Helon Habila has done a damn fine job of selecting a diverse and striking stories for this in my opinion, but he has made one editorial decision that didn’t suit me: putting the pieces in reverse chronological order. Cool idea, but… I didn’t want to go along with it – what can I say? I’m an unruly kid. So I read the last story first and carried on that way – sorry Helon! Here are a few of my highlights.
Alex La Guma – Slipper Satin
I love this little snapshot of social tensions, patriarchy and (blood) sisterly solidarity. I felt Myra and Ada’s lives going on beyond the edges of the frame…
Abdulrazak Gurnah – Cages
As well as Gurnah in Paradise, I have to thank Doris Lessing for imparting to me some of the resonance, the deathliness, the complicated awfulness of the store as it haunts the literature of African authors, a miserable symbol of colonial expropriation, enforced dependency, embodying white supremacy and the grind of poverty, disappointment, monotony. In this story, Gurnah sketches the store as a quagmire, swallowing health and dignity, binding Hamid in its moribund grip. The flicker of hope that comes is full of ambiguity. What price will Hamid pay to escape?
Milly Jafta – The Homecoming
This story gracefully dramatises a simple gesture to show the resolute strength of social fabric and the elasticity of family ties. It has the glow of felt truth.
George Makana Clark – The Centre of the World
I love George Makana Clark’s expansive, exuberant style (reminding me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez), which draws on all the senses to enhance its vibrancy, and hastens its bounding pace by cramming in details and asides, some of which venerate stories and their tellers. I wanted more, I wanted a whole book…
Leila Aboulela – Missing Out
This story certainly whet my appetite to read the several Aboulela works on my to-read list. I love writers who can render the texture of a certain style of everyday life so vividly that I feel all its complexity, all its conflicts, tensions, consolations. In a simple tale full of incidental details, Aboulela quietly celebrates, without sentimentality: parental support, generosity, routine, faith, against the grain of London’s casually practiced religion of freedom from all ties, independence, individualism. It remains to be seen if bridges can be (re)built to a compromise…
Aminatta Forna – Haywards Heath
This tale leads me to smile at the strangeness and melancholy and comedy of growing old and forgetting. It’s touching to think that a partial memory can create a mixture of freshness and nostalgia, a source of both pleasure and pain.
Fatou Diome – Preference Nationale
This piece has the style of a barside monologue delivered at a leisurely pace over the span of an evening drinking with a friend, a friend of colour who gets it, who knows what it’s like to be treated as a third class citizen. Its wry humour finds the mark.
Binyavanga Wainaina‘s story Ships in High Transit is, unsurprisingly, at least partly a biting satire on the exotification and exploitation of Africa by Euro-Usians. Only it’s all horribly plausible, and there is no reductive simplification. Rather, Wainaina packs the tale with realistic, sane thoughts and conversations that serve to enhance the cringe-factor several-fold.
Uwem Akpan – An Ex-mas Feast I could hardly bear to read this story of a family living in desperate squalor, told from the point of view of a little boy who seems all too adult. I could not have imagined these lives. Nothing has ever imprinted my consciousness more deeply, more painfully, with the corrosive effects of deprivation, than the portrait here of Jigana’s intelligent, resourceful, determined twelve year old sister Maisha and her chest of belongings, cumbersome and precariously preserved at the expense of comfort and trust. Even small hopes, bitter hopes, ambiguous hopes, are terribly expensive.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – The Arrangers of Marriage This is my favourite piece, blending page-turning, gossipy storytelling with incisive social and cultural critique. How does she do it so naturalistically? I can’t get enough of her writing.