Spring Guide 2012: Granta Eyes the African Short Story
"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.
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'
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'
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
By Eduardo C. Corral
Carl Phillips has taken over as judge of the recently deossified Yale Series of Younger Poets. His first selection is Slow Lightning by gay Mexican American Corral, who can squish twisted issues of sexuality and racial identity into gleaming fables like this one: "In high school I worked as a bag boy. To prevent shoplifting my boss had me follow the Mexicans and the Native Americans around the grocery store. I was slightly troubled by this. So I only followed the handsome men." Yale University Press, 96 pp., $18
'When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man'
Only a few father-and-son writers have ever equaled each other in accomplishment and influence: Kingsley and Martin Amis, Alexandre Dumas pére et fils, maybe a couple of Waughs. Now Nick Dybek, son of Stuart and graduate of his alma mater, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, has cast his literary DNA into the ring. His first novel tells the tale of a boy, not knowing if he can measure up to the adventure stories and myths Dad brought back from Alaska, who reluctantly takes over his father's fleet of crab boats. Perhaps Dybek the younger has some stuff to work out? Riverhead, 320 pp., $26.95
'The Flying Machine Book: Build and Launch 35 Rockets,Gliders, Helicopters, Boomerangs, and More'
Mercer, author of how-to books like Quarterback Dad: A Play-by-Play Guide to Tackling Your New Baby and How Do You Light a Fart?, increases his taste level without growing up at all with this instruction manual for building "rockets, gliders, boomerangs, launchers, and helicopters" out of low-cost materials. The book promises to emphasize the scientific angle, stressing the connection between making a cannon that shoots grapes out of a toilet-paper tube and aviation technology. Way to justify your kid's rowdy behavior. Not to mention yours. Chicago Review Press, 208 pp., $14.95
By Nell Freudenberger
Freudenberger's career—her rise from The New Yorker copy department to 20 Under 40; her PEN, Whiting, Guggenheim, and NYT Notable Book awards; and her extensive travel experience—seems to echo both the charmed life and the wanderlust of W. Somerset Maugham. In this second novel, like The Dissident (2006), in which she gave voice to a Chinese performance artist, she again channels a character from Asia, this time a Bangladeshi woman named Amina Mazid who comes to Rochester, New York, to pursue a burgeoning Internet romance. That's a new one—a novel in which Rochester has more romantic pull than Asia. Knopf, 352 pp., $25.95
'The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity'
In The Self Illusion, cognitive scientist Hood, a fellow at institutions like Harvard, Cambridge, and MIT, makes the bold claim that the self does not exist. Like many other phenomena, it is a construct that fluctuates based on social context. Therefore, social media have the power to change our concept of identity at a rapid pace. For Hood's sake, one can only assume that he made his audacious claim after the publisher made out the check. Otherwise, whom would they make it out to? Oxford University Press, 368 pp., $29.95
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