The Granta Book Of The African Short Story, edited by Helon Habila, starts with ‘The Arrangers of Marriage’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A young woman, having been brought up by her uncle and aunt in Nigeria, has been packed off to America to marry a doctor, a Nigerian himself who has not been home in eleven years. ‘What could be better?’ asks auntie Ada, and then adds ‘It’s like we won the lottery for you!’ It turns out, the doctor is not a doctor yet, and his name Ofodile has morphed into a more Western Dave. He is keen to blend in and is anxious not be known as the person who speaks in a foreign language or fills ‘the building with smells of foreign food’. MacDonald’s, clothes sales and pizza eaten in a crowded food court are the ‘wonders of America’ that he proudly shows off to his new wife while telling her off for speaking Igbo.
Adichie is the youngest writer in this collection that Helon Habila arranged in order of generations. His decision to start with some of the newest African writing and then go back in time gives the reader the opportunity to enjoy the stories and at the same time to see the influences that the older generations of writers have had on the younger ones.
We jump from one side of the continent to another and, while the themes change with the geography, they also interweave with each other. In ‘Faeries Of The Nile’ by Mansoura Ez-Eldin in translation by Raphael Cohen, the mood is mysterious and magical, but the underlying themes of family and women’s place in it are much more real. ‘An Ex-Mas Feast’ by Uwem Akpan continues with these and other themes in a much more violent setting in the dumps of Nairobi where a family are relying on their oldest daughter, twelve-year-old Maisha, to earn money by prostitution.
In Patrice Nganang’s ‘The Moustached Man’, we are transported to Berlin of 1913, where a Cameroonian bravely stands up to a gang of racist abusers led by a moustached man named Adolf or maybe Adorf, years later his daughter would not know for sure. And then the theme of fighting again, this time in Addis Ababa of 1980, in ‘A Good Soldier’ by Maaza Mengiste. Here, we meet Benny, who is ten when his father is arrested for his music that ‘turned love songs into battle cries’. When he is released, after torture, it is his wife, Benny’s mother, who is taken, never to return. As the boy and his father Mesfin attempt to build a new life in Los Angeles, the torture continues long after Mesfin’s broken fingers will have healed.
The satiric, snappy feel of ‘The Arrangers Of Marriage’ continues in such stories as ‘Preference Nationale’ by Fatou Diome or ‘Passion’ by Doreen Baingana. And in ‘The Promenade’, by Henrietta Rose-Innes, the only connection to Africa is the writer’s own.
The typical strong imagery of African writing is made even more formidable when joined with its very human and yet political topics. Migration and travel in particular, but also poverty, survival and relationships are all current and relevant in the wider sense than just being part of the African literature. The sense of melancholy that comes from being away from home, whether in a physical or emotional sense, penetrates through all the stories and is something that anyone of us has experienced at least once, as is the constant change that we are all undergoing as the world becomes more and more universal.
Any Cop?: Habila’s goal was to produce a celebratory anthology, and despite most stories exploring themes that are far from rosy, this magnificent collection has a very new and exciting united voice from the continent. The African short story’s renaissance, as it has often been called, is very much in its blossom and The Granta Book Of The African Short Story is not to be missed.