Standing by Words – African Novels

Books Reviews
Standing by Words – African Novels

It’s nothing new to argue that Americans don’t pay enough attention to foreign fiction; one wonders if the situation were ever different. Nineteenth-century audiences crowded docks to receive the latest installments of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, but the author, whose outsized creations bump against the sky of one’s mind like Thanksgiving Day parade balloons, probably inspired a similar extravagance in readers. And when a foreign work does register on our radar, it’s typically from Europe, Japan, Central or South America. With rare exceptions—Achebe, Gordimer, Soyinka—even book junkies don’t hear much about African fiction. So here, drawn from reading lists, friends’ recommendations, Internet jags and bookstore browsings, are four compelling works of African fiction not titled Things Fall Apart.

To experience Tsitsi Dangarembga’s prose is like drowning in shallow water—her classic Nervous Conditions is narrated so plainly you don’t notice your own absorption in it. The story of a young girl trying to attend school in 1960s Rhodesia, Nervous Conditions dramatizes the injustice of sexism while entertaining far more potent and unanswerable questions about the twin Trojan Horses of education and economic development. There’s nothing didactic here: Larger questions arise from Dangarembga’s fierce, simple depiction of her main character’s struggle.

Slightly less tense but still eloquent and informative is Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter, a heartfelt attack on polygamy as practiced in 20th-century Senegal. Ba empathetically renders the feelings of a woman who has shared her husband’s bed and raised his children, but now must watch with slavish equanimity as he marries a much younger woman. But there’s more to this novel than polemic: Because she provides an encompassing perspective of her main character’s life—the quotidian drama of childrearing and working and growing old—Ba’s attack on polygamy hits harder.

Issues of sex—and religion, politics and seemingly everything else—also turn up in Karen King-Aribisala’s Kicking Tongues, an ambitious meditation on modern-day Nigeria. She brilliantly adapts the framework of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; this time, the pilgrims are Nigerians from various social classes, headed by bus to a Holiday Inn in the country’s new capital, Abuja. By maintaining her framing device, giving everybody their say, and endowing her narrator with a multi-dimensional personality, the author creates unity from multiplicity, and her microcosm of contemporary Nigerian life becomes believably complex.

Chris Abani depicts a war-torn, politically unstable modern Nigeria through the eyes of a young Elvis impersonator in his debut novel, Graceland. What lingers about this book, though, is its exact portraiture of the shame, gratitude and self-absorption of its protagonist, a sensitive person who slowly realizes he’ll only survive this world by the kindness of people meaner than himself. Graceland, indeed.

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