African Roar 2011: African Writers Whimpering
by Ikhide R. Ikheloa
Adunni, my iPad just bought me African Roar 2011, an anthology of stories written by fifteen African writers, and edited by Emmanuel Sigauke and Ivor Hartmann. I don’t think Adunni wasted our precious money but I expected more; I hope this is not my Christmas present. Contrary to what the anthology implies, it is not exactly representative of African writing; the writers come from just five English speaking countries; seven are from Zimbabwe, four from Nigeria, two from South Africa, and one each from Ghana and Malawi. I loved the debut annual anthology last year and reviewed it here. Sadly this year’s collection is mostly a gaggle of safe stories celebrating the familiar, tried and tired. There is little attempt at experimentation and there’s neither range not depth in many of the stories. These are mostly political statements about certain miserable conditions, wrapped in the pretend-toga of short stories. They feature pedestrian prose and lack energy and passion. Editing issues hint at a hurried publication.
Many of the stories are feverish experiments in self-absorption and narcissism. Memory Chirere’s tribute to the late writer Stanley Ruzvidzo Mupfudza is self-serving – and poorly written. Blessed silence would have been a more fitting tribute. Stories like the late Mupfudza’s Witch’s Brew are painstakingly devoted to decay, disease and conflict. Noviolet Bulawayo’s open lines in her story Main are lovely prose-poetry: “Main. Main Street standing up straight and adjusting the rainbow-coloured wrap skirt that threatens to slide down her wide waist, black blood boiling in her veins. Bustling throbbing writhing street. Everything moving: cars, voices, ambitions, money, dreams, feet, smoke. Just moving moving moving — like a wind.” Nice, but then Main dissolves into a pointless story about death, and filth. The good news is that the story is so short it should not be called a short story. Bulawayo’s considerable literary talents are gainfully deployed to relentlessly documenting despair and mediocrity. Zukiswa Wanner’s story, A Writer’s lot about the joys and perks of being a privileged African writer doted upon by the society and the West is a botched attempt at humor. Wanner should find her own voice. She will never be Binyavanga Wainaina.
Gloom and doom have become chic signature tunes for defining the African writer – and Africa. These self-perceptions are true and they deserve the world’s attention and opprobrium but they do not speak to the range of life’s experience in Africa. Instead they only reinforce the persistent negative image that the world seems to have of Africa. African writers may be courting disrespect with their glum self-absorption. Case in point: Jerry Guo of Newsweek once conducted a profoundly incoherent interview of Chinua Achebe (Chinua Achebe on Nigeria’s Future, Newsweek, July 5, 2010) in which he referred to Things Fall Apart, as a story about “a simple yam farmer in tribal Nigeria.” In the 21st century Things Fall Apart is being described in such a hideous fashion. Anthologies like African Roar 2011 should improve upon the silence and raise the bar for the quality of discourse in the burdens of Africa’s stories.
It is not all dreary. Dango Mkandawire’s prose shines in The Times. Ivor Hartman’s story, Diner Ten about cockroaches is so charming it could serve as a public relations charm offensive for that most loathsome of creepy crawly pests. Hajira Amla’s story Longing for Home was quite entertaining, albeit slightly inchoate and improbable. Helon Habila handles the same subject masterfully in The UK Guardian (The Second Death of Martin Lango). Uche Peter Umez’s Lose Myself gamely makes a short story out of a one-night stand somewhere in America. It is one of the best stories in the collection. It is mostly successful but obsessive thoughts of home make the protagonist – and the story impotent.
Why are virtually all these stories so mindlessly obsessed with Africa’s political and social issues? Are African writers under pressure to write the single story? Issues of identity are on my mind. I am thinking specifically of the African writer’s preoccupation with identity. It is possible that the label African writer is having the effect of defining and limiting the writer’s range. It is as if African writers have sealed themselves hermetically in this bubble where they toil in a culture of despair, relentlessly beating the same ‘African” dead horse to death. The good news is that, thanks to many obscure writers (alas), the literature of our continent is alive and well in many places other than in anthologies. The reader is well advised to visit those places on the Internet where all the stories of Africa dance riotously and assure the world of her people’s place in this market called humanity. I have previously shared my appreciation here and here and on Facebook and Twitter. And yes, this is a shameless plug, please join me on Facebook and on twitter (@ikhide).
Interestingly enough last year’s debut issue of African Roar had a helpful introductory essay that provided appropriate context and coherence to that year’s collection. This year’s edition could have used an introductory essay. As an aside, next year, the editors should strive to produce a more user-friendly Kindle edition. I had trouble navigating the collection. I did find the biographies of the writers in the collection more entertaining than several of the stories. I had more fun reading The Granta Book of the African Short Story published by Granta and edited by the Nigerian writer Helon Habila. As I shared here, I have issues with that collection, but you cannot quarrel with the quality of its presentation and the thoughtfulness that went into it. Habila’s introductory essay alone is worth the price of the book.
Wainaina recently ignited a firestorm with his statements about the West’s obsession with what African writers have to write about. The article and the podcast in which Wainaina held forth about this are here. Wainaina did say, “If you are to ask me what are the greatest issues in Africa, I would say it is that people love, people fuck, people kiss, people speak.” That may be true, but you wouldn’t know it from reading African Roar 2011 (and come to think of it, Habila’s recent collection of “African stories”). These writers are too busy solving Africa’s myriad issues to make wild lust-filled love. It would appear that only misery makes them roar.