In the past few years, I’ve been reading more African novels than in the rest of my life (and I’ve always been a fanatic reader). It’s extraordinary to explore countries I’ve never been to, or know nothing of beyond their names and maybe their capitals, through the convenience of books.
All my life Africa has generally seemed removed from me. I’ve always considered myself African and as a child, South Africa seemed the beloved trophy child of a huge, struggling continent. But as I have grown up, our country has been shaken by waves of xenophobia. It was difficult for me, so fiercely in love with our internationally-recognised successes, to recognise the distance between South Africa and our fellow African nations, as well as the divide inside of South Africa. Through knowing our fellow Africans, we can hopefully shake off these xenophobic sentiments.
My quest to discover my own continent began with a yearning to go to Morocco and to know about Morocco. It was exams and I needed somewhere to escape to, even if it was through a book. At the beautiful Central Library I found Laila Lalami’s Secret Son. It was set in Casablanca, Morocco, and told the story of an illegitimate child and two different realities in the city. I enjoyed it and in the holidays I followed up on my African ambition. I found a map of Africa and presticked it onto my study wall, colouring in the countries where books I had read had been set. There weren’t many: South Africa, Rwanda and Morocco. Soon I could add Tanzania and Mali, another travel fantasy.
Even of South African fiction, I’ve read few books. At school, we’ve consistently been taught international, meaning British and American, books which were generally written by white men. Finally, in Grade 10 Cry, the Beloved Country was on the syllabus. While it was written by a white man, we were making progress and it was compassionately and respectfully written. Next, my school introduced Things Fall Apart and Half of a Yellow Sun, both set in Nigeria and written by black individuals. The latter was even written by a woman! Progress! I carried on with my African reading challenge, shading in Zimbabwe, the Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and Kenya.
I’ve chosen books based not on reviews in magazines or the recommendations of my friends (both sources rarely recommend an African book) but by searching “Malian fiction” or “Malian authors” online. Other times, I’ve simply browsed the rows of African fiction at the library, leisurely pulling out books and reading blurbs or extracts. The books I’ve chosen have not always turned out the way I’ve wanted and I was disappointed with the styles of many endings which I felt were lacking. Nevertheless, I have found authors whose writing I not only enjoy, but who are African, like me. It’s like employing someone; you never truly know how good they are until you give them the opportunity.
Opportunity is often such an overused word infused with whimsical connotations of overnight fairytales but it really is key when it comes to African fiction. You’ll never know unless you try. It might take a lot to walk away from the general fiction and turn instead to the closer shelves of African books but once you’ve done that, you won’t be sorry. A few times I’ve been tempted not to find another book from another country but to gobble up every single book the author has ever written (I yielded to Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah). I’m so excited for the day when, having read a book from every African country, I not only know more about my continent, but have found new favourite authors whose work I can go back to again and again.