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Review: The Granta Book of The African Short Story

A new collection challenges the "obsession" of African literature with national politics.
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The African continent comprises 15 per cent of the world's population, 61 territories, 3,000 languages and countless oral storytelling and literary traditions. So how is it possible to distil such diversity into a single collection of recent short fiction?

According to the novelist Helon Habila, editor of Granta’s forthcoming Book of African Short Stories, it just cannot be done. To put together a collection representing every African language, people and nation is impossible.

Instead, Habila has compiled Granta’s new collection to showcase what he sees as a ‘new generation’ of emerging African short story writers.

In the past a number of different publishers have tried to put together collections of short fiction from the continent with varying degrees of success. However, Habila’s idea gives the new Granta collection more cohesion than previous attempts; he introduces the reader to new African writers, and also shows some of the authors who have inspired and influenced them towards the end of the collection.

In his introduction to the Granta Book of African Short Stories, Habila defines this “new generation as having the best potential to liberate itself from the often predictable, almost obligatory, obsession of the African writer with the nation and with national politics”. These words are bound to rankle with some, who might argue that African writers’ interest in nationalism in the immediate post-independence era produced some exceptional works of fiction, but Habila is not far from the truth at all.

Take Egypt as an example; in the 1950s and 1960s, writers such as Yusuf Idris pioneered a deeply politically aware social realism in their stories. However, state patronage for writers brought about stagnation and spawned a generation of tedious, copycat social realists who lacked Idris' imagination and flair and churned out eye-wateringly dull dirges on the glories of Nasser’s “socialism” and the earthy character of Egyptian fellaheen.

Instead of simply selecting writers on the basis of geographical location, Habila has taken his pick based on this idea, and he has come up with an eclectic collection of 29 short stories from the ‘post-nationalist generation’ with some exciting new talents on display.

Brian Chikwava stands out as a particularly strong voice with his story Dancing to the tune of the jazz goblin and his rhythm. A young labourer moves to Harare from the countryside, after being kicked out of his family home by his mother. Impressionable and unsure of himself in his new surroundings, he quickly falls under the charm of Tafi, a deadbeat band leader known as the “jazz goblin” who invites him to join the band and then slowly insinuates himself into his life, dragging him into debt and misfortune.

In spite of Habila’s bold words in the introduction, many of the stories in the collection are concerned with regional and national issues, looking to the continent's blighted history or current social problems. This is by no means a bad thing. Some of the strongest stories in the collection are placed specifically in the context of events in Africa during the last sixty years.

Manuel Rui’s The Last Bordello, is one such story, set in 1970s Luanda as warring factions battle to control not just the streets but also lives of the city’s inhabitants. Mana Domingas is the madame in one of Luanda’s most famous brothels, although as puritanical militias have clamped down on illicit activities and tried to instill their values on the locals, business has trickled away and prostitutes and madams start to turn up dead on the streets. The story follows Domingas’ attempts to resist one of these hypocritical groups as they try to pay a last visit to her bordello.

However, the real standout in the collection is Ivan Vladislavic’s Propaganda by Monuments. Although the story was first published in 1996, the author’s innovative style marks him out as one of the finest writers featured here. Propaganda by Monuments is a mixture of conventional narrative, tract and the correspondence between a young Kremlin translator and the owner of a tavern in South Africa, drawing parallels between the collapse of the USSR and the end of apartheid in South Africa.

In spite of Habila’s bold premise, the collection does contain some weaker stories which show a little too strongly the influence of past generations and styles, notably Mansoura Ez-Eldin’s contribution. Her Faeries of the Nile is a story in the tradition of tiresome magical realism about the hardships of village life on the Nile Delta. Fortunately, the majority of authors in the collection are lively and innovative and paint a good picture of emerging African talent.

In his introduction to the collection, Habila points out that the short story is not as well established a tradition as the novel in Africa. Writers who prefer the novel as their medium, such as Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, Naguib Mahfouz and JM Coetzee have all gained international recognition for their works, whereas the same level of recognition has been denied to African short story writers. Granta’s new collection, however, shows a generation of engaging and talented writers coming out of Africa. Habila suggests that with the spread of the internet across the continent in the past fifteen years, short fiction has found a new outlet for publication and will continue to gain exposure across the globe where previously it would never have done. Things can only get better, Habila hints, although to be honest they were pretty good to start with.

The Granta Book of the African Short Story, edited by Helon Habila, is available from Granta Books.

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