African Summer reading challenge: wrap-up and retrospective

Time limit: I started on 5 June and gave myself until the end of August to read the five books on my list. I also had two alternates in reserve, in case any of the main books were difficult to find or too boring to bear.

How did I do?: I read four of the five books on my main list, DNFing one (A Question of Power by Bessie Head) and replacing it with The Brave African Huntress by Amos Tutuola, which wasn’t on my alternates list. I did read one of the alternates anyway, though—The Grass is Singing, by Doris Lessing. And although I twice included only the first book in a trilogy on the main list, I ended up reading the sequel to Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, entitled The Book of Not, and both of the sequels to Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk: Palace of Desire and Sugar Street. In total, I managed nine titles.

Any favourites?: I loved The Grass is Singing, with its powerful articulation of white supremacy’s corrosive effects on the individual. Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk was so enjoyable that it, along with the two sequels, formed one of the best reading experiences of the summer (and probably the year). His way of showing the impact of national and international events in the lives of an extended family is deeply engaging and addictive, even despite the stilted translation. Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood was also fantastic, and has confirmed me in my wish to read more of his work.

Any disappointments?: Well, it’s a shame that I didn’t get on with A Question of Power, of course. I wouldn’t say that So Long a Letter was a disappointment but its very short length made it difficult to sink my teeth into, and only bits of it have stayed with me. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions wasn’t a disappointment but the relentless psychological pain of its sequel, The Book of Not, really did put me off trying to read the third in the sequence.

Any surprises?: I was expecting a much colder piece of work from Doris Lessing and was pleasantly surprised to find her not so.

Resolutions and discoveries: This felt less organically enjoyable than my Russian Spring, although I’m still glad I did it. “Magical realism” is a dreadful term, but if we accept it as one that people generally understand when used, it’s obvious that the more a book is “magical realist”–the more it uses fantastical elements within the real–the less I tend to enjoy it. (Commit! Be fully fantasy or don’t!) So the African novels I’ve enjoyed the most in this challenge are definitely the ones that adhere more to the Western ideal of the realist novel, which is a little embarrassing, although not totally surprising. I definitely want to read more Lessing (Martha Quest?), Mahfouz (Midaq Alley?), and Thiong’o (Devil on the Cross?). I also largely ignored contemporary authors in this go-round; Abdulrazak Gurnah, David Diop, and Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi are just a few of those I’d focus on if I did this again.

Next?: I’m taking a little pause from this format of themed read for now, since the new academic term is starting in October and I need to prioritize that. However, I have a few more ideas lined up for later in the year or perhaps in 2023. Meanwhile, I’ll participate in the low-key R.(eaders) I.(mbibing) P.(eril) challenge between 1 September and 31 October (read any number of books that fall into the categories of: horror, thriller, crime, supernatural, dark fantasy), and this year I’m interested in joining Novellas in November and/or Nonfiction November.

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16 thoughts on “African Summer reading challenge: wrap-up and retrospective

  1. That’s a shame that you didn’t get on with A Question of Power. I haven’t read it, but I’ve read some shorter pieces by Bessie Head and thought she was a very interesting writer.
    But yay for Palace Walk – I still haven’t finished the whole trilogy, but definitely want to read more, it’s great fun as well as teaching me so much about that period in Egyptian history and society.

    1. I really wish I had. Head’s shorter pieces might work well; where did you find them?

      LOVE the Cairo Trilogy! All three volumes are still in print, which is really lucky.

  2. Oh magical realism is such a difficult term. As someone who adores speculative fiction but really struggles with magical realism, I am in a losing battle to work out the difference between the two!

    I’ve only ever read The Golden Notebook from Lessing which I did find cold. I’m glad to hear that The Grass is Singing is different.

    1. I feel similarly to you! Magical realism is a rubbish term really – a catch-all which probably ought not to be applied outside of a Latin American context anyway – but everyone understands the ineffable combination of a real-world setting in which unrealistic things happen, usually without system or explanation. I suspect I prefer spec fic because there’s usually either a system or an explanation.

      The Golden Notebook I’ve been putting off for years now, but The Grass Is Singing is strongly recommended.

      1. Yes, ‘has a system or explanation’ works well for the light SFF spec fic I’m drawn to. Still working out where to fit in horror…

      2. Same! Increasingly finding that I can read more horror than I thought I could, but generally not intensely body-based/gruesome stuff—much better with creepy atmospheres, psychological horror, and supernatural presence.

      1. Kate Jenning’s ‘Snake’ is not dissimilar. It’s an Australian novella about a married couple living on the land and it’s just mesmerising. I read it back to back with The Grass is Singing and couldn’t help but see the similarities

  3. I really want to read Palace Walk. I’ve only read one book by Lessing – The Golden Notebook – and I did find her writing cold and hard to get on with so I’m curious what I’d make of The Grass is Singing but reluctant to dive back into her work.

    1. Mahfouz and Lessing are both worth trying. I think I said somewhere above, The Golden Notebook has scared me off for years, but her agenda in The Grass Is Singing makes it much easier to read in some ways. You know you’re getting into a story about racism and it’s complex in a human way but there’s never any doubt about racism’s moral wrongness, and that provides something of an anchor for the writing, I think.

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