Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Discussion: An African Book You have Read that isn't Things Fall Apart

The rate of literary outturn by Africans, though comparatively smaller, has been progressively increasing. Africans have been writing and publishing for over a century now. For instance, The Anglo-Fante Short Story by Kobina Sekyi was published in the West African Magazine in 1918. The author's play Blinkards was first performed on-stage around 1915. The novels Ethiopia Unbound: Studies in Race Emancipation by Ephraim Casely-Hayford and Eighteen Pence by R. E. Obeng's were published in 1911 and 1943. Similarly, Herbert Isaac Ernest Dhlomo's The Girl Who Killed to Save: Nongqawuse the Liberator was published in 1935. 

Several of these examples exist. However, the publication of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958) brought African literature to a wider audience. The numerous translations (into more than fifty languages) and its widespread distribution made it one of the most translated and read African novels. The effect is that when asked, most non-Africans mention it as the only African book they have read. It creates the impression as if it is the definitive African novel; that once one has read it one has a complete understanding of African Literature. Thus, readers are unwilling to go beyond it.

Now the question I am asking my non-African readers is, apart from Things Fall Apart which other African book (novel, play, poetry anthology) have you read? How did you discover it (if you still remember)? And how different it is, if any, from other novels you have read?

8 comments:

  1. I only recently read Things Fall Apart. I had previously read No Longer at Ease. He strikes me as both allied to and separate from the European tradition. I had heard a lot about the importance of Things fall Apart before reading either. (http://theknockingshop.blogspot.ie/search/label/Chinua%20Achebe)
    I've read Palace Walk by Mahfouz - I intend reading the other two books in the trilogy. The fact that he was a Nobel winner led me to his work. (http://theknockingshop.blogspot.ie/2011/09/palace-walk.html)
    I have read a number of South African novels by writers of European heritage - Coetzee, Lessing and Paton. These fit comfortably into the anglophone literary tradition.

    I realise that I have only dipped my toes in the water and intend reading many more as the years go by.

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    1. Interesting that you read No Longer At Ease before Things Fall Apart. Your list is good. At least not many can boast of it. Coetzee is great but dense. Like Gordimer, at times.

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  2. Naguib Mahfouz may have been my first African writer, I think it was 'Arabian Nights and Days.' Afterwards I discovered Pepetela, Mia Couto, Ondjaki, Luandino Vieira, Luís Bernardo Honwana, the main Portuguese-language African writers. I've also read Coetzee.

    I've only read Achebe's infamous essay about Conrad.

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    Replies
    1. That's great Miguel. We are perhaps busting the myth. I like your list and I must admit that most of the names are new to me. Only Pepetela (Return of the Water Spirit), and Couto (Voices Made Night & Every Man is a Race) are known to me. And Coetzee too, of course. And Naguib (Palace Walk).

      I've not read that essay yet. But at least I'm happy that Achebe's seminal work isn't seen as a definitive African novel.

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    2. I think there isn't a wide gap between Portugal and Portuguese-language African writers. It's quite common to read them, they're bestsellers here and have a prominent role in our culture, they're on TV and newspapers, they're strong presences. That's what makes them accessible. On the other hand, we ignore all other African literature.

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    3. I see. Thus, there is that seamless merge between the two groups. This is good for such writers. It isn't so between Anglophone Africa and Britain. I also see that there is somewhat a disconnect between Portuguese literature and English Literature. Not enough translations from one into the other. Is the 'ignoring' a result of less translation into Portuguese or accessibility.

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    4. Probably they're not translated because the publishers don't think they're commercial enough for the Portuguese audience. After all the Portuguese-language African writers deal with themes that are still relevant to our society: colonialism, the wars of independence that killed Portuguese soldiers, the trauma of decolonization and the uprooting of families, modern relationships between Portugal and its former colonies. I guess no one, outside a few curious people, would be interested in what's going on in Nigeria or Kenya right now. Naguib Mahfouz has been getting a big push since his death, but he's a Nobel Prize winner. Achebe has been translated, but he's out of print. I think Soyinka hasn't been translated yet. Coetzee and Gordimer have been widely translated too. Athol Fugard got Tsotsi published when the movie came out, but I can't find his plays.

      If I had to make a list of African books I want to read, it'd be:

      Wizard of the Crow, Ngugi wa Thiong'o
      Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
      The Interpreters, Wole Soyinka
      Collected Plays II, Wole Soyinka
      Statements, Athol Fugard

      Truth be said, I don't know African literature that well.

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    5. The commercial success of a book is key to its translation into other languages, because the process of translating is itself tedious requiring experts. With regards to subject matter or themes, I am currently reading Ama - a story of the Transatlantic Slave Trade by Manu Herbstein (a South African) and I just realised how little this area has been traversed by African writers.

      Ngugi wa Thiong'o do investigates these relationships and matters of colonisation and the post-colonisation era. I guess Achebe will be revived after his death.

      Interesting, but I think we should be inquisitive to know what happens in each others literature. It is in doing so that we shall come to understand and appreciate our differences. For instance, I love the magic realism of these Lusophonic authors as I have read in Jose Eduardo Agualusa, Pepetela, and Mia Couto. It points to several things in my own culture. I guess the best way to break all these boundaries is to become multilingual, like you, then one wouldn't need a middleman to read foreign books.

      On the list you would want to read, I've read only the first two. I've read some of Soyinka's plays: The Lion and the Jewel, Death and the King's Horseman and Madmen and Specialists. Wizard of the Crow is an interesting book. You'll enjoy it.

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