Critical Mass

“After the Smoke Clears: Reviewing Writing about Africa”


Fifty years ago the literary landscape shifted with the publication of Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” “The book wrote me,” Achebe told an anniversary celebration at New York’s Town Hall, where some of the many he influenced honored him recently. 

“It’s central to everything we do,” said novelist and poet Chris Abani, who described reading “Things Fall Apart” in four days, and publishing his first short story in response to the novel two weeks later.

Achebe, along with Joseph Conrad, Rhodesian born Doris Lessing and the Polish journalist Rizcard Kapuscinski, are among the literary forerunners of the novelists,  poets, journalists, essayists and nonfiction writers who focus on Africa today. The flood of recent writing about the vast continent includes recent NBCC fiction award finalists “Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. A Novel,” by Dave Eggers, and “In the Country of Men” by Hisham Matar, and this year’s nonfiction award winner “Stanley” by Tim Jeal.

“After the Smoke Clears: Reviewing Writing about Africa,” the NBCC’s March 6 discussion with (from left) nonfiction writers Daniel Bergner and Eliza Griswold, and novelists Emmanuel Dongala and Norman Rush, focused on how critics can frame the literature of contemporary Africa. Each panelist recommended a list of books.

Daniel Bergner, a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine and author of “The Land of Magic Soldiers,” about Sierra Leone’s horrific civil war, listed two: Ronan Bennett’s “The Catastrophist,” a novel set in the Congo at independence, and George Packer’s “The Village of Waiting,” a memoir of his time in the Peace Corps in Togo. 

Emmanuel Dongala, the Congolese chemist and novelist (“Johnny Mad Dog” and “Little Boys Come from the Stars”), suggested five books considered the twentieth-century classics of African writing in French:
“Dark Child” by Camara Laye, “Houseboy” by Ferdinand Oyono, “So long a letter” by Mariam Ba ,“Bound to Violence” by Yambo Ouologuem, and “The Abandoned Baobab” by Ken Bugul.

Unfortunately,Dongala notes,one book which must be in the list “La vie et demie” of Sony Labou Tansi, has not been translated yet even though it was published in the 1970’s. (His “The Fire of Origins” is considered a classic, as well.)

Eliza Griswold, whose article about the religious conflict in Nigeria appears in the March issue of “The Atlantic,” recommended “Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa,” edited by Alex de Waal; “A Bend In the River,” V.S. Naipaul, “We Wish to Inform You…” Philip Gourevitch’s NBCC finalist in nonfiction. Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun,” and “How to Write about Africa” by Binyavanga Wainaina, which appeared in Granta 92,“The View from Africa.”

Norman Rush, who has been called by one critic “the essential novelist of globalization,” has written a highly acclaimed trilogy on the Western presence in contemporary southern Africa: “Whites” (1986), “Mating” a 1991 NBCC finalist, “In Retrospect” series here,  and and “Mortals” (2003). He recommended Moses Isegawa’s “Snakepit,” 2004, and his “The Abyssinian Chronicles,” 1998, Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun” and “Purple Hibiscus,” 2004, as well as Dave Eggers’ “What is the What.”

Photo credit: Miriam Berkley