One of the many reasons for missing life in central London is Daunt Books. I’ve mentioned it a few times here, including in this post about keeping reading diets mixed. The wonder of this travel bookshop is their geographical shelf-arrangement by continent, region and country; so far so obvious – as a travel bookshop, you get precisely what you expect, namely travel guides and maps – yet that’s not all. They deliberately include fiction, some poetry, history and journalism from each country. I’ve discovered all kinds of goodies there that I’d never have encountered otherwise. Browsing an Amazon list really isn’t the same. I’m constantly hungry for new reads…
In case you’re even vaguely similar and as part of this little series, here are 5 from black novelists (both from Africa and the west) that have particularly lodged in my memory.
THINGS FALL APART (1958)
Chinua Achebe – Nigeria
This is THE great African novel. Set in Achebe’s home region of southern Nigeria, where the Igbo people group is centred, the book depicts life before and after the arrival of British colonialists and missionaries.
The protagonist is Okonkwo, a wrestler in his youth, and an impulsive and strong clan leader with an impressive reputation in his district. He is a brilliant and compelling means by which Achebe personalises the absolute culture clash resulting from the white man’s invasion.
Samuel R. Delany – USA
Delany is an intellectual force of nature. African American, born in Harlem and lifelong New Yorker, self-identified as gay since he was a teenager despite a 19-year marriage, academic and critic… and astonishing science-fiction writer!
Babel-17 is mesmerising, kaleidoscopic, disturbing but always disorientingly brilliant! If sci-fi writing is not quite your bag, then this perhaps isn’t the first place to start. But as the title hints, its themes hinge on the power of languages to shape and inform our perceptions of the world. It will blow your mind!
BLONDE ROOTS (2008 )
Bernadine Evaristo – UK
She’s become a household name amongst the literati now as joint-winner of last year’s Booker Prize (with Margaret Atwood) – and I’ve not got round to the book that brought her such acclaim (Girl, Woman, Other).
But I was sent Blonde Roots when it first came out for review (for some reason – I now haven’t the foggiest why or who by!) and I was blown away. Not a million miles from Marjorie Blackman’s young adult series, Noughts and Crosses, it reverses the transatlantic slave trade, with Africans enslaving Europeans. For more, read my review from 2008.
PURPLE HIBISCUS (2003)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Nigeria
The sharp will know that she’s already featured in my first Hearing the Unheard lists. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a fantastic writer. Her writing is stunning and seemingly effortless. It was my daughter, Zanna, who got me into it since she’s a huge fan. She loves her 2013 novel Americanah even more, but I’ve not got to that yet.
Purple Hibiscus is set in her home country of Nigeria, and in fact, is clearly writing in her fellow Igbo Achebe’s slipstream and if he articulated pre-colonial Nigerian life. From the perspective of fifteen-year-old Kambili, she narrates a post-colonial world in which that old culture clash has never been resolved. The book’s opening line resonates at so many levels:
The instability of a country ruled by dictators toppled only by coups, religious divergence (both within Catholicism and between Christianity and indigenous Animist religion), the plight of women under male brutality as well as the lifestyle differences between the ambitious and the thoughtful, are all witnessed by Kambili with stark, uncomprehending accuracy. This is a truly astonishing book.
ROSEWATER (Wormwood Trilogy #1 – 2018)
Tade Thompson – Nigeria/UK
Finally, here is a very recent discovery for me. Tade Thompson was born in the UK but grew up in Nigeria. Now he is back here, working as a psychiatrist on the south coast. He has now published a number of novels and short stories on the side.
I know very little else about him and only discovered Rosewater this year because I was given the LRB Book Box subscription (each month a surprise title arrives in the post) for Christmas. This was a recent number. So surprisingly, we come to more science-fiction, set in a Nigeria of 2066 after some weird life form has created a huge dome in central Nigeria. Unlike some sci-fi (which is all physics and tech) this is all very biological (as befits a medic), which lends itself perfectly (for me, at any rate) to something verging on the horrific. If you’re a bit squeamish, this is not for you (or perhaps is). But I just loved the originality and ideas behind a great storyline (only I could have done with perhaps 25% fewer flashbacks/forwards!).
I’ve just realised that 4 out of 5 have Nigerian roots (Evaristo’s father was Nigerian, her mother white English). How weird is that! This certainly wasn’t intentional. 2 are Igbo (Achebe and Adichie), 2 are Yoruba (Evaristo and Thompson). No doubt all kinds of reasons lurking behind that. But that prompts me to include one extra for good measure.
Abyssinian Chronicles (2001)
Moses Isegawa (1963) – Uganda/Netherlands
The novel begins just as Uganda receives her independence from Britain and traces the life of Mugezi through the next three or so decades of the country’s life. It therefore incorporates the anarchic horror of the Idi Amin years and the worse that followed under Obote II (as people called Milton Obote’s return to power. I read it early on in our time living there and it probably did more to initiate me into the country’s complexities than anything else I read. It’s (necessarily?) brutal at times but utterly compelling.