Spring Guide 2012: Granta Eyes the African Short Story

Continental rift

"There's no way anyone can do all of Africa," says Nigerian novelist Helon Habila, editor of the new anthology The Granta Book of the African Short Story. "You'd need a bigger book. So I decided to focus on African writers born after the 1960s, when most African countries got their independence."

For Habila, the first generation's concerns centered on independence, à la Chinua Achebe; the second took up the cause of nation-building. The third group has focused on individual responses to travel, exile, and war—exemplifying a massive rift with tradition. Although storytelling has been part of the culture of Africa "on the grassroots level," Habila says, African fiction is "beginning to reflect what you have in the West—an educated class is occupying and representing the storytelling class."

"[Africans] want to survive," Habila says. "They want to realize their own potential, and they don't see the nation as the solution to their dreams." But obviously different writers have unique perspectives on how to achieve those dreams and about the nature of the obstacles to prosperity. Stories from each region often reflect urgent issues facing individuals in those zones.

Bye-bye tradition: Novelist-editor Helon Habila
Jide Alakija
Bye-bye tradition: Novelist-editor Helon Habila

North Africa: North African writers might focus on women's rights and Islam, like Mansoura Ez-Eldin's "Faeries of the Nile," in which eerie female spirits rise from the Nile to lure a woman away from her domestic duties, grief over her son's death, and her abusive husband. At women's shelters in America, they'd call it faerie therapy.

The gutsy narrator of "Street of the House of Wonders" gets her gold chain snatched and takes off down the road after the perp. When she catches him, he assaults her. Apparently, in Rachida el-Charni's Tunis, women take the blame no matter what, like some mordant punchline. "You shouldn't have put yourself in danger," one bystander says.

Central Africa: The preoccupations of fiction by Central Africans range from war to marriage with a side of capitalism gone mad. A Cameroonian man in 1913 Germany confronts a mob of racists in Patrice Nganang's "The Moustached Man," one of whom might be a certain future Führer. Could one African have averted World War II with a single blow? Hopefully not. Don't let them pin that one on black people.

In "Missing Out," by Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela, a London college student marries an acquaintance from Khartoum; he rejects his past, and she tries to enforce her values. Can this arranged marriage be saved? A more farcical take on traditional marriage arrives in "The Arrangers of Marriage" by Nigerian wunderkind Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. When Chinaza from Nigeria arrives in Brooklyn, her husband renames her "Agatha." Agatha meets her neighbor Nia and comments, ". . . she, an African American, had chosen an African name, while my husband made me change mine to an English one."

The fierce Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina offers a deliciously wry piece, "Ships in High Transit," about two sleazy Mombasa businessmen who hoodwink European journalists with their "WylDe AfreaKa" tour. One of the entrepreneurs poses as a Masai prince. To the visitors, he's "a sexy fraud if he is one. He hangs out with Peter Beard. . . . I saw it in Vogue."

Southern Africa: The postcolonial anxieties of Southern Africa center on racial politics and exile, sometimes exile within a character's native land. A great deal of tension resonates unspoken throughout "Oxford, Black Oxford," by the late Dambudzo Marechera of Zimbabwe, whose protagonist is a hard-drinking college student who trades zingers about conflicts back home with his white TA, who he discovers is having a gay fling with his professor.

George Makana Clark's stunning, almost comically grim story "The Centre of the World" concerns a young delinquent's new wartime job at a crematorium in 1972 Rhodesia. The adolescent's coming-of-age becomes a powerful metaphor for the failures of war and colonization. May, Granta Books, 378 pp., $17.95

'Eyes Right: Confessions From a Woman Marine'
Tracy Crow

You might not know that the female-soldier memoir is a genre. Perhaps you don't know that because so few of these true accounts were written by professional writers like Tracy Crow, enlisted women who later became creative-writing professors. Crow's tough, shamelessly humble account describes her failing marriage to another marine and an affair with a general that made a court-martial seem inevitable. "[I] pretended to be unafraid," she writes, "as if . . . I hadn't seriously mapped out a plan for desertion." University of Nebraska Press, 224 pp., $24.95

'The Lives of Things'
José Saramago, translated by Giovanni Pontiero

In a vein similar to the novel Blindness, which chronicled an outbreak of blindness in a nameless city, The Lives of Things is a collection of surrealistic tales by the late Nobel Prize–winning Portuguese author, appearing in translation for the first time. One of them, "Embargo," tells the story of a man under a strange type of house arrest inside his car during a gas shortage. Another concerns the Portuguese dictator Salazar, who tumbles from a chair while ants tunnel through it. Verso, 160 pp., $23.95

'Mike Kelley: Exploded Fortress of Solitude'
Jeffrey Sconce

This monograph captures the exhibition that turned out to be performance-punk sculptor Mike Kelley's swan song: a series of internally illuminated sculptures of Kandor, Superman's Krypton hometown, which the superhero shrank and preserved under a bell jar inside his legendary Fortress of Solitude. Before the artist's suicide in January, these constructions had a jewellike and gorgeous yet inscrutable quality; now they seem like the embodiment of Superman's longing to salvage a ruined past and perhaps Kelley's failure to salvagehis own. Rizzoli, 200 pp., $100

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