Readers' Top Ten - Manu Herbstein, Author (With a Slideshow)

Manu Herbstein is a civil and structural engineer by profession. He was born in Muizenberg, near Cape Town, in 1936 and educated at the University of Cape Town. Manu is the author of Ama - a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for First Book, and Brave Music of a Distant Drum, a sequel. Manu Herbstein has lived and worked in England, Nigeria, India, Zambia, and Scotland, and now lives in Ghana.

Today Manu shares with us his Top Ten+ African Books. I have linked some of them to reviews and other information within the blog and outside of it. Note that reviews, where they are, are my personal opinion and do not reflect Manu's.
Dear God,
Since You have a reputation for omniscience, You will surely know that I’ve been an atheist since my teens and expect and intend to remain one until my dying day.
My dying day.
I need to talk to You about that. At 77 I’ve already received a 10% bonus on the three score years and ten promised in Your Holy Book. So I must expect to die quite soon. If not this year, then next year; and if not next year then surely within the next decade.
I don’t expect You to answer when I speak to You. However, as of course You know, I’m a writer, a story teller. I create characters, not in the flesh as Your followers claim You did with Adam and Eve, but in the imagination. And I put words into their mouths. So I can, if need be, put words into Your mouth (as, indeed, the so-called Men of God do.)
So “What is it you want to talk to Me about,” I hear You ask.
Books. My bookshelves are full of books, I reply, so full that there’s a serious overflow, onto the headboard of my bed and even piled up on my desk and on the floor.
In preparation for my departure from this earth I’ve been sorting them out, packing those I’ve read and have no wish to read again into cardboard cartons. Still, ranks of unread books stand shoulder to shoulder on the shelves, revealing only their tattooed naked spines, each one challenging me to read it first. So I want to ask You a favour: let me stay alive until I’ve read them all.
 “Nothing doing,” I hear You say (in the words I’ve put into Your mouth). “That would create a precedent.”
That’s just the answer I expected. You may be omnipotent but I don’t see much sign of Your generosity of spirit in this world. (Just think: “Syria” or “Lampedusa” or “Philippines”.)
Let me then make another proposition. When my time comes, let me take my unread books with me. I would promise to lend them to my fellow-dead as soon as I’ve finished reading them; or I might even give them away. Same answer? It’s clear that You are dead-set against establishing precedents. I guess You’re worried about overloading the clouds which support Your heavenly domain.
Dear God, won’t You let me take a hundred, just a hundred? A hundred wouldn’t last me for all eternity, but they would keep me occupied for a while.
I’ve given instructions that my dead body should be cremated. My selected hundred books could be put into my coffin and burned with me. (I’m totally opposed in principle to the burning of books, but this would be a special case.)
If human beings have souls which survive their death, I guess it might be the same with books. My soul could then read the souls of those cremated books.
You reject that too?
“It’s beyond My powers,” I hear You say.
Oh well, I thought You were omnipotent as well as omniscient, but it seems I was wrong.
Ten? Just ten? Let me be more specific: my ten favourite books by African authors. I haven’t packed them away yet because I’d like to read them again. Just ten. No one would notice. And I promise not to create a precedent by revealing Your generosity.
Your answer? Louder, please. I’m getting a little deaf as I grow older.
You agree? Did I really hear You say that You agree? Of course I did. I’m a writer. I put those words into Your mouth.
But there’s a condition? Oh, oh. I might have guessed it. Tell me, what condition? You want me to submit their titles to You in advance, my ten all-time favourite African books? I guess You’ll want to censor them. No blasphemy, right?
Well, as You know, I’m totally opposed to censorship. But what choice do I have? I’ll do as You ask right now before You change Your mind. But be patient, I beg You. It’s not easy to choose just ten books from over seventy years of reading.

I start with a long list of 17, 1 from Brazil, 2 from USA, 1 from DR Congo, 2 from Ghana, 3 from Nigeria, 1 from Senegal, 6 from South Africa, 1 from Uganda; 16 in English (1 translated from Portuguese), 1 in Afrikaans; 11 by men, 6 by women; 11 fiction, 6 non-fiction, of which 2 are history and 2 are memoirs. The Brazilian (Antonio Olinto's The Water House/A Casa de Agua) and the two Americans (Judith Gleason's Agotime, Her Legend and Saidiya Hartman's Lose Your Mother, A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route) are disqualified since their authors are not Africans. That leaves 14. I drop Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born and Sefi Atta's Everything Good Will Come on the grounds that they will surely appear on other lists. Next to go is Consuelo Roland's The Good Cemetery Guide, set in Kalk Bay just a few kilometres from Muizenberg where I grew up. Just one more to cut. That is just too much to ask. Give me another 10% bonus please: my eleven best African books.

I grew up in segregated South Africa, privileged by a 'white' skin, a middle class family, bookshelves full of books and parents who read. I had access to an excellent Carnegie Public Library. There wasn't much African in my early reading: Jock of the Bushveld, Rider Haggard and, in Afrikaans, the short stories of CJ Langenhoven, of which I recall 'Die Tolk' which described a hilarious case of serial mis-translation by a court interpreter.

My upbringing gave me none of the social and political skills required to stretch a hand across the barbed wire fence that divided South Africans. My first excursions across the colour line were through books.

Time Longer than Rope. The first of these was a chance encounter with Eddie Roux's Time Longer than Rope, first published by Gollancz in 1946. In it I discovered a completely different story from the brainwashing that passed for history in South African schools. "Ideas are difficult to suppress," Roux wrote. "The Liberatory movement has been long at work: its message has penetrated deep into the minds of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people. While racial discrimination remains the movement cannot die. There can be no going back to the old system of slavery and rural serfdom."

Down Second Avenue. The first volume of Ezekiel Mphahlele's authobiography, Down Second Avenue, was published just before I left South Africa in 1959. He had finished writing it after arriving in Nigeria as an exile in September 1957. It had an enormous influence on me and I was thrilled to meet Zeke in person when I arrived there three years later, just before Independence. Our correspondence at the time was recently published in the Chimurenga Chronic Books section under the title '50 years ago: Zeke in Nigeria.' Zeke was joint editor (with Ulli Beier) of Black Orpheus, which introduced me to the work of many young African writers including Kofi Awoonor, Wole Soyinka, Ama Ata Aidoo, Mongo Beti, and my countryman Alex la Guma, whose writing was banned back home. I would meet Zeke again many years later when we both worked in Lusaka; and for the last time, shortly before he died, in South Africa. 

Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart was the first book published in the African Writers Series. That was in 1962. I read many of the AWS books as they appeared: Cyprian Ekwensi, Peter Abrahams, Ngugi, Mongo Beti, Francis Selormey, Ferdinand Oyono, Ayi Kwei Armah. In those days it was not too difficult to keep up with new African writing. Today, it's impossible. I haven't found room for any of their much-loved books in my shortlist of 11.

Frontiers. Noel Mostert's Frontiers, 1335 pages, was first published in 1992. The title refers to the shifting frontier between the whites and the amaXhosa in what the South African school history books of my youth referred to as Kaffer Wars of 1781 - 1878, nine of them in all. This is a brilliant telling of a tragic story, deeply researched and sensitive to the mutually incomprehensible differences across the cultural divide. Google tells me that Mostert is a Canadian, but he was born in South Africa and so, by my lights, he qualifies.

Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongema. I read Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongema in the original Afrikaans. In it author Elsa Joubert transcends the barriers enforced by apartheid to tell the epic story of the life struggle of a black woman who happened to be her employee. It is told with deep womanly empathy, with neither condescension nor romanticising, giving a voice to a courageous woman, effectively her co-author, who might well otherwise have passed this world unnoticed. It also served to undermine the self-confidence of South Africa's Christian Afrikaner rulers, who had persuaded themselves of the moral rectitude of apartheid.

Unconfessed. In Unconfessed, Yvette Christiansë uses fragments of documents from the archives to build a convincing portrait of an enslaved woman, known as Sila van den Kaap. Kidnapped in Mozambique in her youth and sold into slavery in South Africa, Sila is repeatedly sold and cheated. She kills her young son Baro to save him from life as a slave. Charged with infanticide, she refuses to defend her action, giving the book its title. She narrowly escapes execution and is sent to Robben Island, where she conducts a continuous conversation with the spirit of her dead son. For me, this is perhaps the finest of all South African novels written in English. My short summary fails to give it the credit it deserves. 

Search Sweet CountryComparisons are odious, the English proverb tells us. In his introduction to Kojo Laing's Search Sweet Country, Binyavanga Wainaina rates it 'the finest novel written in English to come out of the continent.' I loved it and still love it and its marvellous characters: Beni Baidoo, Kofi Loww, Adwoa Adde, Professor Sackey, Dr Boadi, Osofo and others. First published in 1986 it is a rollicking, hilarious and affectionate portrait of Accra in the 70s and 80s. I'm sad that it's the only work by a Ghanaian in my list.

A Mouth Sweeter than Salt. It's difficult to avoid the use of exaggerated language in a short description of a favourite book. Just check Toyin Falola's academic output at Wikipedia. And the list of his books there is incomplete: missing is the 800-page Ghana in Africa and the World, Essays in Honor of Adu Boahen, which he edited. A Mouth Sweeter than Salt is a treasure. I would rate it the finest autobiographical memoir I have read. The obvious comparison is with Wole Soyinka's Ake. Forgive the odiousness of the comparison. Ake is good. A Mouth Sweeter than Salt is far, far better.

Sozaboy. Another odious comparison. I found Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun much inferior to her first novel Purple Hibiscus. One problem is that she was writing an historical novel set in a period that was not within her own memory but was within the memory of living people of my generation. She's good on the middle class, not so good on the less privileged. In Sozaboy, Saro-Wiwa, inventing what he calls rotten English, convincingly evokes the character of an ordinary young man whose wartime experiences are not of his own making. In doing so he gives a powerful, memorable, voice to one of the multitude of otherwise voiceless who were the real losers in the Biafran War. And so, as with all best stories, the local acquires a universal significance. Give me Sozaboy over Yellow Sun any day.

God's Bits of Wood. I've been a socialist since I was a teenager. It's a long time since I read Sembene Ousmane's God's Bits of Wood but it has remained in my memory as a great West African working class novel written by a man who had himself been a fisherman, plumber, bricklayer, apprentice fitter, soldier, docker and trade union leader before he became a writer and film-maker. It's time to read it again, perhaps.

Song of Lawino. At the recent conference celebrating 50 years of Institute of African Studies at Legon, I started chatting to a visiting academic. In response to my question he told me that he hailed from Uganda and that he was a political scientist. When I told him I was just then finishing re-reading a great work of Ugandan political science he gave me a curious look. I pulled out of my brief-case my well-thumbed copy of Okot p'Bitek's Song of Lawino. Himself an Acoli man like Okot, my new friend gave me a broad smile. Written entirely in verse, translated from Okot's own Acoli original, it's a great piece of African feminist satire written by a man and in many ways as true today as it was nearly fifty years ago when it was first published. And so funny, even if I sometimes felt that I was Lawino's target as much as Ocol.

Silences in African History. The young Nigerian literary scholar Arthur Anyaduba wrote and published an MA thesis in which he did me the honour of setting my novel Ama by the side of Zakes Mda's Heart of Redness (which, incidentally revisits some of the territory covered by Noel Mostert in Frontiers.) He sent me the chapter about Ama and in it introduced me to Jacques Depelchin's Silences in African History, published in Tanzania. I ordered a copy and read it at a sitting. I've been dipping into it ever since. Depelchin takes a hard, highly critical look at the African history written by Africanist scholars of the West, including some Africans. I'm biased in his favour perhaps, because he makes a strong case for including the work of historical novelists in the study of African history.

That's my lot. Eleven favourite books. A pity to burn them.


  1. I like his compilation, most of which are classics, I have added a few to my TBR

    1. Yes. I was surprise to notice that for the first time, I have read only one of the books on a reader's list.

  2. I enjoyed this post tremendously even though I'm not familiar with any of the books!

    1. You could see that I am also not familiar any of the books but one.

  3. I've read Things fall apart. i've read my country man, Cameroonian Mongo Beti's "Mission to Kala'. i read Francis Selormey's "The narrow path" when i was eleven. I studied Cyprian Ekwensi's northern Nigeria set novel "Burning grass" in Form 2, secondary school and i was among the top three in exams based on the novel. i started reading "the beautyful ones are not yet born' when i was in university in 2007 and abandoned it bc of sentences like these 'your mother's rotten cunt" LOL its a classic though. I completed chimamanda's "purple hibiscus" two weeks ago and i'm currently reading Half of a yellow sun. A ugandan friend of mine has sent me Song of Lawino by post, still waiting for it to arrive and....i visited a friend and saw her copy of Sefi's "Everything good will come" i begged her for it. she refused that its helping her shape a short story she's currently writing. i wish that my friend was not a writer like me!!!!!!!!

    1. Great. I just read (early this month) Mongo Beti's The Poor Christ of Bomba. Intersting.

  4. Manu is funny but seriously, lots of books on his list that I've not heard off. I admit my reading of Southern African literature is weak...

    1. I like his straightforwardness. His books make me want to hide. LOL.

    2. LOL @ His books make me want to hide. LOL.


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