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Anthology: A Lot To Live Up To

Rob Spillman, Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing (Penguin, 2009)

Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing, edited by Rob Spillman of Tin House, is a keenly collected and expertly packaged anthology of urgent and vital writing.

One would do well to read this book because: a) Africa is larger than the United States, Europe, and China combined, and in our interdependent, globalized world, Africa’s problems are our problems; b) African writing is, as Spillman argues in his introduction, entering a golden age due to a host of factors including rapid urbanization and expanding educational and economic opportunities, and is thereby “ready for the international spotlight”; and c) these stories are really, really good.

The writing coming out of Africa today has an unparalleled urgency. The stakes are high. In 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the Nigerian military for exposing the unseemly details of the relationship between Shell Oil and the junta of General Sani Abacha. Reading through the biographical notes of Gods and Soldiers, one feels the pervasive violence that lurks beneath these stories and the lives of their authors: the Algerian novelist Aziz Chouaki received multiple death threats from Islamic fundamentalists, forcing him to move to France; the Nigerian poet and novelist Chris Abani was imprisoned and tortured based on the “evidence” of his first novel; and the Kenyan writer Ngūgī wa Thiong’o penned an entire novel on toilet paper after being imprisoned for his 1977 play I Will Marry When I Want. These writers are writing not because they have just earned their MFAs and are eager to enter the marketplace, but because they have to.

After a brief introduction, including a map and historical timeline of the continent, Spillman divides the book into six sections: West Africa, Francophone Africa, North Africa, East Africa, the Former Portuguese Colonies, and Southern Africa. At the beginning of each section, the reader is greeted by a map highlighting the countries represented (e.g., Ghana and Nigeria for West Africa; Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, and Djibouti for East Africa, etc.) as well as an essay preceding the fiction. The essays explore African literature and language and effectively lend the stories a kind of conceptual framework within which we can begin to think about them.

Naturally, the leading theoretical questions addressed here concern the definition of African literature, or literatures, and the complexities of language. In the anthology’s opening essay, “The African Writer and the English Language,” Nigerian Chinua Achebe, the grandfather of African literature since the publication of his monumental Things Fall Apart in 1957, says, “I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience.” This opinion, of course, is quite controversial; other African writers, most prominently Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, argue that African writers should express themselves in their native tongues, of which, on a continent of eight hundred million people and 54 nations, there are over two thousand. One of the many successes of this anthology is how well it frames such thorny debates; through access to different voices, the reader is privy to the inner tensions of this important discourse (as well as others, such as the ubiquity of superstition, or the influence and legacy of the concept of Negritude). Two hundred pages after Achebe’s persuasive essay, Mia Couto of Mozambique makes a convincing case for a plural man with a plural language through the telling of his attempt to translate for a group of visiting environmental scientists from English into Portuguese, which was then translated by a local fisherman into the local dialect Chidindinhe. In short, the word “scientists” (which does not exist in the local language) is translated into “witchdoctor” (“inguetlha”), “environment” becomes “a sort of Big Bang” (“ntumbuluku”), and “bush pigs” is rendered into “spirits of the dead” (“tinguluve”). Confusion ensues. Couto’s point is that certain African “cosmovisions” are “not easily reducible to European processes of logic,” and he poses the tantalizing question, “What is the role of God in a world that never had a beginning?” For many, he says, “the universe quite simply has always existed.”

The plagues of war and dictatorship, or what Laila Lalami calls the “love child” of colonialism, certainly inform the anthology’s fiction. There are unspeakable horrors depicted here. For example, in “Half of a Yellow Sun,” a chilling account of the Nigeria-Biafran War of the late 1960s, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie details the method used by Nigerian soldiers when massacring Biafrans: “They must have cut open Arize’s stomach and beheaded the baby first—it was what they did to the pregnant women.” But as Boubacar Boris Diop breathes voices into those silenced by the Rwandan genocide in his novel Murambi, The Book of Bones, he subtly hints at the limits of novelistic treatment of such atrocities when he writes, “To tell what they did to Agathe Uwilingiyimana is beyond me. A woman’s body profaned.” Indeed, to focus here on only the accounts of Africa’s systemic violence would be to fail to emphasize the broader success of these stories, namely, their brilliant range of formal innovations, stylistic inventions, and deeply affecting narratives—all qualities of aesthetically superior fiction, at once uniquely African and utterly universal.

“I express myself,” says Lomba, the eponymous protagonist of Helon Habila’s elegant short story about an imprisoned Nigerian man forced to write love poems for his supervisor, who, pretending he penned the poems himself, then gives them to his girlfriend. Habila’s evocation of poetry itself as both an inner and outer form of freedom and self-expression is masterful. Ghanaian Mohammed Naseehu Ali’s story “The Manhood Test” tells of how Islamic Shari’a law entwines the public and private spheres when a man is forced to prove his potency in bed with his wife before an official audience; if he fails to do so, his empowered wife wins the right to divorce him. In “A Beneficiary,” Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer relates a crushingly beautiful story about a young woman investigating her confused parentage in South Africa.

The anthology displays an astonishing array of technique and invention. In “Broken Glass,” Alain Mabanckou blends an oral storytelling style, a host of French literary allusions, and a piercing satire in his sidesplitting, headlong prose that here runs 12 pages long—yet employs only three periods! Mabanckou writes, “this is the age of the written word, that’s all that’s left, the spoken word’s just black smoke, wild cat’s piss.” Other writers convey a similar urgency and intensity in their prose through their use of the present tense and stream-of-consciousness techniques. In “The Belly of the Atlantic,” Fatou Diome’s narrator screams at her TV as she watches a soccer game, “Oh God, do something! I’m not shouting, I’m begging you: if you’re the Almighty, do something! Ah, back comes Maldini, his legs knitting up the turf.” Clearly, writing for these authors is a visceral, performative act; or, as Diome puts it, “Writing’s my witch’s cauldron; at night I brew up dreams too tough to cook.”

John Updike, in his New Yorker review of Ngūgī wa Thiong’o’s satirical, fantastical, magical realist epic Wizard of the Crow, noted Ngūgī’s view of writing-as-performance, citing a Ngūgī essay in which he compared writing to the performance of a play, that is, to “any action that assumes an audience during the actualization.” Indeed, the exuberance and immediacy of performance pervades many of these pieces, including not only those of Ngūgī, Mabanckou, and Diome, but also Niq Mhlongo’s turn as a hip and witty university student in polyglot Johannesburg in his cult-classic novel, Dog Eat Dog, or Zakes Mda’s comic channeling of the glories and ignominies of the life of a professional mourner in his award-winning novel, Ways of Dying. Not all of the novelists represented in this anthology write in this manner—for example, Egyptian Nawal El Saadawi wields a stark and arresting realism in her consummate novel Woman at Point Zero—but there are many thrilling performances herein, and they are not to be missed.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2009

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