Inspired by the new Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, a friend suggested to do an Africa Reading Month. I always like these challenges or thematic readings so I was all for it. However my first reaction was weird, and maybe even slightly problematic.
‘But I hardly have any books from Africa!’ exclaimed I, the PhD-student in South African literature, who owns the complete works of South African poets like Breyten Breytenbach and Antjie Krog, who has a special bookshelf for South African books I still need to read, who works at the Zuid-Afrikahuis, a specialist library on South African literature.
So what does this reaction say about me? Is the fact that I specialize in Afrikaans literature, which is written mostly by white and coloured people not ‘African’ enough, because they’re not black? Do I not see South Africa as part of Africa? Do I not think of the heavily European influenced Afrikaans literature as from Africa?
So many questions, and I still don’t know the answers. But the theme month still seemed like a good idea: what better way to learn more about African literatures? So I went looking through my piles of books-to-read (I have quite a lot) to see what I could find. I had some essays by Chinua Achebe. I found a collection of poetry from all over the continent. I had books from Tahar ben Jelloun (Marocco), Alaa Al Aswani (Egypt) and Mia Couto (Mozambique). I also dug up a collection of short stories somewhere.
Not a lot but still a pretty diverse collection. To make sure I also read from that pile and don’t lose myself in South African literature again I decided to switch them up and alternately read from my pile of South African books and my pile of other African books.
I still don’t think my approach is ideal: I normally don’t like to talk about Africa as if it’s one place. It’s highly diverse and talking about it as if it is one country is absurd. I would never say ‘I’m reading European literature this month’, I’d say ‘I’m reading Italian/Irish/Greek literature’. It would have been a better homage to Gurnah to read Tanzanian literature, but the problem is that literature from African is not very available in the Netherlands (apart from South African literature). I’m on a tight budget and can’t afford to buy a lot new, so it not only needs to be translated and available in the Netherlands, it also needs to be available in second hand shops.
I feel like I’m making excuses for my slightly problematic approach, but well, at least I’m conscious of it, and in the meanwhile I’m trying to do the best I can. I am looking forward to this theme month and hope I will learn a lot.