Tales from future-driven Africa
AFRICA 39: NEW WRITING FROM AFRICA SOUTH OF THE SAHARA (Bloomsbury)
Africa 39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara heaves with what Wole Soyinka, in an introduction that touches on his art of trawling for books, calls “shamelessly undialectical narratives”. But it is also a collection laden with other types of narratives, such as those recently filed under the label “tyranny of subject” by author Ben Okri.
Africa 39’s majesty, however, lies in its valiant approach to these worn themes and in the variation not only of subject matter but of form.
For every story labouring over displacement, over people’s histories truncated by colonialism and the ever-present ghost of religion, there are stories of longing for romance, of nightlife in large urban scapes peppered with national brews and Afrobeats with an “s”. Between the spaces of nagging primordial questions chafing against the funk of seemingly preordained modernity, there is tenderly rendered unrequited same-sex love as in Ukamaka Olisakwe’s This Is How I Remember It and the sci-fi poetry of No Kissing the Dolls unless Jimi Hendrix Is Playing.
Perhaps the most recognisable name here, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, starts this collection of 39 writers under 39 years old with The Shivering, an immersive, tense tale about immigration set on an American college campus. Although Adichie sets a high standard, especially with her characterisation of Chinedu, an illegal student who teeters on the brink of sanity and suicide, her positioning at the beginning of this collection serves no noticeable purpose as nothing dictates that this collection should be read in sequence.
A random approach was used for the purposes of this review, for example, with the seductiveness of the titles and the premise of the compilation influencing the order.
Why Radio DJs Are Superstars in Lagos by A Igoni Barrett, for example, was one early read. The story describes a soundtrack-laden misadventure through Lagos traffic that ends somewhat abruptly (understandable, given that it’s culled from the book Blackass). A note made at the end of that read was: “Barrett gestures in the direction of a contemporary Nigeria, but hardly pinpoints it.” But a defined snapshot it is: in which the exuberance of youth meets the old military officialdom, bereft of power as it still subscribes to white supremacy.
Sifiso Mzobe’s By the Tracks is from the forthcoming book Durban December. Mzobe’s tale of a grisly murder in a wealthy part of Durban’s Umlazi township is, as the pencil notes attest, “all shock and not much else. The Mlazi originals [the wealthy township residents he describes in the excerpt] have an amazing tolerance for insane vagabonds wallowing in their yards. Doesn’t seem credible.”
Zukiswa Wanner’s Migrant Labour is as ordinary as the title suggests it to be. The diction has a quaintness to it. The twist at the end reads like the feeble, missed punch(line) delivered by a fighter about to hit the canvas.
Nadifa Mohamed’s Number 9, on the other hand, is erudite without much labour. Her London tale of a date that never arrives is really a story about so much more. On that dramatic bus ride through the city, Mohamed’s protagonist explores the interconnectedness and the discord of the present-day human experience to upend our conventional framing of patriarchy.
This juxtapositioning then becomes a tool to erode the West’s pretence of a more evolved society – all while immersing us in the seemingly banal activity of riding a bus. Mohamed’s attention to architecture and the violence of class and race domination evokes the towering moments of Teju Cole’s Open City, but Mohamed is less ruminative, always present in the moment.
As stated before, the true highlight of this assemblage is the brave way in which religion is tackled. Two examples are noteworthy. Jackee Budesta Batanda’s Our Time of Sorrow, an excerpt from a book of the same name, is set in a cultish boarding school run by religious freaks. Batanda’s tone is consistently nightmarish, entrapping the reader in its ghoulish world, flitting between the futuristic and the ancient.
Linda Musita’s protagonist in Cinema Demons takes the lighthearted approach that any sceptic who has ever walked into a charismatic church can relate to. There is an underlying pathos, however, beneath his character’s humorous cynicism, born of the sadness of being stumped by what he knew, going in.
The surprising thing about this collection is the sheer number of stories rendered in the style of fables and legend. Some find more success than others. Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond’s Mama’s Future (likening Africa to an ailing mother) falls flat, whereas Rotimi Babatunde’s The Tiger of the Mangroves (about an ill-fated colonial encounter) is pitch perfect to the last word.
The power and relevance of these tales, as Africa hurtles into its future, are perhaps best exemplified by Mohamed Yunus Rafiq’s Hope’s Hunter. This story of a hunter who leaves home for the hunt of a lifetime, returning instead with the skeleton of a python, asks: “Why is it that the prey fails to see enemies who tower over it like mountains? That is because the prey lives to gather and store, while the enemy lives to hunt and eat and rest and be fresh for the next meal.”
Although most of the texts are distinctive and worthy of the subtitle, what Africa 39 disproves, among other things, is the lie that nothing new can come from the old and nothing old can come from the new.