26th January 2019
One of the best parts of being on this amazing continent is the sheer thrill of tasting home grown literature on African soil – and what a mind boggling buffet of books there is on offer here!
I kick started my ‘Know Your Africa’ literary journey in the first week that school started in September by checking out my firstborn son’s favourite author, Chimamanda Adichie’s first book ‘Purple Hibiscus’ which I checked out from the Marina International School library. And what a read that was – simply breathtaking – as was her latest novel ‘Americanah’ which I had already read in Sri Lanka. I went on to read her best known work ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ and was deeply moved by her personal and powerful account of the Biafran revolution in 1960s Nigeria. I also read her beautiful collection of short stories: ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’. Can’t seem to get enough of her.
The inimitable Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe was one of only two African authors I had read in my foray into international literature at the English Department of the Kelaniya University during those careless campus days of the late seventies. I re-read his classic ‘Things Fall Apart’. What an evocative name and one that I wish I had thought of as a title for a novel of my own – it so perfectly sums up Sri Lanka in three simple words – and also taken as it is from Yeats’ immortal lines ‘Things fall apart, The centre cannot hold, Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’. I really enjoyed the story of his hero Okonkwo – then discovered that Achebe had also written a sequel ‘No Longer At Ease’ – about Okonkwo’s grandson Obi which was so good that I devoured it in a day.
The other African novelist I was familiar with from my student days was the famous East African author Ngugi wa’ Thiong’o ( Professor of English at Nairobi University) whose novel ‘Petals of Blood’ (fell in love with that one too – African writers really know how to choose the best titles!) recorded the story of the Mau Mau marxist guerrilla movement in Kenya in the seventies and eighties.
Mrs Williams, the school librarian, let me borrow as many books as I wished so I was able to read a book or two every week since September 2018. I burrowed into her African Literature section like the voracious termites that eat through the wood and cement of our crumbling old house, their trails of brown soil snaking up from floor to ceiling with lightning speed, sprouting brown branches of more than a foot every 24 hours.
I realise that I haven’t read at this rate since my childhood and teenage years. I remember how Amma and Thaththa always bought me a book as a birthday and Christmas gift. And the dark and terrible day when my parents broke the news to me that they could no longer afford books from the K.V.G. De Silva or CLS bookshops because a new tax had been slapped on them that made it quite impossible for them to afford to buy books anymore.
The socialist coalition government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike had just introduced its Import Substitution Policy in the early seventies and all imported items (from foodstuff to apparel and – alas – books!) had been made quite out of reach of any but the richest strata of society. Amma and Thaththa encouraged me to join the Public Library, the American Centre and the British Council which my elder brother Ravi and I did. It was an era of living for Saturday when we would both take the bus from Nugegoda to Kollupitiya – riding the notorious No:112 buses that were not only ramshackle but also very few and far between and waiting impatiently as they limped along High Level Road then branched off onto Dickman’s Road and wheezed up the seemingly endless stretch of Galle Road to our destination. What bliss it was to enter the British Council library and be able to borrow three books and two magazines every week! Nothing compared with the delight of being surrounded by so many books!
I am now re-living those early days of my adolescence and absolutely revelling in the pleasure that reading has always given me. Somehow the cares of adulthood and the ongoing effort to meet the needs of job, family and friends has greatly impinged on that pleasure over the years – not to mention the immediacy and convenience of modern technology which has more recently and brutally cut a wide swathe through the solitude and dreaming that was once an integral part of being human.
Africa with its lack of facilities and modern conveniences that we so take for granted in Sri Lanka has swept the rug from under our feet and forced us to seek entertainment from non-technological sources. There are no CD or DVD shops here and we have no TV and no internet connection at home – although mobile data does enable us to keep in close contact with family and friends in far-flung corners of the world on WhatsApp – so no complaints!)
So after work in the evenings there’s only good old-fashioned conversation, telephone calls and reading to fall back on! Our high energy Jordan jogs for miles, plays football with the kids down the road or spends his time strolling along the sandy beaches of the suburbs. The more sedentary Rai sketches for hours or reads a book a day – fortunately she too has a seemingly endless supply from the school library.
The aptly named Timbooktoo Bookshop is a fifteen minute walk from where we live. It is well-stocked with the latest African fiction by authors from Kenya, Somalia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and of course a range of mouthwatering fare from west African writers hailing from countries as diverse as Francophone Senegal (translated work of Sembene Ousmane & Mariama Ba are available) and English-speaking Sierra Leone and Ghana although the most widely published African writers come from Nigeria.
List of Recommended African Novelists:
Nigeria – China Achebe, Chimamanda Adichie, Buchi Emecheta, Okey Ndibe
Botswana – Bessie Head
South Africa – Nelson Mandela, Stephen Biko
Zimbabwe – Shimmer Chinodya
Kenya – Ngugi wa’ Thiong’o
Sudan – Leila Abdouleila
Ghana – Ayi Kwei Armah, Francis Selormey
Sierra Leone – Aminatta Forna
Senegal – Mariama Ba, Sembene Ousmane