Africa! This very name has so many stereotypes attached to it, that even writers and storytellers out of the continent can’t really escape it.
So when you are an African author, you are expected to write a certain type of books. And that’s that! That’s what is expected of you, what African and non-African readers, alike, expected from you. God forbid that you should disappoint them! Every author wants to sell books. After all, their editors are in the business of selling books. So we can’t really blame them. Just take a quick look at some comment on Goodreads.com; you will realize the influence of readers.
Don’t get me wrong, I adore the regular stuff out of the continent or the Diaspora, really I do. But sometimes, it is so refreshing to read strange things that made you think long and hard about everything else.
Some authors defy stereotypes, and for that they will always be remembered as “The other Africans”. The problem with being different is that people will not always understand you or your work. It is, indeed, a very big risk to take. The eternal goal of striking the right balance between risk and reward.
Here are 4 very important books by Africans authors that will forever stand up; I certainly will never forget them:
Note that 3 out the four books are available in English, French and several other languages. Check your local bookstore.
Alain Mabanckou: Verre Cassé
The tour de force: Have you ever read an entire book without a single period? Well, Broken Glass (Verre Cassé in French) doesn’t have a single one in it. Guess what, it didn’t really matter, at the least for me. I read this book while on a plane to Calgary and believe me, I didn’t miss them one bit. Good riddance! Broken glass defined his own work as following:
I’d write down words as they came to me, I’d begin awkwardly and I’d finish as awkwardly as I’d begun, and to hell with pure reason, and method, and phonetics, and prose, and in this shit-poor language of mine things would seem clear in my head but come out wrong, and the words to say it wouldn’t come easy, so it would be a choice between writing or life, that’s right , and what I really want people to say when they read me is “what’s this jumble, this mess, this muddle, this mish-mash of barbarities, this empire of signs, this chit-chat, this descent to the dregs of belles-lettres, what’s with this barnyard prattle, is this stuff for real, and where does it start, and where the hell does it end?
Broken Glass, A. Mabanckou
c’est quoi ce bazar, ce souk, ce cafouillis, ce conglomérat de barbarismes, cet empire des signes(7), ce bavardage, cette chute vers les bas-fonds des belles-lettres, c’est quoi ces caquètements de basse-cour, est-ce que c’est du sérieux ce truc, ca commence d’ailleurs par où, ca finit par où, bordel », et je répondrai avec malice : « ce bazar c’est la vie, entrez donc dans ma caverne, y a de la pourriture, y a des déchets, c’est comme ça que je conçois la vie . Verre Cassé, A. Mabanckou
Brownie point : for a much unexpected story and book. It was sometimes hilarious, sometimes downright nasty, sometimes very sad and other times very crazy. All said and done, it was very strange! Show great respect for this brother from Congo for having done the un-doable.
Open City: Teju Cole
The tour de force: Very strange story. If I can call it a story, I am not really sure. It’s more a reflection on identity (Julius, the protagonist is half Nigerian, half German), an unusual amount of historical facts that sometimes related, but most of the times do not seems to fit in. The most surprising thing is that the ensemble makes sense somehow, which is strange in itself. Is this book about New-York or about Julius? I still don’t know… I actually agree with this quote:
Après 350 pages, Julius est presque aussi insaisissable que dans les premiers paragraphes alors qu’il vient de livrer des pensées, des souvenirs, des anecdotes dont la force et l’intimité sont indiscutables. Le Monde Livres.
Brownie point: for being beyond unexpected. This book will make you think so hard that you will be wondering why you are reading it in the first place. The whole point was to take a break from life and enjoy a good book by a Nigerian brother. As they would say in naija movies, it’s a lie. The author has a background in classical music, so you will encounter a lot of references on that topic. Very unusual, since I don’t know the first thing about classical music really. This is African literature right, what is Shubert, Mozart and classical music doing in it exactly? I am still asking myself that question. So when I say stereotypes about African author that’s exactly what I meant. I shouldn’t be surprised.
Mohamed Choukri: Pain Nu
The tour de force: This book is the first in a series of three autobiographic books by Mohamed Choukri. First shocking point, this author learned to read and write in his twenties. Then, for an Arab novel (this novel has been translated from Arabic) it is rather blunt and graphic on the sex side. The writing style is very unusual and strange. But it didn’t matter for me, and it will not matter for you as well. Just because the story was so compelling, almost like a movie. Other very peculiar point, this is an Arab novel but religion is hardly mentioned in it. Instead, you have a lot of sex, prostitution, drugs, jail, smuggling, murder and other criminal activities. I love to be surprised, but this one was a “bomb”. It made me wanted to stand up and clap for the Moroccan brother.
Brownie point: The author wrote this book in the 70s. It is now consider a classical work in Arab literature. However, it is on its own category. Once you read it, you will understand why. Interesting thing to know, this book had been banned from Morocco for 8 good years.
Alain Mabanckou: le sanglot de l’homme noir (not available in English yet)
The tour de force: When I picked up this book, I was seriously NOT expecting what I found. First, this book made a lot of references to the classical work of our great Africans authors (Ousmane Sembéne, Cheik Anta Diop, Ferdinand Oyonno, Ahmadou Kourouma…). But not in the way you would think. Apparently, the whole idea of writing this book was to tell, us, Africans that:
It is true that we are great people with illustrate ancestors. We are proud, beautiful, and hard-working. Our ancestors were rich, organized, civilized… They were descendants of the great Egyptians. The most ancient civilizations were born in black Africa…
Can you ancestors feed you?
Africans, Mr Mabanckou is asking us to wake up from such dreams and do something that matter in the present rather than live in the past. It is not helping us in the least. Also, he is asking us, for God’s sake, to stop blaming everything on the white man and acknowledge our share of responsibilities. These are my own interpretation of his text of course.
Brownie point: Very honest and refreshing. A bit brutal. But truth is always a bitter remedy. I don’t necessarily agree on everything he said.
I hope you will read one of these great books! If you do, it will be worth your time. If you have already read them, please do share your thoughts with us. And most importantly, be inspired by these brothers making the world shake from its usual state of indifference and nonchalance.