Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing

It seems that we are in the midst of one of those cultural moments that takes place every so often, during which the world discovers modernity coming out of Africa and marvels at the happenstance.

This moment seems to date back to 2004, when the ambitious exhibition Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent debuted in Dusseldorf. The survey, which toured Europe, Japan and South Africa through 2007, took in new and recent work in several media from artists across the continent, revealing a sensibility far from both traditional forms and the first blush of ‘60s post-colonial fervor.

In recent years, African pop music has also taken its place in the modern lexicon, owing far more to hip-hop and electronic music than to the cross-cultural fusions usually found on the “world music” charts; even recent anthologies of ‘70s African funk seem to have been curated with one ear towards cratedigging DJ’s and beat-chasing listeners. A new fashion magazine documenting the latest and hottest in African styles and trends, Arise (published by the Nigerian media company This Day), has been showing up on American newsstands.

HBO’s adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith’s The #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency mysteries turned out to be a minor-key, charming success, if nothing else for showing American TV audiences how life in Botswana actually looks. And more and more film festivals are programming African content, a move that makes sense considering that Nigeria is the third busiest film producing country in the world.

African literature is also having a turn in the global spotlight. Two Nigerian authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun, 2006) and Chris Abani (Graceland, 2004), are the leading stars among Western readers, but as with most aspects of African culture, there is much, much more going on beyond the handful of global crossover successes. As with African music compilations and the Africa Remix exhibit, a smartly assembled collection might well be the best way to dive into the diversity of literary talent and perspective on display across the continent.

Gods and Soldiers is just that type of starting point. Rob Stillman, editor of the literary magazine Tin House, has first-hand knowledge of the scene, both from submissions by African writers to his magazine and from his participation in a literary festival in Kenya. That experience and understanding informs the depth and scope of this anthology of 30 distinctive African voices, with those new to Western readers writing with the same crackling passion and insight as the more familiar names.

Nigerian icon Chinua Achebe, considered in many respects the dean of African letters, appropriately leads off the selections. His Things Fall Apart, possibly the most widely-read African novel worldwide to date, received the star treatment last year, on the 50th anniversary of its publication; that re-appreciation became part of the attention lavished upon current African writing.

This collection begins with his 1965 essay “The African Writer and the English Language”, which remains au courant in its exploration of a classic dilemma: should non-Western writers write in their own tongues for their own cultures, or in English to reach a global audience? After surveying various African writers of his own era, and considering the work of non-Africans Jorge Amado (Brazil) and James Baldwin, Achebe concludes:

…I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.

Forty-four years later, Gods and Soldiers offers evidence that this generation is working through similar issues, and that many are reaching similar conclusions. Both among the writers who work in English and those whose work is presented in translation, there is a palpable sense of discovery and invention, as they transcend genre and convention to tell their uniquely African stories.

The collection is organized roughly by region (west, north, east and southern Africa, plus breakouts for French- and Portuguese-speaking countries), with a non-fiction essay setting the tone for each section. In that respect, the structure helps underscore that there is boundless diversity in every respect from one end of Africa to the other. Past that point, there’s little connection of technique or viewpoint within each grouping, no school of thought or style of writing unique to any particular region.

Tati. self-portraits, 1997 (partial) by Samuel Fosso from Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t common issues being confronted across the continent. One of the revelations in reading Gods and Soldiers is seeing how writers from country to country grapple in their individual ways with these various themes and storylines.

The broad topic of governance and political affairs on the continent, not surprisingly, is one of those themes. But rather than engage in thinly veiled diatribes against this injustice or that regime, the writers here find complicated, nuanced faces to illustrate the effect of chaos and instability on everyday people’s lives. An excerpt from Boubacar Boris Diop’s novel about the strife in Rwanda begins with speculation about whether the fighting will ever allow a couple a chance to get married.

In Somalia, Nuriddin Farah introduces us to a female freedom fighter overseeing a group of green, skeptical young charges. Where the protagonist in Niq Mhlongo is confronted by petty corruption and brutality from South African police, the central figure in Helon Habila’s story is a Nigerian writer whose fate is spared only when he starts ghostwriting poetry for his lovesick jailer.

African writers are also exploring their homelands’ complicated relationship with the West. For Senegal’s Fatou Diome and Nigeria’s E.C. Osundu, the relationship depicted is of a young, star-struck African idolizing a figure from afar. Elsewhere, Leila Aboulela writes of a young man with one foot in his native Sudan and another with his wife in Scotland, and trying to navigate the emotional distance between those two worlds and his loved ones in them.

And Djibouti’s Abdourahman A. Waberi puts a sardonic spin on Africa-as-woebegotten-charity-case, speculating about a world in which Zurich held the highest rate of AIDS infections and African leaders were making broad pronouncements about the hoards of impoverished, starving Japanese.

Stories that evoke the continent’s ancestral essence — from the scent of the vegetation to the sturdiness of its folk traditions — are juxtaposed against stories in which the saga of the individual in an urban mecca reflects new tensions arising in post-millennial Africa. The hero of Aziz Choukari’s piece could be an aspiring rock star anywhere; he just so happens to be pursuing fame against the backdrop of hotly contested battles in Algeria.

And unless you consider that the issue of independent women is still a sticking point throughout Africa, Nadine Gordimer’s story about a South African woman coming to grips with her mother’s bohemian legacy might seem to be all but stateless, a story that could just as easily have been set in London or Manhattan.

Ultimately, this is a collection of, by and about modern Africa, of writers and characters negotiating their way through timeworn realities and new possibilities. The concluding selection, a short story by Ivan Vladislavic, shows how difficult that negotiation can be, as a discarded piece created for a South African museum exhibit bears the power to elicit reactions based on age-old, discredited power dynamics. It’s as if to say that no matter how far they’ve come as people and as nations, in Africa the past is never really, completely gone, at least not yet.

Perhaps the strongest theme emerging from Gods and Soldiers is that there’s no singular “voice of Africa”, no overarching cosmology to unify the continent’s literature. But that’s a great thing, in that more and more writers are finding their places within our global literary landscape (a collection of nonfiction reportage, essays and memoirs would be a worthy follow-up). We’ll still be reading many of these writers, and tracking how their finely cultivated perspectives view the current state of African affairs, long after the world moves on to the next cultural hotspot.

RATING 9 / 10