By Radiyah Manjoo
“You read African literature. You could write something”, she said. I shivered at the thought – African literature, so loaded, so vast. Yes, I read African literature, making a concerted effort to do so, but I’ve barely scratched the surface. You see, it wasn’t until late in my life, the age of around 18, when I read a book and thought about it, “Hmm, this feels familiar”. It’s not to say that I had not read many books in my life, quite the contrary, I read A LOT. I was the “bookworm type” who preferred a book over a person, so how is it that I had never felt like this about a book before? It dawned on me later that this was one of the first times I had ever read a book by a person of colour. How can that happen you might ask in disgust, and I would reply, quite easily actually. Access is the first reason. I simply didn’t have the resources. I would get my books from a library, and the library hadn’t kept up with our new-found freedom. It was still very much the same books that had been there pre-apartheid. The second reason is plain old ignorance. I was young, and I wasn’t really into questioning things other than my parents. I accepted that the people who wrote books were the people whose books I was reading. I hadn’t realised that I was being deprived. After realising this, I decided that from then on, I would be reading books by people who come from countries like mine and who are people of colour. There was no malice or ill-intent in it (as some seem to see it), but instead, I was merely seeking more relatability in what I read. It was just me consciously deciding to listen to a voice different to the one I’d heard until then. My whole life I had read and seen so little of myself and this taste of “home” made me want to never go back. Ever since, I have been trying my best. Still, access is an issue (we’re getting better though), but I fully acknowledge that I have a long way to go. I remember listening to an interview and the speaker saying, “storytelling is African”. I would encourage everyone to read African stories, and we hope to inspire you to explore Africa through its authors. There is so so much, and you’re doing yourself a disservice by leaving African authors out. Maybe there’s a piece of you in some pages – finally an unoffensive way to “find yourself in Africa”. My ambitious aim is to review 3 books a month, focusing on a specific African country each month. The continent is diverse and each country unique and special, and of course we can’t present any country in 3 books, but we would like to offer a “taste” is you will. This segment has been named “A tree, a bud and a flower”. A tree being a classic, a book of old that has established itself as a part of the country’s literature. Let’s say it has “roots” (see what I did there). A bud being a fresh new book on the scene, a book from now. We’re excited about all the new voices coming from the continent and we’re here for it. I’ve tried to stay as modern as I could, but I’ve made a broad criterion of “having been released in the past 5 years”. A flower is one chosen tainted by my bias. Something that I just love, as I do flowers. I might choose it because it just brought me joy, because it was beautiful, or any other reason. For the first of this series, I will begin with my favourite African country (by default). My beautiful home and the land of my people. The earth that has grown and fed me. One of the most beautiful places in this world, South Africa! I’ll be the first to admit that I have not read enough South African books. This is definitely not something that I am proud of and have exerted much effort to correct. South African writing most definitely has a flavour, it’s distinguishable and maybe because it’s my people, I feel that I can tell that writing is South African when I read it. We have a lot of pain and as a country, we have definitely been through it and we’re still a work in progress. South African authors tell stories and they manage to always imbue what they’re saying with beauty, even when they’re speaking of pain. I feel like somehow, we know pain really well and we speak of it as one would a sibling, frankly, without shame, and with acceptance. On a brighter note, there’s a huge emergence of new South African authors and it is wonderful! The scene is very “happening” and there is so much out there. Exciting times have come.
A tree: Maru, by Bessie Head
It was not an easy task finding a South African classic by a person of colour but I settled on this one in the end. Maru is timeless and by a woman of colour, Bessie Head. I know a lot of students got to do this book in school as setwork but I did not unfortunately. We had the joy of doing Animal Farm. Twice. Maru is set in Botswana and places the experience of discrimination from a perspective other than the one us South Africans usually relate. I found it an interesting thing to do and it was a way of making the feeling of discrimination universal. She managed to make the story about so much, but releasing the parts that struck us slowly and in varied places. Maybe it’s just me who found the story of loneliness, discrimination, love, and pain all so relatable, but I can’t imagine who wouldn’t?
A bud: The Zulus of New York, by Zakes Mda
Zakes Mda is one of the authors that’s actually been on the South African literature scene for some time. I plan to read more of him as I get the chance but I will say, everything I’ve read of his, I’ve enjoyed. He has a way with telling stories, a force of sorts with his words. Zulus of New York was a joy to read. The story itself was so interesting and there were a whole variety of emotions stirred by this book. There were moments of genuine horror, times when I’d laugh and parts which were even educational. The book follows a man leaving South Africa and I would describe it as “an adventure” that I very much felt a part of.
A flower: The Yearning, by Mohale Mashigo
What a book! This was of the kind I could not put down and once I read it, I told EVERYONE that they HAD to read it as well – my favourite kind. A friend had recommended it and told me that she suggested it to her own book club and was “very popular” after. Her whole book club had described it as “our story”. Mohale tells a story of a woman going through a significant experience in her life. The story is captivating and intense and so South African. I loved that she told a story that I could feel like someone I knew would tell. If you can, read this book!
*** A disclaimer: I am most definitely not and do not consider myself an authority on African Literature – not in the least bit. I am simply a girl, who loves reading books, telling you what I feel about them. Forgive me for my errors – in advance. I just happened to be a person who talks about books a lot. I am very much open to any suggestions and would love to know your trees, buds, and flowers. If you have books from the continent that you feel need to feature, do let me know. Make a girl happy, talk to me about books!