Over the past few years, I’ve been trying, in a small and not particularly systematic way, to become more familiar with literature from outside the U.S. and U.K. The reading options are overwhelming, and this collection of essays and stories by African writers seemed like a great way to introduce myself to a large number of writers all at once, so I’d have a better idea of which authors I’d like to explore more. You’ll notice that word seems. It’s important.
When reviewing an anthology, especially a multi-author anthology like this one, it’s common to note that some stories are stronger than others. That is of course going to be true of any collection, and I could use this space to talk about specific stories–which ones delighted me and which ones didn’t, which ones made me eager to seek out the author’s other works and which ones put me off the author entirely. But I’d rather talk a little about what I want in a collection like this and why this collection didn’t quite live up to my expectations.
In picking up this collection, I was hoping to gain some general background in African literature. I’d only read a couple of authors in this collection—Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and J.M. Coetzee—but several others were on my list of authors to try. I was excited to get a chance to sample the works of Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Laila Lalami, Nawal El Saadawi, and Nadine Gordimer. And I was interested to learn about authors whose names were entirely unfamiliar to me. When I saw that many of the stories were actually novel excerpts, I was a little concerned, but some of those novels—Half of a Yellow Sun, Woman at Point Zero, and Wizard of the Crow—are novels I’ve been wanting to read anyway, so this book could provide a sneak preview.
In his introduction, editor Rob Spillman writes about how struck he’s been by the high quality of the African writing he encountered when putting together an issue of Tin House devoted to international literature. He goes on to share a bit about African literature in general and about the literature specific to various regions or cultures of Africa. (The book is divided into sections, determined by geography and language. Each section begins with a helpful map, highlighting the countries represented in that section, followed by an essay by an author from the region and then a selection of stories and novel excerpts. This division was useful to me because it shows how literature varies between regions, even as collecting the stories in one book allows readers to see common threads. In her essay, “The Politics of Reading,” Moroccan author Laila Lalami notes that African readers in one region often do not have access to writing from other regions and that Western critics who are familiar with one region might consider that area’s literature representative of the whole of Africa. Her entire essay, as well as Chinua Achebe’s essay “The African Writer and the English Language,” was one of the most enlightening and interesting pieces in the book. I think that’s because both Lalami and Achebe provide something I was hungering for: context.
The lack of context is most evident when considering the novel excerpts. With almost all the excerpts, I wanted more information. Is this just a minor incident in the novel? Who are these people? Are they important? Is this piece just setting the stage for big events or is the whole thing like this. Several of the excerpts felt more like scene-setting than storytelling, but some novels are like that. I just didn’t know. Even more puzzling, I read one of the excerpted novels—Half of a Yellow Sun—not long after reading the excerpt, and I was surprised to discover that the piece is this anthology doesn’t appear to come from Adichie’s novel at all. It’s a first-person account of the Biafran war, including many of the same characters and settings. Was this a short story Adichie wrote as a supplement to the novel or as part of her work in developing the novel?
The standalone stories and essays suffered less from a lack of context, but I still often wanted to know a little something about the author, the setting, and why this piece was included. Because I was using this collection as a way to explore literature that’s new to me, I wanted a little more than just the words. Ideally, the words should be able to stand alone, and many of the stories were effective without any background knowledge, but a story like “The Whites-Only Bench” by Ivan Vladislavić would be incomprehensible without some understanding of Apartheid in South Africa. Just a paragraph or two to set the stage would have been immensely helpful. Readers who are more familiar with African history and culture might not need such help, but I wonder how many such readers would pick up an anthology like this. And given Lalami’s point about how many readers of African literature are only well-versed in certain regions, I imagine that many readers more well-versed in African literature than I might have benefited from a little more background information.
I almost gave up on this anthology several times because I’d end up reading a string of stories that I either didn’t like or didn’t “get”—or both, usually both. But with an anthology, you never know whether the next story will be great, and one more story seems like such a small commitment. By the time I knew I wasn’t satisfied with the collection, I was nearing the end and didn’t want to quit with just a few stories left. I’m generally good at giving up on books I’m not enjoying, so this phenomenon was interesting. I would have thought anthologies would be the easiest sort of book to give up on, but perhaps not—at least perhaps not for me.