Read more! On lists, labels and limits for ‘African women’s writing’

Inspired by Dele Meiji Fatunla and Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed‘s list of 50 women writers they believe ‘everyone’ should read, I’m hoping to complete their list of recommendations in 2015. It includes exciting developments in publishing over recent years, as well as many of’the classics’ of Heinemann’s African Writers’ backlist. I’d describe myself as a keen reader, borrower and purchaser of fiction. I also coordinated a book group for a while when I was in Edinburgh that just read fiction from Africa.  Despite this, I’d read just six books from this list. How many have you read?

50 women writers copy

I spent most of January reading fiction in translation. I read a book I would never have previously picked up, As the Crow Flies by Veronique Tadjo. Translated from French, and with a surreal style of varied, largely unidentified voices, the book was nonetheless moving.  I’m hoping to find copies of her more recent fiction as the year progresses.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I read a book from Egypt, but Ahdaf Soueif’s Map of Love was a gripping story of nationalism in the early 20th century which had a lot of resonances with recent events, particularly in terms of debates over secularism and faith in political life.  January took on an Egyptian theme, as though I couldn’t find Woman At Point Zero,  Nawal El Saadawi’s biography intrigued me, and they did have her first book Memoirs of a Woman Doctor. This states its not memoir, but narrates a similar account of a young woman going against expectation to train as a medic, to the author’s life. Whilst the women in Alifa Rifaat’s short story collection Distant View of a Minaret and Other Stories also face limited options, sexism and discrimination, there is also a strong element of magical realism which for me read as a polar opposite of El Saadawi’s voice.

I think for me being flexible has been the joy of the experience of reading this list so far – rather than limiting my reading, the recommended books lead on to other books.  I’ve also found being part of an online book site has led to more suggestions and recommendations from others who read fiction from around the world. Goodreads offers the opportunity to share your books of course, or if you want to discuss them (or read detailed reviews geographically) the librarything reading globally group might suit.  The Africa Book Club offers regular discounts on books for members (for a membership fee) and a regular newsletter with reviews and interviews. In the past, members of the H-Net group Af-Lit-Cine have set up a reading group by email, which worked well, except for the challenges of accessing books in time to read and comment (especially outside the US).

If you want to read more but prefer to commit to discuss your books in person, I can recommend the experience of a reading group focussed on Africa. With the support of the Centre of African Studies, we had some fascinating discussions about fiction ranging from The Translator to Petals of Blood, and hosted Zoe Wicomb shortly after the publication of Playing in the Light. The deadline of the group meeting was helpful in getting us all reading. As postgrad students and early career researchers, most of us had a lot of reading to do anyway, and found collections like the Caine Prize useful for those months when the weight of imminent deadlines was just too much to commit to full-length fiction. If you’re looking for a group and live near Manchester or London, the African Reading Group (ARG) might be for you – dates and book details are available via Book & Kitchen. In the US, a visitor to this site has shared their group that meets in Chicago, inspired by the Kinna Reads reading challenge.

I was worried about getting hold of books but a pleasant surprise has been the number available to order via my (British) library system. I’d be interested to know if this is typical. Most of the older books on the list have been available in a couple of days. Some universities have the entire Heinemann collection available electronically for remote access. In the past week I’ve signed up to the ‘Scribd‘ digital subscription service, which includes a wide range of publishers’ books in exchange (usually) for a monthly fee. I’m trialling this at the moment (for free) and finding that a good range of fiction is available by authors on my list (although this does depend on your location). So I’m set for Nawal al-Sadaawi and Nadine Gordimer’s backlists, a Cameroonian book of short stories, Your Madness Not Mine, and Zoe Wicomb and Nadifa Mohamed’s latest novels. I’m also looking forward to reading Happiness Like Water.

Aminatta Forna, linked to her frustration with being pigeonholed as an ‘African writer’, has reflected upon the comments she has received following her novel set in the former Yugoslavia. She recently argued that:

the trouble with labels, even a label intended to glorify, is that they are limiting

For me, despite recognising the importance of Forma’s criticism, this group of books with *two* labels, is proving a rewarding experience. I’d recommend it.

I’d love to hear about more about your experiences with ‘reading more’ fiction from Africa by women in the comments section below.


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3 replies

  1. Reblogged this on Kevin Brooks and commented:
    I’ve read a handful, have some on my kindle, wondering why Ghana Must Go didn’t make the list, looking forward to reading more.

  2. The authors of the list do say that it is not meant to be exhaustive – ultimately any ‘best of’ list is only the opinion of the creator(s). For me one of the great things about writing this post has been the suggestions of books by authors that didn’t make this list. I’m currently reading Zenzele : a letter for my daughter by Nozipo Maraire, thanks to a suggestion from twitter.

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