. Also I find a part of something outside of myself that, in turn, defines me.

Years ago I had aspirations of becoming a writer. In my novel writing class my instructor asked each student why they wanted to write. My answer was, “To tell the stories that haven’t been told.” When I decided to become a professional historian, I forgot about that creative drive. But underlying everything that I’ve done since 1998 was to tell untold stories of real people. I realize that some people tell amazing stories, but sometimes they are not within our ear shot. Other times, dissonance of our instant message, text message, reality tv noise drowns out those stories. Often we are not willing to hear stories about people who do not live like us, who we do not believe think like us, and therefore we assume we cannot understand their experiences. Other times those stories challenge our basic assumptions. I’ve always seen books as windows to other worlds, as a way to broaden my own. But novels are not just a window, they allow me to reflect upon my own experiences and see myself in a different light. Find yourself in a book, walk in some one else’s shoes, imagine who you are and who you could be. I hope you pick up a book from the canon of African literature. Here is a sampling of some of my favorite novels:

Devil on the Cross by Ngugi wa Thiong’o Kenya
Ambiguous Adventure by Cheikh Hamidou Kane Senegal
Shehu Umar by Abubakar Tafawa Balewa Nigeria
Nervous Conditionsby Tsitsi Dangarembga Rodesia
The Fortunes of Wangrin by Amadou Hampate Ba Mali
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe Nigeria

African Literature and Writers on the Internet

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7 thoughts on “The African Novel

  1. What about the anthology of short stories, Looking for a Rain God, edited by Nadezda Obradovic? It includes Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe as well as other great writers.

    Personally, I think “world” writers (like the category “world music”), are immensely talented, yet often neglected in bookish circles.

    I really enjoyed reading this post.

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  2. I agree, I love reading books from all over. I’ll have to check out that anthology. We focus too much on the Western Canon, even when the books aren’t written well. I took an Arab lit course in undergrad. In addition to African novels, I really enjoy Arabic poetry and fiction. I look forward to reading the literature in its original language. Right now, it’s painfully slow with me and the dictionary. I also would like to read more novels from Asia and the sub-Continent. I’m going through a Latin and South America phase right now. I find reading novels by authors of different faiths and worldviews is very helpful in keeping my mind open and thoughts fluid.

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  3. I took a course with Ghanian poet Abena Busia and Tsitsi Dangarembga actually came to talk about her work with our class. I was quite young then and now I wish I would have asked more questions. I remember her being very intense and politically astute.

    I would definitely add to this list So Long a Letter and Scarlet Song by the late Muslim writer Mariama Ba. Changes: A Love Novel by Ama Ata Aidoo and one of my favorites Season of Migration to the North by Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih. In a Renaissance Lit Course we actually read Season of Migration along side Othello to explore the idea of the black Arab and the representation of the Moor’s sexuality. Really interesting!

    You’ve motivated me to do some more reading in the African novel this summer…

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  4. Salaams Margari,

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece. I’ve never read any of the novels you cite (time and money, eh!?!) However, I liked the paragraph below…

    ‘African novels speak to me, not because my experiences are the same. But they speak to me because of what the common struggles we share as human beings. We are able to speak because those commonalities manifest themselves in different ways. I find part of myself as fragmented reflections in the characters and their struggles. Also I find a part of something outside of myself that, in turn, defines me’.

    This really resonates with me, on many levels. If you recall our earlier discussion on race, etc, this was exactly the point I was trying to make.

    Ya Allah!

    Abdur Rahman

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  5. as salaamu alaikum sister. thanks for this post. i too am a fan of african novels. i learn so much from them. given the political circumstances under which many of the greatest african novels were written, reading between the lines makes them even more enjoyable. i would recommend anything from the african writers series and also books by ayi kwei armah.

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  6. as salaamu alaikum sister. reading african novels is a great pleasure for me. but what i discover is that the same things condemned like military coups, corruption, bribery and so one are just getting worser.

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