Airbrushed out

A-Z of African Writers: a guide to modern African writing in English compiled by Robin Malan (Shuter)

One way of measuring the worth of any dictionary is not only noting what has been included but, more crucially, what has been left out.

When I received the A-Z of African Writers, compiled by Robin Malan, I scanned it looking out for the canonical writers such as Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, JM Coetzee and Ayi Kwei Armah. But alas! Armah was not to be found.

The same Armah who wrote The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Fragments, Why Are We So Blest?, The Healers and, more recently, Osiris Rising and KMT: In the House of Life and other books in which he uses Egyptology.

Another remarkable author who found vitality in other sources of knowledge, Yambo Ouloguem, is excluded. Perhaps the continent’s most reclusive author, Ouloguem appropriated Sufi mysticism in his Bound to Violence and was later plagued by plagiarism allegations that made him abandon literature altogether. The Malian writer is the subject of a recent critical book edited by Christopher Wise to which Kwame Antony Appiah, Wole Soyinka and other scholars contributed.

Also omitted from Malan’s book is Zimbabwean writer Stanley Nyamfukudza, a contemporary of Dambudzo Marechera at Oxford University and author of the novel, The Non-Believer’s Journey, and two collections of short stories, Aftermaths and If God Was a Woman.

My disillusionment grew further when I couldn’t find Sony Labou Tansi from the Democratic Republic of Congo — perhaps the best writer of his generation.

That part of the continent seems badly represented; a Zambian who picks up this book would think the country has produced only one writer, Ellen Banda-Aaku. But a cursory internet search shows Binwell Sinyangwe and Dominic Mulaisho, author of the novel, The Smoke that Thunders. In fact, Kenneth Kaunda, the country’s founding president, tried his hand at writing and penned a book of non-fiction, Zambia Shall Be Free.

When I turned to Angola, the dictionary lists Pepetela, founding president and poet Agostinho Neto, Simao Kikamba, who has lived in South Africa for years, and Jose Luandino Vieira. Absent are Ondjaki, author of The Whistler, among other novels, and Jose Eduardo Agaualusa, winner of the 2007 Independent Fiction Prize for his novel The Book of Chameleons. The two are among the most exciting African writers I have read in the past few years.

The continent’s two literary superpowers are South Africa and Nigeria; they are the most productive countries in Africa and boast several Bookers and Nobel Prizes for Literature between them. Yet South Africa has more than 100 writers listed; Nigeria has just over 20 entries. I don’t see why Nigerians such as John Munonye (Oil Man of Obange, A Wreath for the Maidens, A Dancer of Fortune), Eddie Iroh (Forty-Eight Guns for the General), Nkem Nwanko (My Mercedes Is Bigger Than Yours) and scores of others are not included.

Another absentee is Charles Mangua, one of Kenya’s prolific authors, whose ouevre includes popular novels such as Son of Woman, Son of Woman in Mombasa, Kanina and I and A Tail in the Mouth. Mangua was a favourite of mine as a teenager and was acknowledged by Ngugi as one of the unique voices in Kenya.

In contrast some of the authors Malan does list, such as the Ugandan Monica Arac de Nyeko, seem to have been included on the basis of several stories.

Yes, one of those stories won the Caine Prize, but Mangua’s novels qualify him for a place in any dictionary of Africa’s writers.

In its current form the dictionary isn’t useful for anyone who really wants to know about the continent’s writers. Yes, it is beautifully laid out and the entries contain biographical details, bibliography, at times a memorable quote or an excerpt of a review, extracts from a novel or poem. These work well, but the dictionary needs more than this to make it authoritative and comprehensive. One hopes a second edition will remedy the many glaring omissions here.

In the wilderness
The following writers could have been included:

Rebeka Njau (Kenya) Ripples in the Pool
Charles Samupindi (Zimbabwe) Pawns
Barbara Makhalisa (Zimbabwe) The Underdog and Other Stories
Timothy Mofolorunso Aluko (Nigeria) One Man, One Matchet
Stanlake Samkange (Zimbabwe) On Trial for My Country
Amu Djoleto (Ghana) The Strange Man
Francis Selormey (Ghana) The Narrow Path
Sahle Selassie (Ethiopia) The Wedding of Zein
Peter K Palangyo (Tanzania) Dying in the Sun
Robert Serumaga (Uganda) Return to the Shadows
Onuora Nzekwu (Nigeria) Wand of Noble Wood
Francis Bebey (Cameroon) Agatha Moudio’s Son
Bernard Dadie (Côte d’Ivoire) Climbie
Bonnie Lubega (Uganda) The Outcasts
Driss Chraibi (Morocco) Heirs to the Past
Lawrence Vambe (Zimbabwe) An Ill-fated People
Zukiswa Wanner (South Africa) The Madams
Yvette Christiansë (South Africa) Unconfessed
Alain Mabanckou (Congo-Brazzaville) African Psycho
Niq Mhlongo (South Africa) After Tears
Siphiwo Mahala(South Africa) When a Man Cries
Okechukwu Mezu (Nigeria) Behind the Rising Sun
Malum Amadu (Nigeria) Amadu’s Bundle
Daniachew Worku (Ethiopia) The Thirteenth Sun
Martin Owusu (Ghana) The Sudden Return
Ruheni Mwangi (Kenya) The Future Leaders
Malick Fall (Senegal) The Wound
Kobina Sekyi (Ghana) The Blinkards
Samuel Kahiga (Kenya) The Girl from Abroad
Legson Kayira (Malawi) The Detainee
Yaw M Boateng (Ghana) The Return
Williams Sassine (Guinea) Wirriyamu
Asiedu Yirenkyi (Ghana) Kivuli and other Plays
Thomas Akare (Kenya) The Slums
Timothy Wangusa (Uganda) Upon this Mountain
Amechi Akwanya (Nigeria) Orimili
Alexander Kanengoni (Zimbabwe) Echoing Silences
Daniel Mengara (Gabon) Mema
Valerie Tagwira (Zimbabwe) The Uncertainty of Hope
Uzodinma Iweala (Nigeria) Beasts of No Nation
Nthikeng Mohlele (South Africa) The Scent of Bliss

Most of these entries were gleaned from Africa Writes Back by James Currey (James Currey and Wits University Press)

Percy Zvomuya

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