Why the African Library column? An interview with Annie Gagiano

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Background picture: https://pixabay.com/photos/africa-continent-map-of-africa-60570/; picture of Annie Gagiano: provided

Annie Gagiano talks to Naomi Meyer about the African Library column which she writes bimonthly for LitNet.

Annie, you are a familiar name for LitNet readers. Since when have you written the African Library entries on our website? How and when was this column on LitNet born, can you remember?

The first African Library column appeared in March 1999. Etienne van Heerden and I were talking (there was a rare “street party” gathering at another neighbour’s home) at the time when (I think) he had recently started LitNet, and he suggested that I might send in regular contributions on African novels. I liked the idea, so it was agreed, with the initially much briefer pieces appearing fortnightly; a while later, the pattern of two-monthly entries was settled on, and these grew much longer and more detailed over time, with no objections raised!

I often think about this when I receive your articles: you must be one of the only people to dedicate a bimonthly column entirely to literature originating from the continent of Africa. Please describe the African Library column to readers who are not familiar with these articles on LitNet.

I name the entries “profiles” because they are not academic articles, but are intended to increase awareness of the enormous but still so little-known African literary sphere, to give readers a sense of its diversity and to combat the notion that African fiction is “simple” or naïve and deals primarily with “traditional” societies. Of course the works dealt with are chosen from texts available in English because of my own and most readers’ linguistic limitations, while there is so much in other languages (indigenous texts, those in Arabic or Swahili, and those in the Europhone tongues such as French and Portuguese, etc). I have access to Afrikaans, of course, but feel that those texts are exhaustively covered in South Africa. I have hardly ever written about more than one novel by the same author, because of my wanting to make known the enormous diversity of fascinating texts in terms of genre, style, setting, times of publication and so on, which has induced selectivity. I wanted to showcase women’s writing, texts from long ago as well as very recent works, and to vary the focus from one piece to another. And the diversity of social, geographical and historical settings of the works profiled is of great interest to me.

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I have access to Afrikaans, of course, but feel that those texts are exhaustively covered in South Africa. I have hardly ever written about more than one novel by the same author, because of my wanting to make known the enormous diversity of fascinating texts in terms of genre, style, setting, times of publication and so on, which has induced selectivity. I wanted to showcase women’s writing, texts from long ago as well as very recent works, and to vary the focus from one piece to another. And the diversity of social, geographical and historical settings of the works profiled is of great interest to me.
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How do you select the book for every second month? Do you go to the library? Do you google? Where do you start your search?

I choose the books in different ways: some are chance discoveries in bookshops or libraries; many are those known to me from my lecturing days and my own scholarly publications; some I read about in academic articles or reviews, or am told about by friends and colleagues, or find in publishers’ lists. I attempt to touch on as many countries as I can access by the “mental travelling” that fiction allows.

Are there any particular themes that you have encountered over and over again in books from the African continent? How often would a book surprise you? And what happens if you read a book which you really do not enjoy – would you still write about it?

I hardly ever write about a book I do not admire, as I attempt in the entries to make others want to read the works I profile. Of course, there are recurrent themes, but if the texts were merely the reiterations of “colonialism bashing” or “misery porn”, or if they showed only poverty, violence, war, oppression and the other plagues besetting our continent (which some prejudiced commentators declare they do), or were written to please “Western” publishers with predictably melodramatic renditions of those conditions, I would not bother with them. Of course I admire, study and read books from other continents, but African writing is to my mind still hugely underrated and far too little known, when there are brilliant novels of great depth and complexity produced all over our continent.

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Of course I admire, study and read books from other continents, but African writing is to my mind still hugely underrated and far too little known, when there are brilliant novels of great depth and complexity produced all over our continent.
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It’s quite shameful that we live in Africa but remain so ignorant of the literary achievements of its authors (not that every text profiled is brilliant, of course). But the fascination of African novels, as in all novels, lies in their engagement with the complex intertwinement of inner selves, their relationships of many kinds between characters and the social, historical and geographic settings they portray: the best texts have ethical validity and display the vividness and subtlety of verbal art, even in translation.

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But the fascination of African novels, as in all novels, lies in their engagement with the complex intertwinement of inner selves, their relationships of many kinds between characters and the social, historical and geographic settings they portray: the best texts have ethical validity and display the vividness and subtlety of verbal art, even in translation.
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Written books from Africa versus the oral tradition of storytelling in Africa: do you often come across books which read as if they have been written from an oral tradition of storytelling?

There are indeed such texts, and literary scholars’ continued employment of references to the narrator or the narrative perspective of a novel shows that there are echoes of storytelling in some form in all narrative fiction. Still, some novels, of course, are written as if still emerging from oral contexts. I have just reread the English translation of AC Jordan’s magnificent novel The wrath of the ancestors (published 1980; the Xhosa original appeared in 1940), a text of compelling power that is partly derived from its evocation of the mainly oral setting of its time, and which adopts that mode of narration.

Power, money and books: do you think that enough books about Africa and in Africa, or written by African authors, are published – and do these books receive the same publicity as books from authors in the Western world?

I’ve given away my position regarding these questions in my previous answers, but there are complex factors influencing the relative paucity of published African writing – one being, of course, the relatively small numbers of book-buying readers and well-funded publishers on the continent, as well as widespread poverty, the necessary prioritising of “survival expenditure”, low literacy rates and linguistic limitations, and the prejudices and preferences of non-African publishers and readers of African writing. So, no!

Which books from over the years really stood out for you, and why?

I thought I should limit my selection from works featured in my column; of course, there are many others outside that circumference I could name, but the already long list would be of inappropriate length. Tentatively, from the nearly 150 entries over the almost 23 years of LitNet pieces: Ekwensi’s Burning grass (my very first entry!), Chinodya’s Harvest of thorns, Ghali’s Beer in the snooker club, Lauretta Ngcobo’s And they didn't die, Sinyangwe’s A cowrie of hope, Cristina Ali Farah’s Little mother, Kayira’s The detainee, Djebar’s Fantasia: An Algerian cavalcade, Soyinka’s Season of anomy, Mwangi’s Striving for the wind, Achebe’s Arrow of God, Ile’s And after many days, Aziz Hassim’s The lotus people, Sefi Atta’s Everything good will come and Owuor’s Dust. On another day, I’d probably choose another lot!

Lost in translation: there are so many languages in Africa. Can you experience some of these various languages in the books you read, even though you read the books translated into English?

Some African authors deliberately insert (usually) their mother tongues in fairly brief passages. Some convey in rhythm or tone, or in directly translated sayings or forms of address, that the setting is not (or not primarily) English – or French, etc – and then one reads local conversations at a “third remove”, though something of a local flavour may still come through. But one needs to remember, too, that English is also an intra-continental lingua franca: how many non-Yoruba speakers even in Nigeria, let alone the rest of Africa, would be excluded if Soyinka’s novels appeared in that language only?

What have you discovered on your journey through Africa by reading all these books? Please share some experiences.

Difficult to specify, since every worthwhile text surprises one in multiple ways!

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One learns about histories, cultural practices, political issues, horrors as well as joys, about the myriad encounters among and multiple roles played by people (the prominent and the poor; the vicious and the humane; the brutally selfish and the carefully considerate, etc, etc), and about the many ways in which other Africans both resemble and differ from us.
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One learns about histories, cultural practices, political issues, horrors as well as joys, about the myriad encounters among and multiple roles played by people (the prominent and the poor; the vicious and the humane; the brutally selfish and the carefully considerate, etc, etc), and about the many ways in which other Africans both resemble and differ from us.

Also read:

African Library: Dogstar rising by Parker Bilal

The African Library ‒ Timothy Ogene: The day ends like any day (2017)

The African Library: Forbidden Fruit by Stanley Gazemba

African library: The woman next door by Yewande Omotoso

African Library: Keeper of the Kumm by Sylvia Vollenhoven

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: African Library

African Library: The Deadly Ambition

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives tackles contemporary African culture

My Mercedes is Bigger than Yours: An exploration of postcolonial society

Offspring of Paradise – a text strongly coloured by a young girl's fierce Afro-feminism and proudly Muslim convictions

African Library: Caught in the storm

African Library: The Sinners

African library: Season of crimson blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim

The African Library: The Jungo: Stakes of the earth by Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin

The African library: Men don’t cry by Faïza Guène

The African Library: An imperfect blessing by Nadia Davids

 

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