The wonder of literature is not just its ability to transport us to another place. Giving depth to shared and different experiences, novels have the potential to open our eyes and change how we see the world. If you're looking for some suggestions on what to read for Black History Month (aka Black Liberation Month), here are four solid classics by some important writers whose books write against the grain of how the west imagines Africa.
Faïza Guène (Photo Credit: Murdo Macleod)
Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow (trans. Sarah Adams), Harcourt Books, 2004, France/Algeria
Published when Faïza Guène was nineteen years old, Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow is told from the perspective of a plain-spoken and insightful young Moroccan woman living in Paris. This story offers a candid and searing portrait of the poverty, condescension, sorrow, and love faced by its narrator, Doria. Set in a Parisian slum called Paradise, we see a drab, poor, and vicious side of the "City of Light" that readers are rarely given. Yet Guène populates her book with characters that are unexpected and realistic. In an age when France is becoming notorious for its anti-Islamic intolerance, this novel gives readers an important viewpoint on those events.
Tsitsi Dangarembga (Photo Credit: TEDxTalks)
Nervous Conditions, Lynne Reiner Publishers, 1988, Zimbabwe
Set during a period when Zimbabwe was under colonial rule, Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions is a new take on the traditional coming of age story. Its protagonist Tambudzai struggles to liberate herself from poverty and oppression while at the same time critiquing the worship of all things European by the more successful members of her family. The tale documents the varied struggles of the women in Tambu's family: women who are radical, quiet, resistant, and defeated by the white supremacist patriarchy that has been imposed upon them. Tambu's own complicated journey recognizes both the danger and necessity of succeeding in a flawed and racist education system.
Bessie Head (Photo Credit: Indiana University Press)
Maru, Heinemann, 1971, Botswana
Maru, a short and powerful novel by Bessie Head, is about an ethnic minority woman named Margaret who crosses important boundaries in a society divided by class and place of origin. Like other classics of African fiction, this book looks at the cultural divisions among Africans. White people play a minor, if haunting, role in the story. Head shows us a society that has inherited a flawed belief in race and turns it inward. Margaret, a member of the despised Masarwa, becomes involved with the most powerful men and women in her village in a way that changes relations between her "bushpeople" and the dominant Batswana forever.
M. NourbeSe Philip (Photo Credit: creativecaribbeannetwork.com)
Looking for Livingstone, Mercury Press, 1997, Canada
Written at the time of a major exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto called "Into the Heart of Africa," M. NourbeSe Philip's short novel, Looking for Livingstone--a wonderful mix of poetry and prose--follows an Afro-Canadian woman's journey to confront European explorer (and colonizer) Dr. David Livingstone, who she blames for the oppression of Africans and their descendants today. The politics of this text are like Philip's: insightful, tough, and desperately needed on the cultural scene. The finale--where the narrator rises up against an impotent historical giant on behalf of all her African ancestors (to whom Philip has dedicated the book)--is sexual, political, poetic, and revolutionary.
Geoffrey MacDonald is a writer/academic who insists on seeing the world the way it should be. He has been a coordinator, administrator, facilitator, policy consultant, and broadcaster. When not teaching, agitating, reading, or making other sorts of trouble, he tries to work on those novels that want out of his head.
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