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My Summer Reading: African Literature – Part 1

Many summers ago, I spent two months at the University of California, Berkeley, reading and studying African Literature. I had just finished a particularly difficult seminary year. I had also just completed graduate school at Notre Dame.  The seminary staff said I could take the summer for retreat and reading. I lived in a large house in Berkeley, just a few blocks from the University of California campus. In the house, I was alone for most of the summer, which suited me fine. In the mornings, I audited a class at Cal in Contemporary African Literature. In the afternoons, I played basketball at one of Cal’s many outdoor courts. I filled nearly every other moment reading and writing reflections about the literature I read. It was heaven. I felt lucky.

The class focused on contemporary African writers who wrote in English. The professor’s focus was on John Ngugi, as he was then known. Now, he goes by Ngugi Wa Thiongo and he writes primarily in Gikuyu, a local Kenyan language. I loved learning about Kenyan history. I learned a great deal about various cultures across Africa. I especially enjoyed learning what I could of the political situation in several countries.

This summer, I’ve decided to return to African Literature. With all that is going on in the United States these days, I need to dive into stories about people and places that are different. I need to get to know characters whose lives and choices are different from my own. To that end, I discovered the Africa Book Club. 

One of its organizers is Daniel Musiitwa. They have books from all across the continent, work you can’t find on Amazon or in local bookstores. I’ve nearly finished reading the first three books I received. And yes, I had the same joy when they arrived that I had way back in the day, as a kid, when the Scholastic Book Club selections arrived at our school. I was, and am, a mad reader.

The first two books I ordered were Harare North by Brian Chikwava and Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou. Daniel Musiitwa sent me an additional book, a collection of short stories he edited, titled, The Bundle of Joy. I’ve finished the two I ordered and I’m halfway through short stories.

In future posts, I’ll also write some reflections about a wonderful poetry collection that Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani have created. New Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set is a terrific collection of 12 chapbooks by contemporary African poets.

For now, a word about the two novels. Harare North is a rich and funny story of a young man who comes to London to escape violence in Zimbabwe. We learn about life in Zimbabwe, life in London for Zimbabweans, and much more. How does one start a life in a new place with nothing? How does one make one’s way in a new world with little cultural knowledge about the new world. The un-named narrator in this book is funny, sad, ambitious, and deeply human.

Black Moses tells the story of a Congolese orphan navigating a difficult and brutal world. “Little Pepper” escapes the orphanage and builds a life in a nearby town, first in street gangs, then on his own. This story teems with disconnection. As a little boy in the orphanage, he feels a deep disconnection from those around him. Except for one friend, he is a loner. But he escapes the orphanage without that friend so he really has to build his life on his own. This book is a mix of very dark humor and tender moments of self-discovery.

Never having read any literature from Zimbabwe or the Congo, both of these novels were insightful and fresh. The writing was tight, clean, and rich. I have to say, I loved both of these stories.

There is so much to learn from people whose lives differ greatly from our own. I urge you to check out this book club and dive in.

Photograph of the books: Joseph Ross
Photograph of the U.C. Berkeley Campanille: D. H. Parks

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