Reading plans: an African summer

The Russian Spring was such a successful experiment that I am renewing it, and the people—through the medium of a Twitter poll—have spoken: my next themed reading challenge will be African Summer!

The rules, such as they are, remain the same: this is not intended to replace my TBR and proof piles, but to supplement them. I can’t buy any of these new. I have access to Senate House Library, the London Library, Birkbeck College library, Bromley local library, and now the British Library; it should be theoretically impossible for a book to remain unfindable. (If I feel dead set on a title and it’s not available somehow, I have given myself permission to check Abe Books for an un-costly secondhand copy.)

Since five titles with a reserve list of two turned out so well last time, I’m sticking with that again. My preliminary list is as follows:

  1. So Long a Letter, by Mariama Ba (discussed here). One of the titles that came up repeatedly as I researched for this project. Written by a pioneering Senegalese author and feminist, it explores the sorrow of a woman over her husband’s death, and her ambivalent relationship with his second, younger wife.
  2. Petals of Blood, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (discussed here). I read his gigantic speculative novel Wizard of the Crow in the first lockdown and, rather unexpectedly, loved it. Petals of Blood is in a more realist mode, following a murder investigation in a small Kenyan town to reveal the corruption and greed of the government.
  3. A Question of Power, by Bessie Head (unfinished; discussed here). Sanity, mixed-race heritage and refugee/immigrant status (within Africa) are all in play in this short novel by an author born in South Africa but usually claimed by Botswana. It seems to take a lot of inspiration from psychoanalysis, and to have a very modern/-ist flavour. Edited to add: instead, I replaced this title with The Brave African Huntress by Amos Tutuola, also discussed here.
  4. Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga (discussed here). The modern classic about a young Zimbabwean woman’s education, and the ways in which it changes her. Really excited to get to this.
  5. Palace Walk, by Naguib Mahfouz (discussed here). Mahfouz was a Nobel Prize-winner for this and its two sequels, which explore a tyrannical patriarch in pre-war Egypt. I like a family saga, especially when it’s skeptical about the characters it follows.

If I get through all of these, can’t find one and don’t want to buy it, or if there are problems of dullness or lack of interest with any of them, I have two alternates:

6. The Grass is Singing, by Doris Lessing. Disturbing, Faulknerian vision of racism and violence in apartheid South Africa. I’ve only read one Lessing—The Good Terrorist—and really would like to get some of her African fiction under my belt.

7. July’s People, by Nadine Gordimer. The Smaleses, a white family, are caught up in violence and taken for safety to the village of their servant, July. The shifting power dynamics are what appeal to me about this title, though I don’t know how much sympathy we’re expected to have for the Smaleses.

I’ll give myself until the end of August to have a crack at these. I’m also going to combine them with Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer, although I won’t make it to 20! Along with these five (or seven), I’m also going to re-read A Room with a View by EM Forster when I go to Florence in July, and read The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart when I go to Crete in the same month. That’s nine books that are set; I’m sure I’ll read more than that in two and a half months, but that’s enough commitment for now—everything else can be at whim.

Have you read any of these? Do any of them interest you? Where should I start?

26 thoughts on “Reading plans: an African summer

    1. I read July’s People years ago in a book group. It is a fantastic book. I still remember certain scenes vividly. I also read Palace Walk. It was interesting, but I don’t remember it that well. Great insight into the lives of women in an extremely patriarchal society. I am currently quarantined and isolating in my bedroom, so your list gives me some great ideas of books to read. On Saturday I read The Lioness, by Christopher Bohjalian. He was in my class at Amherst. It is an interesting violent twist on African safari life in twined with colonialism. More like a movie script, than a great sink your teeth into novel.

      1. I’m sorry to hear you’re isolating – feel better soon! I know of Chris Bohjalian, although I’ve never read his work. I know what you mean about a novel that feels like a movie script, though. Very much looking forward to July’s People and Palace Walk!

  1. I have So Long a Letter and Nervous Conditions TBR – Nervous Conditions I should get to in the next few months so we might coincide on it; I’m saying So Long a Letter for Novellas in November. A good list, I hope your project goes well.

    1. Thanks! Yes, we might well coincide on Nervous Conditions – if so, I’ll be keen to see what we both make of it. So Long a Letter is very short, isn’t it (ironically) – sounds like a great NovNov choice.

  2. Good for you for prioritizing BIPOC African writers rather than Anglos in Africa — to my shame, I’ve read far more of the latter. Though, actually, I have read the Ba, in a French class at university (amazing as I’d never be able to read a whole text in French these days). The Grass Is Singing is exceptional.

    1. Thank you – it was definitely something I wanted to be aware of, although in the end it turned out that, simply, much of what appealed to me was by Black African authors! Most impressed you’ve read the Ba in French (I’m thinking of sourcing a French copy to keep my language skills up), and I’m definitely going to make room for The Grass Is Singing after all this love for it.

  3. Well: bon voyage. My one attempt at Ngugi wa Thiong’o was a DNF. I think it was his classic title, can’t remember now. The two senior stellar writers: Gordimer & Lessing don’t thrill me.. During my recent Read African Novels Project, I tried one of Tsitsi Dangaremba’s novels, it was ok, but not a rave read for me. However, I’m looking forward to your reviews. Oh: I’ve read a couple of the Egyptian writer’s novels, and enjoyed them. Somehow I never think of Egypt as Africa, living as I do in the far South of Africa. To me that’s North Africa and more a part of the Moslem Arabic world, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Libya etc. Yes, I know they’re located in Africa,but the overwhelming flavour, from my perspective, is an Arabic one. Happy reading!

    1. Thanks! I enjoyed Wizard of the Crow so looking forward to more Thiong’o. Gordimer and Lessing are almost totally new to me. I’ve just started Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and am sympathetic to her furious child narrator so far! I’ve also read really good things about Naguib Mahfouz. You’ve got a point about the cultural distinction of North Africa, but I wanted at least one novel that I read to represent the Arabic influences in that part of the continent, so that’s a good thing!

  4. What a wonderful sounding project Elle. I’ve read a number of books by African authors over the years but the only one in your list I know is Petals of Blood. It’s a tremendously affecting novel.

    I’m rather envious of your access to all those library resources – I assume you live in London to have the British Library access?

    1. Yes, in greater London–very lucky indeed. But even without the institutional stuff, I’m so enamoured of our local council library system! It’s really not bad at all.

    1. If you’d like to read along (either these titles, or ones of your own choosing), I’d absolutely welcome a reading buddy. I envisaged and designed this challenge very much to fit well into my life/resources/interests right now, so I didn’t even consider that others might want to join in–but do if you fancy it!

      1. I would really like to read her – Second-Class Citizen is available in Penguin Modern Classics form, I’ve noted.

    1. I’ve just started Palace Walk and am already fascinated by his many complicated characters – very keen indeed to see how it all develops.

  5. These seasonal reading plans are a delightful idea! My summer is pretty well scheduled book-wise, but I am definitely going to consider a themed reading challenge for the Fall. I hope you enjoy your African Summer.

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