Cover of book: Africa39

Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, ed.

A book of short stories can be a blessing and a curse. At their best, such collections allow you to visit many new worlds in short succession – one can breakfast with a Ugandan orphan, share lunch with a drunk friend in Kinshasa and evade South African gangsters before bed. 

Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of  the Sahara has plenty of those short stories; the ones that grab you by the throat, force you to care about new characters in just a handful of opening sentences. Tales that stay with you long after the story has abruptly ended a few pages later. 

There are also a few of the other kind of short stories. The ones that plod along and get bogged down in detail before you are invested in the characters or their fate. The kind that tempt you to skip ahead a few pages to the next story.

Billed as “the best new writing from Africa, by 39 writers under 40”, Africa39 is a Hay Festival and Rainbow Book Club project aimed at highlighting new literary voices. It follows the similar projects Bogotá39 and Beirut39, which aspired to do the same for Latin American and Arab writers respectively. 

Not that you would classify all of these writers as emerging. The first story in the book, a cute tale of unlikely friendship between two Nigerians in the US, is by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. That’s a name known to every Beyoncé fan worth their salt; her song “Flawless” samples a speech given by the Nigerian author at a TEDx conference in 2013.

The stories included in Africa39 were picked by three judges – writers Margaret Busby, Osonye Tess Onwueme and Elechi Amadi. The book was edited by freelance editor and critic Ellah Wakatama Allfrey. To earn a spot in this anthology, authors had to have published at least one work of fiction and demonstrate potential to be standout writers of their generation.

Now, most of the stories in this book are first-rate. Take, for example, “The Tiger of the Mangroves”, by Nigerian author Rotimi Babatunde. This extract from Babatunde’s forthcoming novel details
a colonial-era meeting between a consul representing the British Crown and Chief Koko, a young but powerful local warlord who monopolises a strategically important piece of coastline.

In a few short pages, Babatunde manages to introduce us to several complex characters, bring us up to speed on the political machinations at work, makes deft observations about the language of diplomacy and shines a light on the absurdity of colonialism. When the consul, Henry Hamilton, boasts of “discovering” a river’s mouth near a mountain, Chief Koko asks innocently, “Were there no people living in the area?” Hamilton answers unashamedly that, oh yes, he was guided there by two locals from a big village near the landmark. He cannot understand why the chief is less than impressed by “an achievement that had been gazetted by the Royal Geographical Society” back home.

Babatunde’s crisp writing and light touch is a contrast to “Mama’s Future” by Ghanaian-American writer Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, which tackles similar terrain but much more clumsily. In her story, Mother Africa is visited on her deathbed by eight symbolic children: seven diasporans from different parts of the globe and the one who stayed home. They all fight over historical grievances and misplaced loyalties. It felt a bit like being hit over the head with a message. 

Not every story in this anthology attempts to tackle such enormous themes as imperialism, slavery and diaspora. There are plenty of tales of love and jealousy, family break-ups, and juicy crime yarns. Take “The Pink Oysters”, by Shafinaaz Hassim from South Africa. Here, low-level Somali crooks and Afghan philosophy graduates mix with diamond-trading gangsters in Johannesburg. Tight writing, fabulously shady characters and a twist at the end – who could ask for anything more in a short crime story?

“By the Tracks”, by South African author Sifiso Mzobe, is equally gripping – a cop discovers a decapitated body on the rail line. There’s little else by way of plot, but the author delivers striking descriptions of the fetid smells of death and the police officer’s violent physical reaction to them. This story was an extract from a novel, and readers are left wondering whodunit.

There are a few stories here that didn’t quite work. “The Occupant”, by Malawian writer Shadreck Chikoti, tried to be a clever futuristic tale but seemed to be mostly endless descriptions of birds and clumsy speechifying about freedom. Hopefully, the novel from which this excerpt was drawn is a little more subtle and swiftly paced.

Another downer was “No Kissing the Dolls Unless Jimi Hendrix Is Playing” by Kenyan writer Clifton Gachagua, which came across as tedious, dreary and wilfully opaque. Thankfully, swift relief can be found in the short, simple sentences of “Talking Money” by fellow Kenyan Stanley Gazemba. In this well-written and spooky fable, a haughty landowner learns the hard way what happens when one ignores good advice in favour of easy money.

It would be nice to be able to say Africa39 is all killer, no filler. Some of these stories do come across as filler but perhaps it is unfair to expect every tale to be a zinger. Especially when this collection, as Nobel laureate and Nigerian author Wole Soyinka points out in his preface, “is dedicated to an age group that occupies a significant phase, arguably considered a defining plateau before a fully confident ascent towards the peak of imaginative powers”.

In other words, many of these authors are still hitting their stride. The fact that so many are already producing such gripping work speaks of wonderful things to come.  LL

Bloomsbury, 384pp, $26.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 15, 2014 as "Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, ed., Africa39".

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Reviewer: LL

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