Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tuesday Night in the Flatiron District: "Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing" at Idlewild Books

As our spring semester winds down, we took a break from grading on this chilly winter night - oh, that's right it's supposedly May - to enjoy a wonderful event at Idlewild Books, the brilliant Flatiron District bookstore where volumes are arranged by continent and country.

The reading/discussion was for Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing, edited by Rob Spillman, who's also editor of the venerable literary magazine Tin House.

After what seemed like a very pleasant cocktail party without the cocktails amid the wonderful geographic shelves of Idlewild Books, the house lights were dimmed and folding chairs brought out to accommodate the large crowd on the second story shop.

Rob Spillman thanked Idlewild Books and began by saying that Africa encompasses 54 nations and over 2,000 languages; although its population is about the same as that of Europe, Africa is much more diverse, in its literature as much as everything else.

This variety, and the amount of literary material available, made selecting pieces for the anthology a daunting task, Rob said: "We really could have done 54 different anthologies." He called the book a sampling, "snapshots" of a rich and varied literary culture.

The Publishers Weekly review of Gods and Soldiers said
Spillman, editor and cofounder of lit journal Tin House, brings together a diaspora full of urgency and possibility, featuring recent fiction and nonfiction (mostly fiction) from 30 African authors. First up is Chinua Achebe, author of the groundbreaking Things Fall Apart, looking at North African writers often excluded from the canon, reminding readers that Africa is far from homogeneous (entries come translated from Arabic, Zulu, French and other languages). Each piece finds a human story to illuminate the continent’s history of plight and promise, turning up a range of voices: Helon Habila’s breathtaking tale of a political prisoner forced to write poems for the prison superintendent’s girlfriend; a scene from Ngugi wa Thong’o’s novel Wizard of the Crow depicting an Orwellian celebration for an unnamed ruler; Patrice Nganang’s essay “The Senghor Complex” examining the influence of poet Léopold Senghor, Senegal’s first president (“[for] writers of my generation,” he’s “everyone’s grandfather”). This collection sheds light on a multifarious continent too often thought of in one-size-fits-all terms

He introduced the two authors who'd be reading excerpts from their contributions to Gods and Soldiers. First up was Binyavanga Wainaina, Kenyan journalist, fiction writer and author of the now-classic wonderful essay "How to Write About Africa," which devastatingly explodes all imaginable cliches. It was originally published in Granta, but as Rob noted, it's been recopied so many times, often with the original source and author's name missing, that Wainaina himself sometimes is emailed a copy by someone saying, "You must read this!"

Wainaina's story "Discovering Home" won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing and is a pleasure to read.

Currently a Bard Fellow and director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Literature and Languages at Bard College, Wainaina has been writer-in-residence at Williams College and Union College in recent years, so we've been lucky enough to have him near.

It was a treat to listen to him in person, reading about a journalist's return to Nairobi and his sharp descriptions of the absurdities of Kenyan life in a collapsing economy under the waning days of a dessicated strongman whose every moment is covered reverentially in newspapers. In the story, Wainaina also describes his own family's perils under Idi Amin, a bigger monster than Daniel arap Moi.

We really enjoyed the grace of Wainaina's prose and his perceptive eye for telling details, whether about the uses a young bookish boy makes of Woody Woodpecker, the speech of a Stetson-wearing Nairobian, or the Nyerere T-shirt the protagonist spots at the airport after returning from a long stay in South Africa.

The second reader was Patrice Nganang of Cameroon, who currently lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Stony Brook.

The Francophone author is, of course, highly fluent in English and also German, since he studied for his Ph.D. at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. Like Wainaina, he writes with precision to devastating effect in his "The Senghor Complex," his contribution to the anthology, and before that, to the current conversation about the ambiguous roots and influences of African literature of the past few decades.

Léopold Sédar Senghor, of course, was not only the first, longtime president of Senegal but the seminal African poet we remember from our long-ago undergraduate literature class in "Afro-American literature" at Brooklyn College, where we were told that he, along with Aimé Césaire, invented the literary movement Negritude, which influenced the writers of Harlem Renaissance and other black writers around the world.

In "The Senghor Complex," Nganang begins, "I am not a negro and I never was one." From that provocative starting point, the author examines the assumptions and discomforts resulting from the outsized influence of Senghor, specifically from a Cameroonian perspective, and what happens to the sensitive writer's soul when he or she is categorized as a member of even the most admirably-portrayed group. It's a thought-provoking essay we are going to read in its entirety in the book. (Nganang also made us want to re-read Césaire.)

There were some interesting moments during the question and answer period as Rob Spillman deftly managed at least one audience member who seemed to think the reading was a one-on-one conversation. (There's always somebody like that, ain't there?) But most of the Q&A was enlightening, far more so than we can report here from our semi-legible notes.)

Asked why the anthology was titled Gods and Soldiers, Rob said that it was at the suggestion of his editor at Penguin, who was sitting near us in the rear, because many of the selections seemed to be encompassed by those themes. Rob talked a little bit about the post-independence struggle for non-strongman regimes and other concerns in recent decades.

An audience member expressed frustration that white African authors are often given "the Oprah treatment" to the detriment of black writers from the continent.
Wainaina wonderfully riffed on that for a while, discussing Kenya's "Cookie Blixen complex" and how the Western penchant for stories about white women finding themselves, and a captivating white lover, in Africa - while the women condescend to, and never quite comprehend, those who live there (Blixen couldn't even spell the name of her African "adopted son").

This concentration on Out of Africa-type literature once outraged Wainaina but now basically amuses him: "it's an influential joke."

The questions also led Nganang into a fascinating and heartfelt discussion of why he became a writer and how much of the "business" side of publishing which is caught up in the superficial doesn't matter to someone who can remember his boyhood dream of one day seeing his own book being sold in the same Yaoundé bookstore where he bought his first books.

There was an enlightening discussion and back-and-forth on the part of the editor, the two writers, and audience members on recent African literature, on the "lost decades" of less celebrated continental writers now in their fifties and sixties, of how the immediacy of Web publication created a boom that has led to the proliferation of contemporary African fiction and poetry online, and of the vast differences among Africa's disparate regions, peoples and levels of sophistication regarding literature.

The irony is, according to Wainaina and Nganang, is that many of their writer contemporaries like them "hated African literature in school" the way it was taught. We guess it is the same for many American writers the way "American literature" is taught in many high schools. But there's a burden placed on African writers, it seems. It must be annoying to be asked at every PEN conference, "What are you doing for the next generation?" or "What about Darfur?"

As Nganang stated eloquently, the words on a page in a book are a place just as much as a geographic location is. We look forward to reading Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing, edited by Rob Spillman, which also has contributions by our favorites Chris Abani, Laila Lalami, J.M. Coetzee and many others. We are grateful for tonight's event at Idlewild Books.

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