At last year’s Guardian Opinion Christmas party – modest affairs at which those who want to dance are outnumbered by those who want to talk by at least five to one – I met Chibundu Onuzo, a Nigerian author.
“We share a publisher,” she told me.
“I’m sorry,” I told her. “I haven’t read your book.”
Chibundu waved away my apology with generous indifference. We carried on chatting and were among the pioneers on the dancefloor.
Chibundu did not appear bothered by my ignorance of her work, but I was. I can’t say exactly why. There are lots of books I haven’t read. But in some small way that gnawed at me in the days ahead, I wondered not only why I hadn’t read her but why she wasn’t on my radar.
Feeling it was time to fix my radar, I decided, when it came to fiction, to read only African women for a year. The motivation was not virtue but curiosity. I wondered what I had been missing out on. I wasn’t completely ignorant of literature by women from that part of the world: I’d read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ama Ata Aidoo, Bessie Head, Buchi Emecheta, Leila Aboulela, Gillian Slovo, Nadine Gordimer and Zoë Wicomb. Nor was I entirely ignorant of that part of the world. I lived in Sudan for a year, reported from South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Sierra Leone and visited Ghana on holiday. But it had been at least four years since I read any of those authors and five since I set foot on the continent.
Not so long ago my project would have been much harder. “It used to be just a few writers published mostly as part of an educational series,” explains Margaret Busby, editor of Daughters of Africa, the landmark anthology of writing by women of African descent, which came out in 1992. “Now they are in the mainstream. I think publishers can see the success they can have with someone like Chimamanda and of course they want that success too.”
But it’s still not as easy as it might be. “Until you can no longer count the number of African women writers who have broken through then we’ve still got work to do,” says Busby, whose sequel, New Daughters of Africa, comes out next year.
My original approach was not methodical. I just started with the books on my shelf, posted an appeal for recommendations on Facebook and then took the books I’d read and went to Amazon’s “Customers who viewed this item also viewed” section to see what else was out there. But when, by around Easter, it became clear that if I didn’t mix it up I could spend the whole year reading Nigerian women (no bad thing, just not my plan), I made an effort to seek out writers from various parts of the continent.
With the year almost up I have read 18 books by authors from Morocco, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Egypt, Somalia, Uganda, Ethiopia and Cameroon.
There have been love stories, short stories, multi-generational sagas, political novels, ghosts, infertility, coups, occupations and migration stories, written in the voices of white English men and women, first, second, third and fourth wives, children, slaves and slavers, ranging over four continents and in every century from the 16th onwards.
The book most often recommended to me was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a 29-year-old Ghanaian American writer based in Berkeley. This debut novel from 2016, which won a slew of awards, is a saga spanning the Atlantic and many generations. It starts in an 18th-century Asante village and follows the descendants of Maame, who has two daughters. One is married to the British governor running Cape Coast Castle; the other, Esi, is enslaved in the dungeons below. Each chapter then follows their offspring, in Africa and the US. Panoramic in its scope, Gyasi’s book is a bold effort.
But chances are I’d have appreciated it more if I hadn’t already come across two books that use the same device to greater effect. The first, Segu, tells the story of the eponymous west African kingdom as it fights to maintain its traditions and integrity against Christian, Muslim and foreign incursion and expansion. It starts in 1797, when “Segu was at the height of its glory. Its power stretched as far as the outskirts of Jenne ... and it was feared as far away as Timbuktu ... ” The book traces the lineage of Dousika Traore, the Segu king’s most trusted court adviser, through his four sons and beyond. Maryse Condé, 81, employs her historical knowledge with a light touch, building complex characters who are not reduced to vessels of a historical moment. Condé, the French winner of this year’s New Academy prize in literature (given in lieu of the Nobel prize), is the one writer included here who is not African. Momentarily distracted by the subject matter of Segu, which I already owned, by the time I remembered that she wasn’t African it didn’t matter – I was already hooked.
It may take two to make a baby but fertility and fecundity are understood to be a woman’s responsibility
The second, Kintu, is the first novel by Ugandan-born Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, who now lives in Manchester and was awarded a $150,000 Windham-Campbell literature prize this year. Kintu, published in the UK in January, is the story of a curse passed through generations in what is now Uganda. It starts with the mob killing of a man mistaken for a thief and then stretches back to the story of a powerful governor who unleashes a curse that reverberates through the ages when he kills his own son. Makumbi’s prose style is as haunting as the storyline. “Just as the sun moved into the centre of the sky to inflict its worst, o Lwera, a region of barren land came into view ... Even at this distance, a dirge, the hum of its heat, was audible. Waves of radiation danced in the air warning: You traverse these grounds at your own peril.”
In his satirical 2006 Granta essay, How to Write About Africa, Binyavanga Wainaina advises: “Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel prize ... Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.”
There are plenty of portrayals of ordinary domestic scenes and love between Africans in this motley collection. But rare were the west African, and particularly Nigerian, works that did not find ample material in polygamy. If you think of how much drama English literature has managed to extract from monogamy, we probably shouldn’t be surprised. When African men write about polygamy it is generally treated, at best, as a problem to manage: keeping peace among the wives. But, not surprisingly, female authors engage with it differently. It is for the women to manage the humiliation, competition, jealousy and rancour brought about when a man invites another woman to share his bed and compound. A pecking order emerges among wives and children, in a range of abusive relationships between men and women, women and women and women and their children, producing rivalries that propel plots.
The most tender of these accounts is also the shortest – the 95-page So Long a Letter, published in 1979, by the Senegalese author Mariama Bâ, who died aged 52 in 1981. The book takes the form of a letter from Ramatoulaye Fall to her best friend Aissatou on the death of Ramatoulaye’s husband Modou, who has abandoned her and their 12 children and taken one of their daughter’s best friends as his second wife.
“And to think that I loved this man passionately,” writes Ramatoulaye. “To think that I gave him 30 years of my life, to think that 12 times over I carried his child. The addition of a rival to my life was not enough for him. In loving someone else, he burned his past, both morally and materially. He dared to commit such an act of disavowal.”
In the more recent novels polygamy appears to pose a challenge to a sense of modernity, making its way from the urban centres towards the peripheries, particularly in Nigeria where, according to the Demographic and Health Survey 2008, a third of married women and one in eight married men (aged 15-49) are in polygamous unions.
These dynamics are further complicated, or sometimes instigated, as the focus shifts from the bed to the uterus, and the guilt and desperation as women will their bodies to produce the one thing – often the only thing – that will legitimise both their marriage and their femininity: a child. It may take two to make a baby but fertility and fecundity are understood to be a woman’s responsibility not least because they represent the underpinnings of a man’s honour.
Discovering these writers hiding in plain sight is a bit like coming across a new word – suddenly they pop up everywhere
This is the defining theme of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin, the winner of several awards and longlisted for the Orange prize in 2011, in which Bolanle Alao, a graduate with a promising future, marries into a polygamous family as the fourth wife. Baba Segi’s role in the whole affair is almost incidental – the benign dictator in a state of emotional repression, his sexual endeavours are described in tragicomic detail. “Baba Segi was heavy,” relates one of his wives. “Everything about him was clumsy and awkward. He heaved and hoed, poured his water into me and collapsed onto my breasts.” Only Egyptian author, psychiatrist and physician Nawal El Saadawi’s depiction of Zakariah’s subservience to his “gland” in Zeina (2011) is more debasing. In Baba Segi’s house, however, the disgrace is Bolanle’s. Despised and ultimately feared by the other wives who try everything – including murder – to get rid of her, Bolanle struggles to conceive. The shame of being barren, the overbearing mother-in-law, the disappointed gaze that rests on a newly-wed’s flat stomach, the natural remedies and visits to traditional healers are constant features.
“You have had my son between your legs for two more months and still your stomach is flat,” Moomi, the mother-in-law, tells the protagonist, Yejide in Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s excellent 2017 novel Stay With Me. “Close your thighs to him I beg you … If you don’t he will die childless. I beg you, don’t spoil my life. He is my first son, Yejide.”
We follow Yejide through a phantom pregnancy, infant mortality and a second wife as Adébáyò builds a vivid cast of secondary characters who bear witness and contribute to the disintegration of her marriage.
The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif is one of several books in which the more familiar tensions of monogamous relationships dominate, including Zeina, in which love is absent and others, like Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love (2010), which is tied together by a marriage that is unfulfilled, a romance that is incomplete and a courtship that reaches fruition. Soueif’s 1999 Booker shortlisted novel tracks the dual romances of an Egyptian American conductor and American journalist in the US during the 90s and an English widow and Egyptian doctor in Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century, and is the only one of these books in which romantic love drives the narrative completely.
Stay With Me, like many of these stories, whether set in Egypt (Zeina and The Map of Love), Uganda (Kintu and Tropical Fish by Doreen Baingana), Zimbabwe (We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo), Sierra Leone (The Memory of Love) or the US (Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue), uses political upheaval to provide an important, if somewhat incidental, backdrop. More often than not this is just an aside: “We were at Makerere University,” writes Baingana in her collection of intertwined short stories, “We were the cream of the crop. We had dodged the bullets of Amin, Obote, all the coups, the economic war, exile and return, and here we were on the road to success.”
Only in Maaza Mengiste’s 2010 novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, set in Ethiopia during the downfall of Emperor Haile Selassie and the first years of the Dergue dictatorship, does politics dominate. Through the story of one family – Hailu, the doctor, his two sons, the religious Yonas and the rebellious Dawit, their partners and neighbours – we see the disintegration into a reign of terror. The depiction of individual acts of morality and resistance – both major and minor, futile and fruitful – as a society descends into brutality and conformism is arresting even if all the characters except Hailu feel one-dimensional. “You want to save people,” Dawit’s revolutionary handler tells him after he tries to drag from the street the corpse of a woman he knows against a soldier’s orders. “Then save the living. Those who are dead aren’t worth dying for.”
Unlike many black British novels, which often have a fractured timeline, only a few of those I read (Zeina, Kintu, The Memory of Love) shift between past and present. But many move geographically, offering migration stories either within the continent (Segu, Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy (2010), Homegoing) or beyond. Behold the Dreamers, Homegoing, Tropical Fish and We Need New Names take us to the US; Segu to Brazil. Philosophically the authors of these books feel more comfortable in their skin than their diasporic counterparts in Europe and the US, who often work through their issues of belonging, discrimination and minority status through their fiction. Ethnic, tribal, religious and regional differences may make their protagonists question their place at home, but they don’t interrogate whether it’s home or not. That sense of confidence evaporates the longer they stay outside Africa.
But perhaps the boldest and most arresting migration story of all is that offered by Laila Lalami’s 2014 novel The Moor’s Account (shortlisted for the Pulitzer prize, longlisted for the Booker), which tells the story of the calamitous New World expedition from Spain to Florida, from the point of view of Estabanico, a Moorish slave, to whom Lalami gives the original name Mustafa. Mustafa is one of just four from an original contingent of 300 who survive the journey after some are lost, others killed and a handful eaten by their fellow explorers. As the expedition proceeds, with all the brutality and arrogance such an imperial adventure entails, the numbers dwindle and the hierarchy between slave and master breaks down, threatening to reassert itself when the four finally find their way back to other Spanish colonists. “The rules and formalities that had existed on land could not be maintained on the rafts,” notes Mustafa. “Worse: our ablutions were no longer private ... But for one like me, who had already known these humiliations, it was a reminder that all fates, including my master’s, could turn upside down. And I would do whatever it took in order to right mine.”
In a regular year my fiction choices are very hit and miss. I read non-fiction primarily for work and fiction for pleasure. Occasionally, prompted by reviews and more often by recommendations, I yank something off the shelf and give it a go. I come late to pretty much everything. Sometimes I try to improve myself with something I think I should have read – a classic Russian novel or recent prize winner – which rarely works out. If I have a default it’s to black western writers – the ones I’m most likely to see referred to in other work and refer to in my own. It’s a rare summer holiday that I don’t take a Walter Mosley with me. But last year I devoured Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See; the year before, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. This year I’ve enjoyed more books than usual and encountered far fewer duds.
Indeed one of the most delightful was Welcome to Lagos, by one Chibundu Onuzo. It follows Chike Ameobi, a military officer, who deserts the Nigerian army with his subordinate of few words, Yemi, after refusing to fire on civilians in the Niger delta. As they flee they bump into Fineboy, a slick character who fought with rebel groups; Isoken, a 16-year-old girl whom they rescue from being raped by Fineboy and his fellow rebels; and Oma, on the run from an abusive husband. Having found each other, this unlikely band of travellers sticks together through a series of adventures during which they sleep rough, squat in an apartment, imprison a corrupt minister, redistribute stolen money to schools, and eventually make a life for themselves in a beautifully spun yarn that I could not put down.
Discovering these writers, new and old, who were hiding in plain sight has been a bit like coming across a new word – suddenly they pop up everywhere and you realise that somehow their presence never registered. With the year nearly up I feel much as I did after I gorged on books about Russia in my teens or the American south and the Harlem Renaissance in my 20s – I feel I need to see these places, particularly Nigeria and Uganda, that have been so vividly created for me. That’s why it intrigues me that, had I not embarked on this endeavour, I probably never would have read most of them. Wondering why that is, I’m reminded of what Maya Angelou the late African American writer said to me about her choice of romantic partners.
“I could fall in love with a sumo wrestler if he told stories and made me laugh,” she said. “Obviously, it would be easier if someone was African American and lived next door and went to the same church. Because then I wouldn’t have to translate. But if I make the effort to learn the language and respect the mores then I should be able to get along anywhere and with any kind of people. I think I belong wherever human beings are.”
Faced with an array of choices and limited time, when it comes to literature, there’s a part of me that I’m not particularly proud of that chooses not to make the effort, even when there is little to no translation necessary. Somewhere deep in my subconscious I must have decided that books by African women would be harder than those by some other demographics. They weren’t. On some level I must have had reading African women down as self-improving but not necessarily enjoyable, when in fact it was mostly the latter and often both.
With my radar reset I can’t wait to see who I bump into at this year’s Christmas party.
This article was amended on 15 December 2018 to correct the spelling of Makerere University