Now, let me address the elephant in the room. I used to say, and yes, I’m not proud of it, “Oh, I do not like African novels”. Yes, I was treating Africa as a country not a continent, although I did at least mean sub-Saharan Africa, being OK with North African works. What happened was I think that, like the thing where you could be excused for thinking that Icelandic and other Nordic writers only write about horrible, icy crimes, the African books that rose to the public consciousness for a while were often about war, with grisly and graphic detail that is not gratuitous, but that I just can’t deal with reading, psychologically (also: I will read a book set in Korea, but not in the Korean War; I can read happily about Germany but not Holocaust novels; I loved Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s “Americana” but can’t read “Purple Hibiscus” or “Half of a Yellow Sun”, and it’s all part of that one issue for me).

Anyway, of COURSE there are books written by people from African countries that don’t have graphic war detail. I’ve loved Abi Dare’s “Girl with the Louding Voice” and Buchi Emecheta’s “Second Class Citizen”, Alex Haley’s “Roots” of course and Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s “Michel the Giant”. And on my TBR I have Mariama Ba’s “Instead of a Letter”, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s “I Do Not Come to You by Chance” and “It’s a Continent: Unravelling Africa’s History One Country at a Time” by Astrid Madimba and Chinny Ukata on my TBR.

What other books by African writers that don’t feature grim war scenes do I need to be catching up with?

Another of the batch I bought in Oxfam last September: I have now read five of them and DNF’d one, with two left to read/finish. Of the print TBR shown here, I’ve read or rejected eight, almost finished one more and won’t get all the others done, and it’s one of the few remaining books in my TBR project.

Tsitsi Dangarembga – “Nervous Conditions”

(08 September 2021, Oxfam Books, Kings Heath)

Today there are fewer white people on the mission. They are called expatriates, not missionaries, and can be seen living in unpainted brick houses. But they are deified in the same way as the missionaries were because they were white so that their coming is still an honour. I am told that whether you are called an expatriate or a missionary depends on how and by whom you were recruited. Although the distinction was told to me by a reliable source, it does not stick in my mind since I have not observed it myself in my dealings with these people. I often ask myself why they come, giving up the comforts and security of their more advanced homes. Which brings us back to matters of brotherly love, contribution and lightening of diverse darknesses. (p. 105)

Famously the first book by a woman written in English published by a Zimbabwean author, this is a glorious coming-of-age novel, a foremother to “The Girl with the Louding Voice” I’m sure and a captivating read. Tambu only gets to go to school full-time because her brother has died: before that, she did some years but then had to pause her education when only one of them could be sent. Now her uncle takes her up and moves her to a mission where he’s accepted and feted and can have something of his own power – power which has gone to his head somewhat and brings him into conflict with his own daughter. Tambu perpetuates the cliché of the “good African”, remaining quiet and passive and trying to learn as much as possible.

The beauty and power of this book lies in the author’s technical ability to show us Tambu looking back on her younger self from a position of much more knowledge, letting lose some savage sarcasm about the White saviours who come to the mission, integrate or not, give the children born there or not African names, and leave them in the mission school or whisk them away to private school. She also gives her aunt and uncle and cousins her own story: they go off to England for a few years for the parents to study, leaving her cousins trapped between two cultures, fitting in neither.

Tambu is resilient and strong from the start, selling maize with her teacher to pay for her own school fees (and encountering some very confusing White Saviours of a different kind as she does: the book is full of ironies and ambiguities) and making sure that the school keeps the money so her wastrel father doesn’t get hold of it and fritter it away. We have a nuanced view of her relationship with her mother, stuck in a collapsing house with pregnancy after pregnancy to deal with and little support even from her own sister, who when she does offer help, asks too much of her. Similarly, the mutual support between Tambu and her cousin Nyasha is nuanced, conflicted and competitive, with Tambu looking down on her cousin but then seeing her pay a hard price for her rebellion.

A wonderful book with a distinctive and bright heroine; hard to put down and I’ll definitely be getting hold of Dangarembga’s essays, just out (I’ve not heard the best of the other two volumes in this trilogy, although do change my mind if you can, and I kind of want to leave her there).

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 4 Book 21/28 – 9 to go by 5 October! I am currently reading book 22 as well as being half-way through a couple of the others …