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August Debut

Issue 2; October/November


Molara Wood
Image: Yemi Sodipo

Molara Wood

Wood is the UK-based Nigerian journalist behind the blog, Wordsbody. She is a writer and literary commentator. She was a former columnist of the Nigerian Guardian, contributes to BBC's web portal, and has stories published widely in the media. Her entry, 'Trial by Water', won a Highly Commended Story Award at the 2007 Commonwealth Short Story Competition.

Wood's survey of favourite readings by African writers is well-known to followers of her online and newspaper work. The annual survey, now a feature of Online, is usually indicative of the kind of books African writers have read or will be reading in the year of interest.

compiled by Molara Wood


 Books of the Year 2007  

Akin Adesokan
Measuring Time by Helon Habila (Hamish Hamilton). This is an enjoyable book in many ways, not least because of its touching story. Two brothers; one gifted but limited by sickness, the other physically courageous but eventually wasted by the cruelties of his time. The idea of disability--the protagonist is a sickle-cell patient--is innovative and sustained throughout. Habila also avoids an easy formula by dispensing with the cliché of incompatible twins and, in spite of the problem of omniscience that sometimes slows down the narrative, succeeds in giving the reflective reader a story of unusual warmth in a place which time might otherwise have ignored.
Old Masters: A Comedy by Thomas Bernhard (Phoenix Fiction; tr.1989). I also enjoyed reading this little book by the late Austrian novelist and playwright. An intense book which demands and rewards total attention, "Old Masters" is not new, having been published in translation in the year of its author's death. But it is my introduction to Bernhard's work and I'm grateful. The novel is a paragraph-long tirade against all the masters of European art, music, and philosophy, a personal attack on all the institutions in Austria, but it is very funny and written with great care and an enviable sense of form. In those parts where the narrator, Aztbacher "records" the ills of Austria, his country, all a Nigerian reader needs to do is delete Austria and insert Nigeria.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I have always been drawn to fiction that looks at the world through a romantic-realist lens and Tahmima Anam’s novel about a family affected by the Bangladeshi war of independence, A Golden Age (John Murray), does that well. Biyi Bandele’s Burma Boy (Jonathan Cape) is a humorous story of Africans fighting in the Second World War.

Segun Afolabi
Judging short story awards allowed me to wallow in the form for most of 2007. Two very different collections I’d highly recommend from the shortlist of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award are Charlotte Grimshaw’s Opportunity (Vintage; NZ) and Manuel Munoz’s The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue (Algonquin Books; US). Grimshaw’s very immediate, thrilling and often unsettling stories are set mainly in New Zealand. In ‘Him’, a menacing charmer threatens to overwhelm a mother and son. In contrast, Munoz’s tales are slow-paced, poignant and wistful, examining the lives of Mexican Americans in California. In the title story, a father caring for his disabled son hands over his life savings in exchange for a miracle cure.

Afam Akeh
Allow me a shift in focus from prose-fiction, which will have its many subscribers, to poetry and literary criticism, specifically to two publications of groundbreaking importance to African literature. African literary criticism and its theories have mostly been collected in journals and some country or subject specific anthologies, especially anthologies with the postcolony, diaspora, and oral traditions as their focus. But African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory (Blackwells; 2007) attempts a comprehensive and transnational compilation of the significant commentaries from years of committed work by critics and theorists of the African expression. Editors Tejumola Olaniyan and Ato Quayson certainly capture the many moods, moments and wide-ranging thoughts of their subject. As a central interpretive document for the contemporary formulation and understanding of an African aesthetic this book is already invaluable, but it is even better received as part of a larger communal project, the common interest in locating, placing and centering African perspectives and the experience that informs them. There are essays missing from this compilation that should gain favoured status in a second volume.
The Other Half of History: An Anthology of Francophone African Women’s Poetry (The Heaventree Press; 2007) is my other choice. Editor Georgina Collins is not entirely without peers in her translation work on Francophone African women’s poetry. But her anthology still represents a significant trans-boundary leap forward for African poetry. Her translator’s introductory notes to the book are especially revealing. The Francophone women poets anointed in this anthology are not just mere beneficiaries of some gender positioning politics. They deserve our attention and some are possibly victims of double historic wrongs, being not as centrally known and celebrated especially in Anglophone Africa as their male contemporaries, a wrong this publication successfully challenges.

Ike Anya
Edward Docx's Self Help (Picador) combined all the elements that I enjoy in a novel. It taught me about life in contemporary Russia; it sung in lyrical language; it had me catching my breath in suspense at what would happen next; it made me laugh out loud as it satirized the inanity of modern workplace-speak; it made me think about the complex and intriguing bonds of family; the paradoxes of politics and relationships. I put it down with regret.
  Helen Oyeyemi's The Opposite House (Bloomsbury) I loved for its bold, whimsical portrayal of an immigrant family set in London, but spanning several continents. Ostensibly about a Cuban family, I sensed the echoes of the lives of Nigerian immigrants resounding through the pages. Biyi Bandele's Private Banana in Burma Boy made me laugh, but also made me think about the unwritten histories, the untold stories... Finally, Dave Eggers' deftly rendered account of the life of Valentino Achak Deng had me laughing one minute, near tears the next, and at the end had me asking: "What is the What?"

Gabeba Baderoon
Unconfessed by Yvette Christianse (Kwela, 2007). Unconfessed is the stunning fiction debut of the poet Yvette Christianse.  The novel tells the story of the slave woman Sila van de Kaap, and was inspired by the true story of a slave in the Cape who was imprisoned on Robben Island for murdering her child. Unconfessed memorializes in fiction what is largely silent in the historical record – the reality of the lives of tens of thousands of people brought to the Cape as slaves in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from Mozambique, India and South-East Asia. With its powerful, poetic narrative, Unconfessed revolutionizes fiction about slavery in South Africa. 
Women in South African History: Basus’iimbokodo, Bawel’imilambo/They Remove Boulders and Cross Rivers, Edited by Nomboniso Gasa (HSRC Press, 2007). This important book brings together feminist historians, literary scholars and gender activists to rewrite the history of South Africa - to reflect the fundamental contributions of women. In essays about the great women's marches of the 1950s that shaped the resistance politics of the apartheid era, the role of the prophetess Nonqawuse and the memory of slavery in South Africa - as explored by Pumla Dinea Gqola, “Like three tongues in one mouth: women in (slavocratic) South Africa -, Nomboniso Gasa's book is an indispensable new collection on South African history.

Brian Chikwava
My best reads this year have been by first time novelists Nathan Englander and Tod Wodicka. The Ministry of Special Cases (Faber & Faber) – is Nathan Englander’s Kafkaesque story set in Buenos Aires at the height of the Argentine state’s lawlessness. For one Jewish family, strange things are happening out there. But these unusual circumstances creep into their lives and soon their teenager disappears the same way other people have been ‘disappearing’. The family’s search for a loved one who has ‘disappeared’, brings it face to face with an essentially terrorist state.
All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well (Jonathan Cape). An exceptional, tragic and hilarious novel by Tod Wodicka. One of the most compelling anti-hero novels this year, its protagonist is a medieval re-enactor in New York who chooses centuries to escape into, whenever he can, because he cannot face up to the reality of his family relationships as they fall apart.

Teju Cole
The best book I read this year was All Day Permanent Red, Christopher Logue's verse reworking of the first battle scenes of The Iliad. The ancient Greeks were not moralists; they were musical. Logue brings that across with jaw-dropping immediacy and skill. I was also taken with Sefi Atta's collection, Lawless and Other Stories. Her funny, skeptical and wise voice has enlarged the already unwieldy territory of Nigerian writing.

Jude Dibia
I feel like an 'old bloomer', having just read Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison's 1977 novel (Picador). I find Morrison to be one of the most profound living writers and with Song of Solomon, she creates a world full of characters with a history as rich and devastating as any recorded in African American past. With one of the most memorable opening sequences I have come across in a work of literary fiction (Mr. Smith of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance poised at the top of a building moments away from plunging himself down and a waiting gathering of different people with a mother in labour, unknown that the life of the child born that day would be tied to that very event and many of the unsuspecting spectators waiting for Mr. Smith), this book was meant to be read and re-read. Beautiful!
  Ever since I read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things years ago, I have been fascinated by female writers of Indian origin. When the 2006 Booker Prize winner was announced, I knew nothing was going to stop me from reading the winning entry 'The Inheritance of Loss'. A blurb on the front cover of the edition I have said: “If book reviews just cut to the chase, this one would simply read - This is a terrific novel! Read it.” I could not have put it any better. Kiran Desai took on some weighty themes with this book and the interweaving of events, locales and a sprinkling of memorable characters makes this one of my best reads this year.

Aminatta Forna
Peter Godwin's When A Crocodile Eats The Sun (Picador) – is a follow up to Mukiwa, his memoir of growing up in Rhodesia. This is a moving, tender and harrowing portrait of a family, set against the backdrop of a country's descent into chaos. Helon Habila's Measuring Time – by one of the star writers of our time. An enchanting and subtle tale of two brothers.

Dayo Forster
I'm choosing two books I was a bit surprised by - in terms of how much I enjoyed them. Allah Is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma (Vintage). With what seems like a swearword a page, a young boy gives his refreshing angle on war in West Africa. Politically incorrect yet very true to the heart in descriptions of how warlords take command in idiosyncratic battles. Brutal and sometimes even funny. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Penguin Classics). Unfortunately, I was put off this title when I was younger because every single one of my older four siblings studied it at school and we seemed to have an excess number of copies at home. Wonderful to read now in its calm depiction of an Africa long gone, how change happens and how we need to figure out how to cope with it, disastrously or not.

Muthoni Garland
Cuba on the Edge: Short Stories from the Island (Mary G. Berg, Pamela Carmell & Anne Fountain Eds; CCC Press, 2007). An amazing anthology of short stories. It offers funny and intelligent insights about the life of ordinary people with capitalistic desires hustling to survive and live with dignity in a socialist republic.
 Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love (Penguin). The old man and the young girl who narrate the story are fragile yet resilient, honest and engaging. Perhaps, as I get older, I begin to worry about the indignities of old age – the way a person’s body can let them down even when their spirit is urging them on. Like the old man in the book, I’ve started to think about my legacy (or the lack thereof).
 Kwani 4 (Binyavanga Wainaina Ed; Kwani Trust). An eclectic mix of stories, poems, rants and essays, a faithful bedside companion that I dip in and out of. Uneven quality of contributions but includes some of the funkiest writing and stimulating contemporary thinking in Kenya. Yes, I am a contributor...

Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

The Arrival by Shaun Tan (Hachette Children’s Books): This was one of the most unique books I've seen in quite some time. It's a novel without words, told completely in pictures. It's complex story, and digs deep into the immigrant experience using fantastical elements.
What s the What by Dave Eggers (Hamish Hamilton): I loved this fictionalized memoir of one of the Sudanese Lost Boys. It's vivid, optimistic, tragic, honest, and what a great main character. What was coolest was how the United States is presented not as the romanticized Promised Land but just another place with positives and negatives.

Wadzanai Mhute

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (Penguin). The interweaving of lives in India and America is exquisitely described in this award winning book. Desai adds humour in humourless situations. Biju’s immigration experience is insightful about the struggles illegal immigrants face in America, but with a string of misfits like Saeed and the gang we also laugh at their misadventures and solutions. The Indian countryside and the isolated lives of its inhabitants is relatable because Ms. Desai touches on the individual personalities that can be found in any metropolis or remote corner of the globe. The author laboured over this book for seven years, and it is obvious that she took pains to pick the exact words in order to describe the beauty and isolation of Kanchenjunga. Beautifully written.
The Secret River by Kate Grenville (Canongate). Maybe it is because I was raised in a former British colony, or perhaps it is my reading of British authors that made this novel read a bit like coming back home. The story was familiar because of its similarity with Charles Dickens’ London; I knew this world of the poor working class. This book is for readers of classic British novels; it will transport you to school days and forced readings of Dickens, DH Lawrence and Kipling, to name a few. Though it was inspiring to discover that one can succeed and prosper in a foreign country, it was sobering to learn that in this case it was at the expense of the native Aborigines. The sadness is greater because one realizes that this is a story that was repeated in most former colonies. Grenville’s ability to draw the reader in and her finely crafted words are reasons why I am looking forward to her future work.

Blessing Musariri
My two books - Burma Boy by Biyi Bandele (Jonathan Cape) and Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s The Book of Chameleons (Arcadia). Both books I thoroughly enjoyed because they were very different stories to what one usually gets. In a way, both are about wars and have very distinct and original characters. I loved the use of language in Burma Boy, mainly in dialogue and the comedy was very cleverly brought out. The Book of Chameleons has a philosophical aspect to it which I liked and the voice of the Chameleon was compelling in its descriptions and storytelling - very cleverly written.

Wale Okediran
Burma Boy by Biyi Bandele (2007) is a well researched book of war, love and friendship. The fast pace coupled with the author’s liberal use of Hausa words is a good historical record of the activities of Nigerian soldiers in the service of the colonial army. The author succeeded in lacing nerve chilling war encounters with witty and poignant anecdotes.
Season of Migration to the South by Kole Omotoso (1994). The author’s experience as a long time voyager on the African continent is his outstanding claim to write a book of this quality. In his very popular Just Before Dawn, he wrote about the colonial experience and post-colonial transition in Nigeria. Season of Migration to the South is his own experiential comparison between Nigeria and South Africa, with a lot of other insights gathered from his travels through Africa, the West Indies and Europe thrown in as well. It is a timely book given the current state of transition in South Africa. The encouraging tone of the book coming from someone with a vast travel experience will be a good antidote to the fashionable cynicism and depression of commentaries about Africa.

E.C. Osondu
It was a cruel, gray, typical upstate New York winter. I was teaching in a small college in the outskirts of the city. It was a long forty-five minutes’ commute and the only thing of interest en route was the burial place of a female missionary Laura Maria Sheldon who had tried to convert the Seneca Indians. And of course there was the sprawling Onondaga cemetery where I once counted ten tombstones with the name Muldoon as the bus crawled past. I took out two books by Jamaica Kincaid - The Autobiography of my Mother and My Brother (Farrah Strauss & Giroux). One cold gray day, while on the Centro bus, I opened The Autobiography of my Mother and began to read. Suddenly a burst of tropical sunshine exploded in the bus, I was suffused with warmth and wonder and gratitude. This story of a young female orphan’s search for a place in the world on a small Caribbean Island, remains like no other book that I have read. One reads books and says, this reminds me of this other book, only Jamaica Kincaid reminds you of Jamaica Kincaid.

Wumi Raji
Niyi Osundare seems to exercise an unusual control over his moods. In 1986, rising from his hospital bed, following an attack with axes, cutlasses and cudgels by as yet unidentified individuals, the Ikere born poet launched a collection in which he weaved love songs to the moon. Last year again, after extricating himself from the jaws of Hurricane Katrina which destroyed his New Orleans’ home, Osundare went to his publishers with a manuscript titled Tender Moments. The collection contains love poems all through, and this, for me, is totally surprising. Surprising because Osundare is normally reputed to be a political poet and, as has just narrowly escaped death. It surprises me that a person who had just experienced such a terrible scare can immediately develop the courage and optimism it takes to sing about love…
I am myself in love with Tender Moments. The collection lives up to its title. Its lines are soft and sweet and sensuous, and they taste like delicately ripe pawpaw. They ignite passion, infecting the reader with desire, making it impossible to stop smacking the lips as pages are turned.

Helon Habila’s second novel is another work that surprises me in a pleasant way; because, honestly, I never expected the author to begin a journey back to the source so soon after ‘sudden’ fame. Prison Stories, his original collection, were set in Lagos. The Caine award which the first of the stories won catapulted Habila to the metropolis of the West. Now, with the publication of Waiting for an Angel which Prison Stories transformed into, I had thought that the author would simply move on. I felt sure that he would become less ‘political’ - free to ‘roam’ the world, or at least become fixated with the city. I feel grateful that the author of Measuring Time has proved me wrong. I salute him for returning to his roots in his second novel. It would not have been easy, because chronicling the stories of a ‘simple’ people in some remote corner of Nigeria could not have exactly been in tune with the tastes and expectations of his predominantly Western readership. I admire Habila for his courage. Measuring Time has a carefully controlled story – line and is executed in smooth – flowing, enchanting prose.

Chika Unigwe
Haruki Murakami was my greatest, most exciting discovery of the year. His Kafka On The Shore (Vintage) took me places I'd never have dared to imagine. I read it like a new love: passionately, jealously, admiringly. My second book is The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany (Fourth Estate). I have not read another book this year where even death is described in such sublime prose. It is also a daring, honest book and Aswany creates characters we cannot easily be judgemental about.  

Kafka on the Shore
Burma Boy
The Yacoubian Building
My Brother
Song of Solomon
Self Help
Measuring Time
The Arrival
What is the What
Things Fall Apart
The Autobiography of my Mother
The Book of Chameleons.
The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue
The Inheritance of Loss
The Ministry of Special Cases
The Opposite House
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun
The Secret River
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