Studying African novels


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The first weeks of November have seen me walking more frequently and eagerly than usual to our rural mailbox even though the wind at this time of year can be bone-chilling as it blows off the harbour and slips icy fingers down my neck, cupping my cheeks in an unwelcome greeting. I could have driven of course but that seemed unnecessary when the return journey only takes less than ten minutes on foot and my eagerness made for a brisk pace.

I wasn't already expecting holiday mail, although some members of my far-flung tribe have been known to mail greetings and parcels well in advance. No, it’s because I decided a while ago to take a (self-directed) course on African novels and ordered the first of twenty-four (yes, two dozen!) last month from the U.K. (after giving thanks to the gods of Internet and Amazon; how else would I have obtained my reading materials when I live in a remote, coastal village in Atlantic Canada?)

And IT arrived this week. By “it”, I mean a modest-looking, second-hand (that was all I could find) paperback, A Wreath for Udomo, written by Peter Abrahams in 1956. My copy is a second edition, published by Faber and Faber in 1965; the book went on to be reprinted in 1977 and 1979. By the way, the net 1965 price was £1.60; I paid £6.00 for it (plus an addition £6.94 for postage across the pond).

Although I pride myself on having read a substantial amount of African literature, I had never heard of Peter Abrahams. 

Not to be confused with the American crime writer, Peter Abrahams, the author I’m referring to, was born in 1919, in Vrededorp (near Johannesburg) in South Africa. Abrahams defined himself as a “Coloured South African”, i.e. in his own words, a member of “the half-caste community that was a byproduct of the early contact between black and white”. Abrahams left South Africa in 1939, moving first to London, and later, in 1956, to Jamaica where he still resides. His latest book, a memoir (The Coyaba Chronicles: Reflections on the Black Experience in the 20th Century) came out in 2000. His first was a collection of short stories, Dark Testament, was published by G. Allen in 1942. In between, he wrote several novels, in addition to political commentaries, travel stories, and journalistic pieces. Abrahams has been acclaimed as one of South Africa’s most prominent writers and called the “custodian and conscience of the Pan-african movement”.

I first came across this prolific author in a gem of a book, African Novels in the Classroom, edited by Margaret Jean Hay. For some time, I have been meaning to focus (some of) my reading on twentieth-century African authors and wasn’t sure where to start. It was tempting to re-read the authors (including André Brink, Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head, Camara Laye, and Ousmane Sembène--to name just a few) whose works fill my own shelves. But I wanted a more systematic approach and Hay’s publication fit the bill. She had the brilliant idea of approaching American college professors and asking “whether they used [African] novels in their teaching, and if so, what novel they might like to write about”. Here is the marvelous list she compiled:

1. Peter Abrahams’s A Wreath for Udomo

2. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (One of the first novels I borrowed from the public library in Botswana when I worked there as a U.N. volunteer)

3. Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (I have heard so much about this book, but still haven’t got around to it. Better late than never!)

4. Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter (Yes, yes! Looking forward to re-reading this one, in its original French-language edition.)

5. Driss Chraïbi’s Mother Comes of Age

6. Lindsey Collen’s The Rape of Sita

7. Maryse Condé’s Segu (Lovely to see the inclusion of another francophone author. I’ll read this one in the original French.)

8. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions

9. Modikwe Dikobe’s The Marabi Dance

10. Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood

11. Buchi Emecheta’s The Slave Girl

12. Nuruddin Farah’s Gifts

13. Elsa Joubert’s Poppie Nongena (I was blown away by this novel. I own both its English translation, and the original Afrikaans version which I waded through to get a feel for Afrikaans as I love exploring languages)

14. J. Nozipo Maraire’s Zenzele: Letters to My Daughter (I mentioned this one in my first blog post, “May I invite you into my office?”.)

15. Meja Mwangi’s Going Down River Road

16. Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat (It will be a joy to immerse myself again in this book.)

17. Djibril Tamsir Niane’s Sundita: An Epic of Old Mali (Another French-speaking writer. Great! So far, I’ve only read excerpts of Niane’s writings. Ever since the latest terrorist attack in Bamako, this past Friday, November 20, my thoughts have been flying to Mali, one of my favorite African countries.)

18. Flora Nwapa’s Efuru

19. Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy

20. Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North

21. Ousmane Sembène’s God’s Bits of Wood (The title resonated deeply with me the first time I read it and it still does today.)

22. Wole Soyinka’s Ake: The Years of Childhood

23. Moyez G. Vassanji’s The Gunny Sack (I’ve read other books by this author but not this one.)

24. P.T. Zeleza’s Smouldering Charcoal

I have no idea how long it will take me to go through the above collection, but I intend to reach each book and look forward to sharing my progress with you. In fact, I’m going to head shortly downstairs to the living room and curl up with A Wreath for Udomo. I started reading it this lazy Sunday morning, snug in bed, with a cup of tea (brought to me by husband extraordinaire; yes, I’m spoiled). 

Too often, I gobble books, but I’m reading this political roman à clef slowly. Michael Udomo is meant, it seems, to be Kwame Nkrumah (the first prime minister and later, the first president of Ghana). Only a few pages in, I’m captivated, already in Udomo’s skin as he shivers in the cold streets of London, huddles in front of a gas fire, gratefully accepts the gift of a duffel coat, and longs to meet Tom Lanwood—believed to be a fictionalized George Padmore (a Trinidadian political activist and pan-Africanist). 

Before ending this post, I thought I’d point you to a few articles about Peter Abrahams, in case you’re interested. 

SAHO (South African History Online) has a very nice piece about him at:

http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/peter-henry-abrahams

Another biography can be found at BlackPast.org at:

http://www.blackpast.org/gah/abrahams-peter-1919

Finally, the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica has a brief write-up about Peter Abrahams at: http://www.britannica.com/biography/Peter-Abrahams

Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by. I hope that, despite the wars, terrorist attacks, violence, ugliness, suffering, and horrors combining to afflicting far too many around the globe you are able to find meaning and joy in your family and friends, your remunerated or volunteer work, your hobbies or creative outlets, man-made creations or Mother Nature’s beauty, and simple pleasures like reading a book. 

It would make my day if the above list encouraged you to pick up a book by an African author. If you do, I’d love to hear your reactions.

Take good care.


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