The Bigger Picture

The Dynamics of Mapping African Fiction.

If your goal was to read books from all over the African continent, how would you keep track of the books you’ve read? How do you avoid reading books from the same country or region? These are some of the questions we’ve been asking ourselves over the months while trying to spread our reading across as much of the continent as possible.

We have, in our book club, so far read a book from Ghana, one from Nigeria, one from Somalia, and one by a Jamaican national. Having read two books from West Africa, we would like to avoid that region going forward. But how do we do that without having to cram each author’s biographical details?

After we used google mapping to locate a number of book clubs on the continent. We had (what we thought then was) a brilliant idea. Mapping African fiction using the author’s location of birth. Such a map would answer some of the questions we’ve been trying to answer.

So where do we begin? With books we’ve read, we thought. But considering the fact that we grew up on Roald Dahl and JK Rowling, there was not much to go about. So we decided on Africa’s 100 best books of the 20th Century. Compiled by fellows at the Leiden African Studies Center, the 2002 list provided a steady stool to stand on. So we started mapping.

Our first challenge came as soon as we went beyond the Top 12 on the list. Books in languages other than English. Many of the books on the list are in colonial languages and a handful in local languages. This made sense, since the listings are from a period just after the scramble for Africa.

The first book on the list is Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka, which he wrote in Sesotho. Second is Sol Plaatjie’s Mhudi, which is said to be the first African novel published in English. Soon after, you encounter one of two books by South African’s written in a local language before the National Party won the elections in 1948. The first being Archibald Campbell Mzolisa Jordan’s Ingqumbo Yeminyanya (The Wrath of the Ancestors), 1940, then Benedict Wallet Vilakazi’s Amal’ezulu (1945). Jordan is known the intellectual pioneer of African studies in South Africa, while Vilakazi was the first black South African to receive a Ph.D.

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is the first Heinemann African Writer’s Series title to appear on our list, followed by Arrow of God, Flora Nwapa’s Efuru, Ama Ata Aidoo’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Christopher Okigbo’s Labyrinths, Buchi Emecheta’s The Joy’s of Motherhood, and Bessie Head’s Maru. Sol Plaatjie’s Mhudi also made the list in 1979.

If you look carefully you’ll notice that 1979 was a particularly busy year on this list, with seven books published that year, three of which are South African. Mtutuzeli Matshoba’s Call Me Not A Man, Nadine Gordimer’s Burgher’s daughter, and Andre Brink’s A Dry White Season. All three focus on the brutalities of apartheid.

As the list crosses over to the 21st Century, you’ll notice that Sello Duiker is the only author on the list that is late (marked with blue), the rest are still living (marked with red). We have marked the book we are currently reading in yellow, and all those already read with a tick.

If you search google for best book of the year from the year 2000, you’ll realise that African literature only started featuring on the international list in 2013, with Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah. The narrative also changes with the turn of century. While 20th century literature focused on the harshness of the time, the 21st century takes a lighter load to the printers.

Although the map opens new doors for looking at African fiction, it also has its limitations. When authors are born in the same city, only the last listed author will be visible when hovering over the map. This means you will not necessarily see on the map that Mtuthuzeli Mashoba, Niq Mhlongo, and Mohale Mashigo were born in Soweto.

The list also brings into question the idea of African Literature, what it is, and who it is by. Chinua Achebe deals with the issue in an article titled The African Writer and the English Language, but he also confesses that there is no real answer. The Fact that the list is rooted on the place of birth of the author, we found ourselves leaving out authors such as Yewande Omotosto who was born in Barbados, and books such as FELA: this Bitch of a Life because it was edited by Carlos Moore, who is from Cuba.

The map opened doors to other questions. Questions such as which of these books were once banned and why, which books were a response to other books (As Seasons of Migration North was to Heart of Darkness), how have book covers moved to represent the actual story, and also why so many authors used a pseudonym.

If you take a look at the entire map you’ll notice that a lot of North – , North Eastern – , and Central African countries are not represented. I’m sure that this is not because there aren’t published works from there, they just are not as popular. Another question then will be, what determines popularity, or rather, what makes a great book? 

There are still a lot of books to be mapped, a lot more questions to be asked. All this is part of a bigger picture.


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