Thursday, 16 February 2012

Africa Reading Challenge 2012

I recently committed myself to taking part in the Africa Reading Challenge 2012, whose rules are pretty basic. Here they are as originally suggested by Kinna who started the whole challenge.

Challenge Period  January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2012
Region The entire African continent, including its island-states, which are often overlooked. Please refer to this Wikipedia “list of sovereign states and dependent territories in Africa”. Pre-colonial empires and regions are also included.
Reading Goal  5 books.  That’s it.  There will be no other levels.  Of course, participants are encouraged to read more than 5 books.  Eligible books include those which are written by African writers, or take place in Africa, or are concerned with Africans and with historical and contemporary African issues. Note that at least 3 books must be written by African writers.

But some guys thought that a year was too long a period and they decided to tweak the rules a bit by  suggesting that each person taking part should read one book a month from March to July. 

I decided to set the following rules for myself;

  1. I'd read only books written after 2000
  2. I'd choose 1 book from (or written by an author from) North, East, Central, South and West Africa
  3. The books would be mostly about contemporary life and if possible in genres not generally associated with African fiction. 
Generally speaking, I knew I didn't want any of the stuffy overly literary stuff that reminded me of secondary school if I could help it or the kind of books that Binyavanga Wainaina seemed to have in mind when he wrote his satirical essay How to write about Africa. No books romanticising a pre-colonial Africa and not too much on the wars, corruption and poverty of the post-colonial period. 

With the above rules in mind to guide me, these are the books I have zeroed in on.

This is a novel narrated by an introspective psychiatrist of Nigerian descent living in New York city, who reflects on aspects of his life both in the US where he currently lives and Nigeria where he was raised. I read through. It felt deep. I decided to add.

I first heard about Al Aswany and his book on BBC's world book club a while ago and it was the only  book from North Africa that came to me immediately. It was the best-selling Arabic novel for two years. Considering, as the translator points out in his notes,
...the reader need not pay too much heed to the fact that the events described nominally take place before and during Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait: the novel reflects the Egypt of the present.
I figured it would be as good book as any to give me a glimpse into pre-Tahrir Square/Arab spring Egypt and a good read in the process.

This one had me at "crime novel set in Kenya". After a look through the first pages (courtesy of an amazon sample) I learnt that the main character is an African-American cop called Ishmael (hmm..) who while investigating the murder of a young woman on a university campus in Madison ,Winsconsin, in the USA, unearthes leads about the main suspect, Joseph Hakizimana, a genocide hero who is now teaching at the university, that take him to Nairobi where he partners up with a Kenyan detective called David Odhiambo, who might be high off something illicit when we first encounter him. I mean what was there not to like. Nairobi Heat fits every single rule I had set for myself in this challenge-it is written by a Kenyan (American) post 2000 in a genre that is not popular among African authors (crime fiction).
Though most reviews are largely positive they all seem to hint at some giant leaps taken (or expected of the reader) and plot holes therein but I am guessing Ngugi Wa Thiongo's son makes up for that in other brilliant ways. I mean, his daddy is like the most acclaimed author in our corner of the world. The apple can't have fallen that far from the tree (hopefully).

I first learnt of Alain Mabanckou while reading a list of recommended reading for 2012 and everything that was written about him seemed to suggest that he was the kind of writer I needed to be familiar with  (eg. he seems to have an issue with fullstops and hardly ever uses them). So when I came across Broken Glass (Verre Cassé) I thought I'd give at a look through and I was immediately impressed because its a funny book and it is about the kind of people and place I was all too familiar with until recently-regular patrons in a popular, somewhat rundown, neighbourhood bar (called Credit Gone West). Apparently critics and readers in Francophonia were going gaga about it when it came out. Even the French cultural minister referred to the author as Mabancool . Such a rare convergence of liking is a major plus in the book's favour. Critics, culture ministers and the hoi polloi rarely agree on what's cool.

This one I have reservations about. It makes it on the list basing purely on its genre-bending credentials. According to wikipedia;
Zoo City is set in an alternate version of the South African city of Johannesburg, in which people who have committed a crime are magically attached to an animal familiar – those who receive such punishment are said to be "animalled". The novel's chief protagonist, Zinzi December – who was "animalled" to a sloth after getting her brother killed – is a former journalist and recovering drug addict, and is attempting to repay the financial debt she owes her drug dealer by charging people for her special skill of finding lost objects, as well as making use of her writing abilities by drafting 419 fraud emails. The book's plot focuses on Zinzi's attempts to find the missing female member of a brother-and-sister pop duo for a music producer, in return for the money she needs to fully repay her dealer.
It doesn't get more unconventional than that and I can't help thinking of the book as a kind of cross between Tsotsi and The Golden Compass. I downloaded it yesterday but I haven't looked through it to see how the writing hits me. I am guessing the book must be worthwhile because it won something called the Arthur .C. Clarke award in 2011. I happen to know that during his lifetime Arthur .C. Clarke was the dog's bollocks  in science fiction writing. 

So that's my list for the African Reading Challenge for 2012. I haven't decided in what order I will read them  beyond deciding that Open City will be the first. I will post a review after I finish each book. I hope I have as much fun as I think I am going to have.

P.S. the links above lead to Amazon pages that will let you have a peek inside the books.


  1. Great list! I love your spin on things. Will wait to read your reviews, and we can compare notes on "Open City."

    1. Thanks. I am getting started on Open City soon. Can't wait to compare notes.