A timely anthology of short stories reveals the strength of contemporary African fiction—and, writes Ruth Franklin, the growth of globalised, “post-national” literatureby Ruth Franklin / August 24, 2011 / Leave a comment
The Granta Book of the African Short Story edited 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…