on-line book schedule and discussion for Thiong’o’s The Wizard of the Crow, coming soon

Ngugi wa Thiong’o published this immense book in 2006, The Wizard of the Crow: almost 800 pages of political satire in a fictional African country.  Beachlover over at Shelfari has posted a reading schedule to help people get through it, and there will be an ongoing on-line discussion of the book there as well.  Read this bit from Aminatta Forna’s review of the book in the Washington Post:

Wizard of the Crow is first and foremost a great, spellbinding tale, probably the crowning glory of Ngugi’s life’s work. He has done for East Africa what Ahmadou Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote did for West Africa: He has turned the power of storytelling into a weapon against totalitarianism.

Last year I read Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood and thought highly of it.  Some years ago I also read his The River Between and enjoyed it but not quite as much.  Time for the masterwork!

Wizard of the Crow

a year of development narratives

Early last year I read an academic paper extolling the value of fictional narratives in illuminating the social dynamics of developing countries [1]. That launched me into a mélange of narratives in the course of the year, taking me from Kenya to Afghanistan to India to Cuba. The best of these books combined compelling prose, true characters, and insights into some of the world’s most desperately struggling populations.

Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of two adult sisters during the Biafran war of independence from Nigeria (Biafra didn’t stay independent; that’s why you may not have heard of it). I read this while in Nigeria for work and was completely absorbed. I remember finishing it in the wee hours of the morning (with a day of work ahead of me) and neither being able to sleep nor to pick up another book. Adichie really seems to capture the spirit of the time and illuminates ethnic conflicts that continue to flare up all over the world (most recently in Kenya).

What Is the What jumps back and forth in the life of a young male Sudanese refugee to the United States. Eggers, the author, novelizes the true story of Valentino Achak Deng, introducing fictional events and characters to capture experiences outside of those lived by Deng alone. Eggers reminds us of the pleasures people find even in terrible situations. He doesn’t shy away from the manifold tragedies of modern Sudan, but somehow he still manages to leave us with hope.

My reading carried me from African-authored classics (So Long a Letter from Senegal and Petals of Blood from Kenya) to Western-authored thrillers (The Darling and The Mission Song), from fluffy (the Ladies’ No 1 Detective Agency books) to deeply sobering (The Inheritance of Loss). Several powerful, engaging books focused on the struggles of women, whether polygamous wives (A Thousand Splendid Suns and So Long a Letter) or prostitutes (Man, Woman, and Hunger and Instead of Cursing You).

I learned so much, and I didn’t even have to crack open an ethnography or a history book.

[1] David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers, and Michael Woolcock, “The Fiction of Development: Knowledge, Authority, and Representation,” Development Studies Institute Working Paper 05-61, September 2005. [link]

Here’s the whole list (with links to my reviews):
1 World Manga, by Roman (unnamed poor countries)
Cause Celeb, by Fielding (unnamed African country)
The Darling, by Banks (Liberia)
En Vez de Maldecirte [Instead of Cursing You], by Moreno (Mexico)
The Full Cupboard of Life, by Smith (Botswana)
Half of a Yellow Sun, by Adichie (Nigeria)
El Hombre, La Hembra, y El Hambre [Man, Woman, and Hunger], by Chaviano (Cuba)
The Inheritance of Loss, by Desai (India)
The Kalahari Typing School for Men, by Smith (Botswana)
The Mission Song, by le Carre (unnamed African country)
The Namesake, by Lahiri (India – United States)
A Passage to India, by Forster (India)
Petals of Blood, by Thiong’o (Kenya)
So Long a Letter, by Ba (Senegal)
A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Hosseini (Afghanistan)
What Is the What, by Eggers (Sudan)

informative books about Africa that aren’t slow reading

A friend asked me for recommendations of books she could read to learn about Africa but not to feel like she’s learning (i.e., not hard reading).  So last night I looked over every book I’ve read either taking place in Africa or written by an African or dealing with Africa over the last five years.  (Here is the complete list, with a capsule review and a rating.)

Here are a few of my favorites among those that are not slow-reading non-fiction (i.e., they’re either fiction or they’re easy – not necessarily light – reading non-fiction):

  • Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie [novel about the Biafran War, Nigeria’s civil war in the 1960s] (my review)
  • What Is the What, Eggers [novelization of the story of a Sudanese refugee, one of the “lost boys of Sudan”] (my review)
  • Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (my review)
  • We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, Gourevitch [account of the Rwandan genocide]
  • Don’t Let’s Go To the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, Fuller [memoir of growing up in Rhodesia as it became Zimbabwe]
  • King Leopold’s Ghost, Hochschild [historical account of King Leopold obtaining the Congo as his personal colony and of the fight for human rights there. this one is a little bit slower reading than the novels, but for history it’s not bad]
  • A Man of the People: A Novel of Political Unrest in a New Nation, Achebe [my favorite Achebe book; read it over a weekend!]

If you look at the list, you might notice that Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation (my review) – a novel about child soldiers in West Africa – is also highly rated.  This book really moved me as I read it, but a friend who does lots of research with issues faced by child soldiers soured me on it a bit.