So why did I choose this as a reading challenge?
The longlist for the Etisalat Prize for Literature was announced at the end of December – the ‘first pan-African prize celebrating first time writers of published books’. I found the list of books I hadn’t heard of inspiring and so decided to make February a month for reading only African literature. We’re now approaching the end of the month so I thought I’d do a round-up of the books I’ve read – hopefully to give any readers some inspiration as to some great books to read!
I’ve read quite a bit of African literature ever since I discovered Chinua Achebe whilst studying a module entitled ‘The History of Africa from 1800 – the present day’. Yes I now know everything about 200 relatively turbulent years of a whole continent. Sarcasm aside, it was actually a fascinating module as I had to specialise in eight different topics, learning about things that were completely new to me.
I really enjoy focussing and learning in detail about a whole different side to something that is presented in a very one-sided way in the media or in the way you normally learn about it at school – such how amazing the British Empire was or the ‘dark’ African continent . Whether it’s a complete episode in history that I never knew (e.g. the Turkish diplomats saving Jews from the Holocaust in WW2 which I discovered by reading Last Train to Istanbul by Ayse Kulin) or some new facts which turn the established position on its side, this is what I love about reading, and about history. It makes me very sad that our History curriculum in the UK is so western-centric, and is becoming even more so despite an increasingly globalised world… but that’s a rant for another blogpost.
As a result I am really interested in the history of Africa. It’s a complex continent with numerous different histories and stories that often get neglected in the simplistic tales of the ‘heart of darkness’ or more recently, the more upbeat ‘possibility of an economic miracle’. I’m interested in delving into the real reasons behind events that are too often dismissed in a barely-disguised racist way.
I was also drawn to the Etisalat prize as I believe the publishing world (like most worlds, let’s be honest!) is too filled with white men. I’m partially joining in with #readwomen2014 and so the fact that the longlist consisted of nine authors, seven of whom were women, really appealed to me. I liked the idea of setting myself a challenge that would increase the diversity of the books I read, open my reading up to some new authors and maybe help publicise them by tweeting and writing about it.
So I read four books in February:
– Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
– Bom Boy by Yemande Omotoso
– Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
– Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
Okay so I didn’t do too well at ‘new’ as half of that list are by the same author and I have read one of her books (Americanah) before. BUT. Oh my was I pleased to discover Ghana Must Go. I hadn’t actually heard the hype (mentored by Toni Morrison, endorsed by Salman Rushdie). It is the most fantastic novel. A basic structure that is already plumbed in literature – family member dies, estranged family comes back together literally and figuratively – but it is the characters and Selasi’s writing style that sets this book apart. She writes lyrically, beautifully, painting a picture of scenery and colours that you can really see. Each character is so well constructed, so complex, that I fell in love with them all. None are perfect, none are the ‘baddie’, all are human and so quickly I was emotionally invested in their individual stories as well as the family as a whole. I read with my mouth open in shock, I smiled, I sobbed, I felt warmed, and when the book finished I felt absolutely bereft. I don’t want to say too much about the storyline because much of the skill in the writing and the joy in the reading comes from the way the individual stories and secrets unfold as pieces begin to fall into place for the reader. I LOVE books about families such as these – many separate elements making up one whole. I also love stories about twins (usual childhood wish that I was a twin). I can’t tell you enough to read this book.
I won’t review all of the books but I am currently half way through Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (before my Kindle broke, grrrrr. Although an actual book also wouldn’t be in a good condition after having been dropped in a muddy puddle accidentally and left there for a while). This book is also right up my street as it is essentially historical fiction – set during the Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Biafran War). This book has too made me cry, laugh out loud, and sit in numb shock at the horrors that people can do to one another. (It’s going to be a film starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton! I am so excited about that!)
Bom Boy– my least favourite of the four but read immediately after Ghana Must Go which may not have helped it. I felt it was ultimately a tale of loneliness, loneliness and a sense of displacement which came off the page and ultimately meant I never really connected with the characters. I felt the book could have been longer and really delved more into some of the issues raised, for example I felt it barely touched on the heart-breaking love story between Elaine and Oscar.
And finally – I loved Purple Hibiscus. I just love Adichie. Everything she writes is beautiful and perfect. I’m paraphrasing from another reviewer here but the reviewer really put into words what I felt about this book – that it is a coming-of-age story, and it does involve the usual love interest in a story of this type, but much more influential are the female relationships, especially Kambili’s relationship with her cousin Amaka This is a coming-of-age novel with a difference, weaving in themes of violence, love, race, class, education…. A wonderful book.
So there we go! Sorry that this blog is so long.
Have you read any of these books? What did you think?
Have you ever set yourself a reading challenge?