David Olusoga is fast becoming one of my favourite BBC presenters (though David Attenborough will always have my heart). Olusoga presented the excellent two part series on Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners in 2015, showing how after slavery was abolished the legacy continued in the compensation paid out—not to the erstwhile slaves but to their “owners”—and in the underlying prejudices that became embedded in the culture. Brilliant documentary, watch it if you can.
His latest documentary is a review of African literature in the English language. It’s called Africa Turns the Page: the Novels that Shaped a Continent.
As a child I read mostly English writers (at the bookshop probably 80% of books were indented from English publishers). You read what you know and these become authors and writing styles to love and follow. Pretty typical for a Wellington girl in the ’70s, I guess. I worked in a library for a while and read American writers but preferred the understatement of the Brits. India hit my radar with colonial novels (The Jewel in the Crown has a lot to answer for) and then I discovered the flip side — Indian writers writing their own experiences opened books and worlds. I began branching out and read books in translation, stories from Japan and Scandinavia, South America, Italy. I kind of got over the cultural cringe of home grown and read nearly every NZ book that came out (I think there were two Māori writers on the shelves then). I never particularly wanted to see myself in a story (ok, so maybe I wasn’t over cultural cringe), but wanted to get out into the world and hear from the other.
But African literature? I read African writers: Nadine Gordimer and Andre Brink, J M Coetzee. Later Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible about a missionary family. I loved these novels but you get the picture, while they’re telling stories of black lives, they’re all white. Olusoga’s programme on African literature redresses the balance. He interviews black authors and reviewers and talks about the slow blooming of interest in African lives in fiction, some novels set in Africa, some written from the diaspora. I’m trying not to feel ashamed that, though I knew of them, I’ve never read any of the books he mentions. Fight shame with action, right?
The upshot of this was a list of books to get me started and a commitment to read them all (not all at once!) over the next year. Here is my starting selection from Olusoga’s list.
Chinua Achebe, 1958: Things Fall Apart
Buchi Emecheta, 1972: In The Ditch
Buchi Emecheta, 1979: The Joys of Motherhood
Ben Okri, 1991: The Famished Road
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2006: Half of a Yellow Sun
Aminatta Forna, 2018: Happiness
Bernardine Evaristo, 2019: Girl, Woman, Other
Missing recommendations from the ’60s and ’80s which is a big gap—open to suggestions, please! (Just fiction for now, I’ll do non-fiction as a separate topic).
I’ll blog them as I read them. Quite excited. Off the the bookshop.