What Tanzanian writing should I read?

partched earthI recently took to Twitter to ask for recommendations of Tanzanian fiction to read and received many suggestions. Here they are (and who recommended them!

A few people made recommendations that are from or set in Kenya or East Africa more broadly, below.stains on my khanga


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Safiatou Ba (Mali) — L’envers du décor [Behind the Scenes]

babookPeople don’t come off looking too good in Safiatou Ba’s deliciously pulpy short story collection

If you seek subtlety, don’t look in Safiatou Ba’s exhilarating L’envers du décor: Recueil de nouvelles (or, in English, Behind the Scenes: A Collection of Stories)! In this debut collection about life in Mali, Ba paints in bright colors and exclamation points. Men and women alike are stabbing, poisoning, committing adultery, sermonizing, bribing, taking advantage of the mentally ill, and — sometimes — getting their just desserts. A few — and there are just a few — are taking the moral high ground. In one story, a woman is dropped off at the hospital by her husband, apparently in labor, and returns home after it turns out to be a false alarm to find her husband committing adultery in their marriage bed. In another, a woman seeks the final solution for her profligate and would-be polygamist husband. One story opens with a woman — at the funeral of her husband — spitting in the face of his corpse and damning him to hell. Marabouts (Islamic holy men) impose wild recommendations with a range of unholy motives.

You might think the collection would be depressing (all these base motives!) if it weren’t so exciting. I audibly gasped during one story (SHE was doing THAT with HIM?!) and a few times looked around to make sure no one was reading over my shoulder, out of context (They were WHAT?!). At the same time, my copy is filled with underlined words of wisdom, like “Les hommes valent mieux que leurs pires actions” (People are worth more than their worst actions). After meeting these characters, I really hope so! I’ll definitely be back for Ba’s next outing.

So far, this collection is only out in French, and not yet for on-line purchase. If you can track down a copy, I recommend it. It’s a reminder of the wealth of African literature that doesn’t make it to Amazon or other on-line booksellers.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I know and enjoy my association with Ba in a professional capacity.

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Kwei Quartey (Ghana) — Death at the Voyager Hotel

death at the voyagera fast-paced, Ghana-based murder mystery in the context of international donor pressure

Kwei Quartey writes compulsive mysteries. I read this novella in under 24 hours. His mysteries all take place in Ghana, Quartey’s place of birth and early childhood. Quartey uses each mystery to illustrate an aspect of contemporary Ghanaian society. At the heart of his first book, Wife of the Gods, was traditional female indentured servitude in rural Ghana. His second book, Children of the Street (my favorite so far), centered on street kids in the capital city. His most recent, fourth book, Murder at Cape Three Points, centers on the oil industry.

In this novella, his third book and the only one without detective Darko Dawson, we get a glimpse of the modern aid industry. The protagonist, Paula Djan, is headmistress of a school for disadvantaged youth. Her goal is to help students transition from her school to high-quality, well-reputed secondary schools, but “spotty attendance, truancy and teenage pregnancy” all get in the way. However, the school’s international sponsors are losing patience: “Foreign donors have become stricter with their funds, and they now demand that certain criteria are fulfilled in order for the sponsorship to continue. We have to show results if we want to keep the money coming in.” This is completely reflective of the real trend in international aid for what is often called “results-based financing.” From large organizations like the World Bank to smaller non-profits, there is an increasing demand for results. On the face of it, this isn’t a bad thing. Results are good. But it can make working on seemingly intractable problems, like those faced by Paula Djan, less attractive to donors.

Beyond this context, Quartey has once again constructed a gripping mystery. A young American woman who has been volunteering at the school drowns in the pool of her hotel. The police are quick to write it off as an accident, but Paula is convinced there is more to it. She begins her own investigation, which zips along to a surprising, action-packed ending.

Downsides? First, I enjoy the way Quartey offers different perspectives in each book, but occasionally he veers too close to teaching his audience about an issue rather than seamlessly integrating it into the plot. Paula hammers home to her school’s staff, “Gone are the days when western countries tossed money at us without much thought. Now they want to see results. … We need to show that we are successfully transferring at least one-third of our students to the top middle and secondary schools every year.” This fits into the plot, and I can imagine Paula saying it, but I noticed it (“Oh, there’s the donor pressure again”) more than I wanted to. Second, without revealing too much, I felt there was an obvious, not-so-plausible gap in the investigation that made the ending not quite as satisfying as I’d hoped.

BUT the facts speak for themselves: I couldn’t put the book down. And the book costs $2.99 on Amazon Kindle. It was a good read, and I’ll definitely be reading Quartey’s next novel, God of Our Fathers, out next April.

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Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone) — The Memory of Love

memory of love cover

a rich, complex narrative that spans 40 years of Sierra Leonean history and slowly circles in on the terrible war

Aminatta Forna has woven a rich, complex narrative that spans the last 40 years of Sierra Leone’s history. It opens in the present, with an old, ailing man, Elias, telling his story to Adrian. Adrian is a British psychologist, on temporary assignment at a hospital in Freetown, there to “help” but also to defibrillate his stalled career. Anyway, how do you help when “ninety-nine percent of the population [is] suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder”? As a local psychiatrist puts it, “You call it a disorder, my friend. We call it life.”

Through Elias’s story, we jump back to 1969, when he was a junior faculty at a local university. His story is intensely personal, becoming friendly with an outspoken colleague through an infatuation with that colleague’s wife, and at the same time getting wrapped up in the tumultuous and brutal politics of the succeeding decades. A third major character, a young, talented Sierra Leonean surgeon named Kai, befriends Adrian and has clearly been deeply scarred by the war, although the specific reasons only become clear later.

Forna doesn’t plant us in the center of Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war. (This isn’t Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone.) On the contrary, she expertly circles around it, pushing us closer, showing the atmosphere in the decades before as well as the deep, inescapable reverberations in contemporary Sierra Leone. Nor does she shy away from the war. The climax of the book places us at the very center of the trauma. The overall effect is powerful and affecting.

International visitors come under a critical eye: “They came to get their newspaper stories, to save black babies, to spread the word, to make money, to [f***] black bodies. They all had their reasons. Modern-day knights, each after his or her trophy, their very own Holy Grail.” Or, as one long-term resident from Romania puts it even more pointedly, “Do you know what the most popular white wine here is? … It goes like this…what’s wrong with these people? Can’t they do anything for themselves? If it wasn’t for us they’d still be in the trees. .. Good isn’t it? The most popular white whine.”

One element of the book bothered me as I listened to it; so many of the characters ultimately end up being related in unexpected ways that, as Maaza Mengiste put it in the New York Times, “credibility is strained.” But Jane Shilling corrected me in her Telegraph piece: That critique “might be to misunderstand [Forna’s] intention. Beneath the fluent naturalism of her writing, she has a great interest in myth and in the tribal narratives of humanity: the stories rubbed smooth at the edges with retelling. If there is something as neat as fairy story about her plot, it is not by accident. Forna understands that it is only by making patterns out of chaos that humans find the courage to continue living. And in this affecting, passionate and intelligent novel about the redemptive power of love and storytelling, she shows how it is done.”

Highly recommended. I listened to the audiobook, read excellently by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. He was so good, I had trouble believing there weren’t two different narrators.

Here are a few bonus links:

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Thomas Mofolo (Lesotho) – Chaka

chakaTen Life Lessons from a Zulu king

When the first page of a novel warns, “Before we plunge into our story, we should describe how the nations were settled in the beginning,” my heart sinks. How long before I’ll get to the action? In the case of Thomas Mofolo‘s Chaka, not long. Within 25 pages, there’s a forbidden love affair, a battle over kingship, a young boy killing a lion, a magical medicine to guarantee victory in battle, and — worth the 25-page wait — a giant snake that emerges from a river, wraps itself around a bather, and proclaims a prophesy of Chaka’s future. Later in the novel, we see cannibalism, matricide, consultations with the dead, and treachery. We also see a super hot king: “Even on the battlefield his men, when wounded and about to die, would request the king, as their last wish, to disrobe so that they might admire his body for the last time, and thus die in peace; and he would, indeed, do as they asked.”

In this early example of Lesotho’s literature, written in Sesotho in 1910, published in 1925, and translated to English in 1931, Mofolo weaves a fantastical tale, based loosely on the life of the great Zulu king Chaka (or Shaka), who lived from 1787 to 1828. I read a later translation, by Daniel Kunene in 1981. While the language of the book took me a bit of work to get through, it wasn’t for lack of action. Chaka has an insatiable thirst for power. Mofolo shows the origin and the price of that thirst. Here’s what I learned from Chaka.

Ten Life Lessons from Chaka

1. If you don’t like to share, there’s always gossip: “Gossip is not like bread, so no one withholds it from another.”

2. How to get people to believe you’re a prophet: At one point, Chaka is missing, and while most agree that he is gone forever, “one of the diviners affirmed with an oath…that Chaka was alive.” When Chaka appears people speak of the doctor, “So-and-so could never be wrong!” As Kaushik Basu put it, “To be known as an expert, keep making extreme forecasts. By the laws of probability you’ll be right once. Then don’t let anyone forget it.”

3. Just do it: “When he [Chaka] saw that no one was going [to capture the dangerous madman], he got up and went.”

4. Take the high road. Wait a while after someone dies before making a grab for the kingship. A patron tells Chaka: “Don’t be in a hurry, you are still going to stay another six months here with me, so that you may not profane your father’s death by contesting the kingship by war so shortly after his death, with his corpse still warm in the grave.”

5. The bad sensei in the Karate Kid was right when he taught “We do not train to be merciful here. Mercy is for the weak.” Or, as Chaka is taught, “Mercy devours its owner.”

6. Cattle bring peace: “A head of cattle is a great uniter of people.”

7. Confirmation bias applies to the divine origin of kings: When Chaka’s messengers claim that Chaka is sent from God, “their statements were easily believed, because those thoughts were already there in the hearts of the people.”

8. Think now so you don’t regret later: “It is necessary that a person should understand what he is doing while there is still time, so that he should not afterwards regret when regret is of no further use.”

9. If you want to be king, you need stick-to-itiveness: “A king ought not to be fickle and change his mind from one day to another.”

10. Finally, you may in fact be able to take it with you (depending on what “it” is): “Everything a person does in this world the sun takes with it when it sets and carries it to that great land of the living who you regard as dead; and all these things will wait for him there, growing and increasing like cows which calve repeatedly.” (Note the cows reference, bringing us back to #6.)

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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Kenya) – Dreams in a Time of War

dreams in a time of war“Perhaps it is myth as much as fact that keeps dreams alive in times of war”: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o beautifully interweaves the personal and the political in this Kenyan childhood memoir.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is one of Kenya’s most famous writers. Over the years, I’ve read a few of his novels — The River Between (1965), Petals of Blood (1977), and the masterful Wizard of the Crow (2006). Both of the earlier two novels are set against the backdrop of the Mau Mau rebellion, an uprising against the British colonial government by Kenyans – mostly Kikuyus – in the 1950s.

Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, tells the story of Thiong’o’s early life, through the mid-1950s when he was admitted to high school. As with several of Thiong’o’s novels, this story also takes place against the backdrop of Mau Mau. It’s a fascinating account, and it balances the personal with the political. On the personal side, Thiong’o tells of growing up in a polygamous household and of his mother’s efforts to get him to school. His mother and father split when he was a child, and he becomes the scribe to his maternal grandfather. He gives an account — the first I’ve read — of going through the circumcision ceremony, the rite of passage that makes him a man.

At the same time, he describes the political excitement and tension of the time. In the course of Mau Mau, his uncle goes to the mountains to fight, and Thiong’o himself is detained by colonial police on the way home from a religious meeting. The political and the personal intersect repeatedly.

With little access to newspapers – and those filtered by colonial authorities – he and his friends rely on semi-informed and highly creative informants: “Ngandi, like some of his audience, has to read between the lines of the settler-owned newspapers and government radio. But he enriches what he gleans here and there with rich creative interpretation.” Still, as Thiong’o underlines, “Perhaps it is myth as much as fact that keeps dreams alive in times of war.”

I listened to the unabridged audiobook (from Audible), narrated by Hakeen Kae-Kazim. I highly recommend the book, the audiobook, and Thiong’o’s other work, especially Wizard of the Crow.

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Lauren Beukes (South Africa) – Broken Monsters

this psycho serial killer cum horror novel has an ending that’s pure crazy and i loved it

Today in the Washington Post I read a review of The Red Pencil, a children’s book about a girl in Sudan who wants to go to school. I have no objection to authors writing about other countries, but there is something refreshing to me about the opposite perspective: authors from middle- or low-income countries writing about high-income countries. I just finished listening to Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters. Beukes is South African and lives in South Africa, but the novel is entirely set in Detroit Michigan, with an American cast.

I was tipped off to this book by Ainehi Edoro’s lovely review at Brittle Paper. The audiobook is well read by a cast of four readers.

Detective Gabriella Versado is the first detective on the scene of a dead boy, or rather, the top half of a dead boy, who has been connected to the bottom half of a deer. In other words, this starts as a psycho serial killer novel. (It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that there is more than one murder; the book is more than 450 pages, after all.) The narration rotates between Detective Versado, her daughter Leila, the killer, an opportunistic freelance writer, and a local homeless man, all of whose stories interweave.

But by the end, with a series of psychedelic dream sequences, flying chairs, evil energy conducing mobile phones, it becomes clear that this is actually a horror novel as much as a thriller. And that makes it better. The ending is pure crazy and I loved it. As author William Gibson writes, “I love ardent intragenre contemporary weirdness, and Lauren Beurkes’s Detroit is superb.”

I look forward to revisiting some of Beukes’ older work in the wake of this wild ride.

First line: “The body. The-body-the-body-the-body, she thinks.”

Last line: “This is the way the world is now. Everything is public. You have to find other people who understand. You have to find a way to live with it.”

A couple of other lines I liked:

* “The world is condensing, attention spans narrowing to tiny screens, and there are people who are wittier and smarter, who know how to write for those nanospaces.”
* “They’re not young anymore. There’s a softening to their muscles. It’s true about her convictions, too. Experience has filed the edge off the hard truths she believed in when she was younger.”

Note on content: Lots of grown-up themes and violence and language and all that. Not for the kiddos. I’m not sure I’m old enough for it.

broken monsters

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