These Novels Ask You To Read More And Better, By Jeanne-Marie Jackson

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Everybody says it: 2021 was the year of the literature African. Said writers continent they took the Nobel, Booker, Goncourt and Camões prizes. And these honors are not even half of the list.

Last year’s award-winning novels span a very wide range of genre, style, and political perspective, as well as more obvious things like nation, race, and ethnicity. And this is good. While Africans need not be told that no person or book can represent a continent Huge, culturally and linguistically diverse, readers in Western countries have been slow to grasp that fact.

The variety of these books should encourage us to read more, of course, but also to read better. It is an invitation to put aside preconceptions and instead step into the richly related worlds of Africans who are still figuring out what to do with their stories.

Take the work of Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose awarding of the Nobel Prize took many people by surprise. Clearly, they hadn’t read “Paradise” or “By the Sea.” In his texts, Gurnah goes far beyond the history of Western colonization, with which most readers may be more familiar.

That is not to say that many novels recognized in the past year avoided the topic. Many focus on the violent legacies of European colonialism. But the insights and approaches are far from conventional. For example, “At Night All Blood Is Black,” by International Booker winner David Diop, is about the history of French African soldiers in WWI. In this way, Diop asks readers to learn new things and feel them.

Because African writers are aware of the odds against them for misrepresented stories (a wild, exotic, and unfashionable take on Africa), the best literature africana builds scenarios suitable for anyone in the world. He carefully balances the universal with the particular or the local with the global to do justice to real places without abandoning the claims of art for its own sake.

Reading these books with an open mind is taking them seriously as literature and not as plain texts that confirm the false idea that Africa is unknowable. Furthermore, the African writing published last year entertains at least as much as it instructs. Good examples of this are the books “The Madhouse” and “The First Woman.”

The great year of the literature africana is a reckoning. For too long, the major Western awards have ignored the work emerging from the continent, and even award winners find a publishing world biased against them. But it is also an invitation to readers to open up to the many variations of African fiction and see what new connecting threads they can find.

–Glossed, edited and translated–

© The New York Times

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These Novels Ask You To Read More And Better, By Jeanne-Marie Jackson