African jewels

A timely anthology of short stories reveals the strength of contemporary African fiction—and, writes Ruth Franklin, the growth of globalised, “post-national” literature
August 24, 2011
The Granta Book of the African Short Storyedited by Helon Habila (Granta, £25)

Africa in the 21st century, carved into an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of countries (the latest being South Sudan), is no longer the empty space that once served to represent it on European maps. But African literature, to many outside the continent, tends to be a blank page, or at least a sparsely written one. In his introduction to The Granta Book of the African Short Story, the Nigerian writer Helon Habila laments the number of times he has attended a lecture on African literature that “begins and ends with Things Fall Apart, as if nothing has been written in Africa since 1958.” This new collection seeks to introduce readers to what he calls a “post-nationalist” generation of writers, those born largely after colonialism, for whom national politics are no longer a defining obsession—an obsession, Habila believes, that once restricted African writers’ ambition. “As long as people have freedom to think and discuss and travel and find fulfilment, and are not slaves to the nation and politicians, they will create art and put down their best thoughts and ideas in the form of stories,” he writes.

The 29 writers in Habila’s anthology range in age from Manuel Rui, born in Angola in 1941, to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, born in Nigeria in 1977. Geographically, they cover the continent from South Africa to Egypt, Morocco to Zimbabwe. But linguistically they are far less diverse: the legacy of colonialism means that the majority of their work is not only written in English or French but also steeped in the European literary tradition. (In Olufemi Terry’s “Stickfighting Days,” one of the best stories, street kids in Nairobi give their weapons names out of Lord of the Rings.) Many were educated in England or America and stayed there; one, Aminatta Forna, was born in Glasgow.

Not surprisingly for this mobile group, many of the stories describe the experiences of Africans abroad. In Adichie’s “The Arrangers of Marriage,” Chinaza travels to Brooklyn as the bride of a recent immigrant and discovers that nothing about America is as promised, from her shabby apartment to her husband himself. In one of the many sharp details, Chinaza is amazed, upon meeting an African-American neighbour, to discover the woman calls herself by an African name; Chinaza’s husband has told her to use only her English name to fit in. Elsewhere, Maaza Mengiste depicts a community of Ethiopian immigrants to Los Angeles who are still haunted by memories of the regime under which they suffered at home. And Laila Lalami looks at the immigrant experience from the other side: a Moroccan who has emigrated to Spain travels home to Casablanca for a visit and cannot shake his sense of estrangement from his family, including his wife.

The writers who turn their gaze on conditions at home make it all too clear what the emigrants are fleeing. Terry’s “Stickfighting Days”—last year’s winner of the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing—depicts the ghastly conditions of homeless children living in a city dump, who fight each other to the death as part of an elaborate game. The unlikely Christmas story “An Ex-mas Feast” by Uwem Akpan, the well-known Nigerian writer who is also a priest, is told from the perspective of a boy in a Nairobi shantytown, whose mother gives him glue to sniff as a “hunger killer” and whose older sister pays his school fees through prostitution.

When the family offer up their “Ex-mas” prayers, the mother thanks God for the gift of her children, for blessing the older sister with rich white clients, and “for our former landlord… who evicted us but hadn’t seized anything when we could not pay the rent.” With a few details changed, these stories could take place in any slum in the world, from Rio to Calcutta; it is tragedy that most easily transcends nationality.

With a few exceptions—among them Yvonne Vera’s “Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals,” a haunting dialogue between a painter and a woodcarver—these stories would not be out of place in English or American literary magazines; indeed, that’s where many of them were first published. Other than the settings, there’s little that feels indigenously African here. This might be a consequence of Habila’s “post-nationalism,” or simply a sign that, in this era of globalised literature, cultural commerce easily transcends national boundaries. Binyavanga Wainaina’s story, “Ships in High Transit,” plays with the idea of an authentic Africa, mocking both the tourists in search of “something real” and the natives who perform an elaborately fake show of African identity for them. “They zero in on the exotic, the things that make him separate from them,” the guide Matano laments of his clients even as he suckers them. The only one who “saw through him” was a Texan who asked, “What kinda guy are you behind all that hoss-sheet?” Paradoxically, it’s the details that make people distinct from one another which can also work to unite us—as this collection so effectively demonstrates.