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Tortured Advice on African Fiction

Updated: Mar 6, 2019

Dear Sharon,

I didn’t forget your request to suggest book titles for the returned Peace Corps Volunteer group to read and discuss. In fact, I became obsessed and I’ve felt guilty every day that I haven’t replied. Here’s what happened:

Typically, I figured I had to make a perfect list- all things to all people. At least for people who were interested in Africa. When I was in Cape Town at Christmas, I took a photo in a bookstore of a whole shelf devoted to African authors. I didn’t bother to photo the separate shelf devoted to South African authors because, of course, there are so many of them. When I got your request, I started going through the photos, trying to decipher the names of the books. This took a lot of time as I’d used an old cell phone as a camera while Paul was waiting for me. I could only make out about half the titles.

Once I had the list from the above exercise, I started trying to get the books from the library or, if they were from eastern Africa (since those are less common and what I‘m most interested in) I sometimes splashed out and bought the Kindle version – if it was less than $4.99! Then I thought I really ought to read these books before recommending them. So, I started that.

Next digression was to wonder if I should classify them: just something simple like when they were written (but should it be pre/post-independence, pre/post 2000, or what?). And should I classify by whether they were east, west, or southern Africa? Did northern Africa count? Classic obsessive-compulsive perfectionist behavior. (Who knew?!)

Two days ago, I discovered a GoodReads site of about 450 book suggestions for someone “going on a safari” to learn a bit about “the culture.” The list takes no account of the fact that most safaris are in eastern Africa and most of the books are from Nigerian and Ghanaian writers – or South Africans. I don’t want to dis Wilbur Smith, but – really? As though the culture of a minority group in South Africa is representative of anything on the rest of the continent! (Full disclosure: I’ve only read the back covers of his books. Maybe he has talents, but I masterfully resisted checking him out.) I dutifully plowed through the GoodReads list and tried to check out everything I thought might point me to little-known fiction about eastern Africa. Wait a minute! That wasn’t even the point of your original request! But my own novel is an attempt to show that culture, so I’m on high alert for similar reads.

Can you imagine how much time I’ve spent/wasted? And every day I was feeling worse because I hadn’t answered your simple question. It’s been a real “GET A LIFE!” experience.

This morning I woke up, decided to do my version of focusing, and simply went to my own bookshelf, determined to list books sitting there (about Africa) that might be fun to have the Peace Corps group read and discuss.

Far, far from an exhaustive list of good literary fiction about Africa - but it's a place to start.

Loved all of these - in no special order

1. Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver, DRC. But who hasn’t read it?

2. White Dog Fell From the Sky, Eleanor Morse, Botswana/ RSA

3. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, William KamKwamba, Malawi

4. Cutting for Stone, Verghese, Ethiopia

5. Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche, Nigeria

6. Purple Hibiscus, Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche, Nigeria

7. Ghana Must Go, Taiye Selasi, Ghana diaspora

8. Stay with Me, Ayobama Adebayo, Nigeria

On the shelf and still to be read – heard good things:

1. Small Country, Gael Faye, Burundi

2. The Book of Memory , Petina Gappah, Zimbabwe

3. The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma , Nigeria

4. We Need New Names, Noviolet Bulawa, Rwanda

Hope this helps. Maybe others will add their favorites.

1 Comment

Nancy Smith
Mar 08, 2019

It looks like you'll have to include an obsessive/compulsive character in your next book. You've already got the voice worked out! :-) On a more serious note: thanks for the reading list.

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