New Writing from Africa 2009: Original Short Stories by Young African Writers, Ed. by J.M. Coetzee. (Johnson & Kingjames Books) ₨175
A collection that spans the continent’s 55 countries, the book has a natural bias towards communities where English is used as an official language or lingua franca, and includes stories from Botswana, Cameroon, Mauritius, Mozambique, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, and Zambia. These stories were selected from the 1000+ submitted for the inaugural South African Centre of International PEN PEN/Studzinski Literary Award. In his Final Comment, Coetzee writes,
A final observation on the fact that all the prizewinners in this Africa-wide competition have turned out to be South Africans with (I would guess) English as their mother tongue. Why should this be so?
Part of the explanation is simply that most of the stories submitted were by South Africans. Another part—though by the nature of things I cannot be sure of this—is that, as a reader, I may by attuned to nuances in South African varieties of English that I hear only imperfectly in other African Englishes. A third part is that, unfortunately, educational standards in Africa vary, not only from country to country but from one community to another within national states…
We must face the unhappy fact that the playing field on which the PEN/Studzinski Literary Award was contested was not a level one, and will probably not be level for a long while yet.
Coetzee’s observations are indeed reflected in the anthology, which presents itself more definitively than it should, without including the expansive African literatures being written in Arabic, French, Portuguese, and other African languages. Still, as a compendium of young, up-and-coming African short story writers writing in English, it’s a pleasure to read and a fantastic lesson in cross-cultural perspective, with stories about a South African house-servant, ordinary Zimbabweans, a family in Cameroon, and African children. Prizewinner Karen Jayes leads a promising pool of writers, destined to shape the future of South African literature.
Nolllywood, Pieter Hugo. (Prestel) $49.95
A telling portrait of the world’s third largest—and perhaps scariest—film industry, Nollywood contains Pieter Hugo’s staged photographs of popular characters. Accompanied by fiction about the industry by Chris Abani, and an essay by Zina Saro-Wiwa, the book is second best as an introduction only to the films themselves. Abani’s storyboard in 10 frames sets the tone for the book, which culls scenery from the industry’s 1000+ yearly films. The photographs themselves can only be described in two words: fucking scary. Most featured protagonists appear to be from horror movies, ranging from the red-eyed Nigerian vampire to the voluptuous beauty pierced through and through with a machete just below her sternum to the naked Nigerian man with a Darth Vader helmet to children chalked white with mysterious afflictions. Pieter Hugo himself makes a cameo toward the book’s end, as a solitary white man, dressed only in his olive briefs and a ski mask, wielding a machete.