26 May 2009

Anthologies of African Literature(s)

The new issue of The Quarterly Conversation has been posted, and, as with every issue, it's full of interesting stuff (of special note is Scott Esposito's big essay on the fiction of Cormac McCarthy, but there's tons of other good material, too, including a consideration of the intersections of fiction and autobiography in the works of Janet Frame, to me one of the essential writers of the 20th century. Oh, and a review of the new translation of Andrei Platonov's The Foundation Pit. Haven't read Platonov? You must!)

The piece that has, for the moment, most caught my attention is a review by Geoff Wisner of Rob Spillman's anthology Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing. I just got a copy of this book, and have been looking through it eagerly, because I know Spillman (the editor of Tin House) cares deeply about African literature and has developed real knowledge of it, having spent time on the continent and having worked with numerous writers there. Thus, his take on contemporary African literature promised to be an interesting one.

A quick glance at the table of contents of the book, though, and I wasn't so sure -- half of the pieces are excerpts from novels (over half if you include Helon Habila's story "Lomba", which is part of Waiting for an Angel), no poetry is included, and the whole thing is a little over 300 pages long. The selections are arranged by geography and language, with sections for north, south, east, and west Africa as well as Francophone and "Former Portuguese Colonies" (here, Mozambique and Angola), and each section begins with an essay. Thus, this is primarily a collection of African fiction, and is more a sampler than anything else. It is clearly aimed at an audience that is unfamiliar with African lit -- Spillman includes a short chronology of "a few key dates to keep in mind" in his introduction, and each section is prefaced with a map. I started reading the pieces I wasn't already familiar with, and enjoyed each of them. I decided to relax a bit -- "You are not," I told myself, "the right audience for this book." I needed to see the book for its intentions, not my desires for it -- I yearn for there to be more comprehensive anthologies of African literatures, and because this is not such an anthology does not mean it doesn't serve a useful purpose or offer plenty of good stuff to read.

Geoff Wisner
is the wrong audience for the book, too, but more qualified than I to really assess it, since he is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books that Capture the Spirit of Africa (which I have not read; here is his African reading list), and so has given plenty of thought to how to introduce unfamiliar readers to the variety of literatures the continent has produced. I found myself mumbling, "Yes, yes, yes..." as I read his review. For instance, he notes one of my first hesitations, the oddity of including Chinua Achebe's classic essay "The African Writer and the English Language" and not an essay by, for instance, Ngugi wa Thiong'o in response -- there has been, for decades, a passionate debate among all sorts of different post-colonial writers about English, native languages, etc., and to offer only one perspective on it, even one as nuanced as Achebe's, does not admit the debate and thus distorts the context. (While chanting my mantra, "You are not the right audience for this book..." the only choice of Spillman's that really bothers me is this one. For some more background on this and other complexities of the topic, see, for instance, African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory or Transition 75/76.)

One thing that Wisner does not note, probably because Spillman likely had no say in it, is the book's cover. In the introduction, Spillman quotes Binyavanga Wainaina's famous and brilliantly sarcastic essay "How to Write about Africa", but doesn't quote from the second paragraph: "Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these." No naked breasts or prominent ribs, but we do have a child with a gun and the shadow of a soldier. Hmmm... The title isn't the greatest, either -- Gods and Soldiers would apply to many collections of geographically-based fiction, except, of course, Stories from the Godless Pacifist Autonomous Zone of Vermont. And it serves to reinforce the primary American image of Africa: polytheists (aka "primitives", "savages", etc.) with guns. But I suppose it's better than Diseased Cannibals or something like that.

(Mantra mantra mantra: "You are not the right audience for this book...")

Gods and Soldiers is a perfectly adequate sampler of some recent writing from people associated with the continent of Africa. (That's not likely to be chosen for a blurb, now is it?) The difficulty such an anthology faces is the difficulty of any marginalized literature -- good, honest, well-intentioned, and knowledgeable work will have to bear many burdens because it will, no matter its goals or qualities, be forced to be an exemplar. A collection of interesting African prose will suddenly become THE Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing and will likely be the only such anthology on bookstore shelves. My grumbles about the anthology are more grumbles about this fact than about the book itself. We need this book, yes. But we need this book to be one of many.

And now, lacking a good segue (this is a blog -- you want a segues, go elsewhere), I want to mention The Feminist Press's extraordinary four-volume anthology series Women Writing Africa. I would shout about these books from the rooftop if my house didn't have a steep tin roof that I fall off of easily. The anthologies are, in many ways, the exact opposite of Gods and Soldiers: focused, historical, as comprehensive as possible, and not at all intended to be a brief introduction. I borrowed one from a library and spent days with it and still felt overwhelmed by the variety and plenitude. They are hugely important books, books for which we should all be grateful. I plan to return to them many times, because they are books I aspire to be the right audience for.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate your thoughts on my review of Gods and Soldiers and about the whole problem or challenge of introducing readers to the literature of 54 countries. I have a question I'd like to ask you offline, if you don't mind. You can reach me at my website.

    ReplyDelete