The Granta Book of the African Short Story

The Times, Saturday 10 September 2011

As a description, the “African short story” is far from specific. The Nigerian novelist Helon Habila points out in his introduction to this collection that the continent is made up of 53 countries, a billion people and more than a thousand distinct ethnic groups. That the stories in the collection were originally written in English, or have been translated into English from Arabic, French or Portuguese, is a reminder of the impact of colonialism on Africa’s recent cultural history.

Themes of war, disruption and exile are evident from the beginning. Indeed the latter features so often that Habila describes this generation of writers as “post-nationalist”, reflecting the fact that so many of them live outside the countries of their birth.

The first story in the volume, The Arrangers of Marriage, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has a young Nigerian woman arriving in New York from Lagos with her new husband. Chinaza expects to encounter unfamiliar customs but she isn’t prepared for a series of discoveries about the man she’s married. He isn’t “a doctor in America”, as she was assured back in Lagos, but a poorly paid medical student who’s known in Flatbush as Dave instead of by his Nigerian name, Ofodile.

Clearly, the story is about disillusionment, but it also introduces another theme, the disappointments of marriage, which recurs throughout the collection. The Moroccan writer, Laila Lailami, looks at it from the husband’s point of view in Homecoming, in which Aziz returns to Casablanca from Madrid and recognises that a gulf now separates him from his wife, Zohra. Aziz finds that family and city have changed in ways he does not like, and his plan to take Zohra to Spain quietly crumbles in his mind.

Some of the stories are unexpected. Propaganda by Monuments, by the South African writer Ivan Vladislavic, begins in Moscow in 1992 as a translator, Grekov, sets off to observe the demolition of a monumental head of Lenin; in his pocket is a copy of an airmail letter from a bar owner who has written to the Russian authorities “in the name of struggling masses of South Africa” to ask for a “spare” statue of V. I. Lenin. The idea of an iconic piece of Soviet propaganda ending up as gimmick in a tourist bar in South Africa is brilliantly handled, while Vladislavic makes sly fun of Grekov’s insertions in the letters he is supposed to be translating.

Other contributions are unsparing in their depiction of the dehumanising effect of poverty. Uwem Akpan’s story, An Ex-mas Feast, is about a family waiting in their cardboard shack in Lagos for the return of their eldest daughter, a teenage prostitute, with the bags of food they need to celebrate Christmas. Abdulrazak Gurnah, who along with Alaa Al Aswany is one of the better-known authors in the collection, writes in Cages about a penniless shop assistant who cares for the dying man who owns the shop; Hamid dreams about one of his customers but the story ends in disillusionment.

The stories are arranged according to the age of their authors, from Adichie (born in 1977) to the South African novelist Alex La Guma, who died in 1985 at the age of 60. It’s a clever way of reflecting shifts in focus; and the skill and sophistication of African authors is on display throughout this rich and rewarding book.

Granta, edited by Helon Habila, £25

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