2017 Africa Reading Challenge

Even though Canada only has a land mass of 9.985 million km², reading works by Canadian writers comprises more than half of my reading.

Meanwhile, Africa has a land mass of 30.37 million km² and less than 1% of my reading has come from the pens of African writers this year.

Africa Reading ChallengeCurious about that less-than-1%? It’s Téju Cole‘s Everyday is for the Thief (and Cole now lives in Brooklyn, so I’m not sure if everyone would consider him an African writer, although this novel in particular is set entirely in Nigeria, whereas Open City had a NYC setting).

Even though writers of colour comprise 39% of my reading this year, only one book of those books has been set in Africa.

And even though the United Nations counts 54 countries in Africa, I have read one book set in one of them in 2017.

Let’s consider this in terms of population: Canada in 2015 contained 35.85 million, whereas Africa in 2016 contained 1.216 billion.

Which means that, in terms of land mass, if less than 1% of my reading was from African pens and minds, then comparing my related reading habits in terms of population, between my home country and the African continent, I must be looking at a negative number here. (If you’re math-y, feel free to jump in. There will be decimals, I’m sure.)

And clearly, if I want to fill this gap, it’s not just going to happen.(Last year? African authors comprised less than 1% of my reading as well, including some Chinua Achebe and Nurudin Farah along with other African writers now living elsewhere.)

The choices on bookstore and library shelves are not going to correct this imbalance without an effort.

The recommendations from publishers and booksellers and readers are not going to magically adjust these stats.

If I want to read more books by African writers, I’m going to have to make a point of it.

The library branch in Little Jamaica has a more colourful collection than some, including a special Black and Caribbean Heritage collection. (Dust is one I pulled from those shelves.)

It is not my neighbourhood branch, but it’s not too much further to walk there, about twenty minutes rather than ten.

Anyway, I was itching for a copy of the first volume of the autobiographical trilogy by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, which was on their shelves. (Having read only Téju Cole this year, it’s unlikely that Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o would naturally fall into my stack.)

A few years ago I attended an event which considered the writing of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Brian Chikava and Carole Enahoro, with a moderator posing a series of questions to this varied panel; ever since, I’ve meant to read something by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o but it became one of those “someday” ideas. (And when I say “few”, it’s probably more like ten years.)

But, suddenly, it’s a “now” idea because I have been reading Maya Angelou’s autobiographies this year and am freshly intrigued by the idea of multiple volumes of memories. As I am about to begin reading her fifth, I was longing to see how another writer might approach this kind of project. (I’d dabbled in Doris Lessing’s two volumes, but I can’t think of other multi-volume autobiographies, besides that massive set of Mark Twain volumes – and maybe those are diaries. Suggestions?)

Kinna’s Africa Reading Challenge actually requires only five books, a list which would be immediatley shortened if I enjoy the work of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o because he has completed three volumes in his autobiographical writings. However, I also plan to include the three books fanned on top of this library stack (I’m trying to read from my own shelves as well as the library shelves).

So I’m aiming to read more than five. (That’s what I read in my last less-than-one-percent year anyway.) Which might also include the two leaning books here, which are about Africa but not written by African writers (supplementary reading, not challenge reading).

So far, the only book in the stack which I have read is Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door (which I’ll discuss in more detail soon). Recently longlisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize, it’s a quietly mesmerizing story of two South African women who were determined not to be friends, each carrying her own baggage as her life on one side of the colour line sprawls into unfamiliar territory (emotional and geographical).

I’m not sure which of the other books pictured here will nudge their way from the stacks-in-the-wings to the seriously-underway-and-actually-reading stack, but this is only a first browsing. If you have comments or suggestions about any of these (or others which would fit this challenge), do share.

Meantime, I’m enjoying the possibilities. Once upon a time, I would read maybe one short story collection a year, and thanks to the advice of Mavis Gallant (in short: leave time between reading each story) and lots of exploring, story collections now comprise a significant portion of my reading.

Time to exercise another reading muscle. Have you been exercising a new reading muscle recently? Or, planning to?

[Edited to add the seven books read: Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door (2017)Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Dreams in a Time of War (2005), Opening Spaces Edited by Yvonne Vera (1999), Out of Exile: South Sudan Edited by Craig Walzer (2008), There Is a Country: New Fiction from the New Nation South Sudan Edited by Nyuol Lueth Tong, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988). Also, Margaret Laurence’s collection of stories, The Tomorrow-Tamer (1963), although she was a Canadian only visiting Ghana.]



  1. Alley June 14, 2017 at 7:33 pm - Reply

    I applaud this reading challenge! This is great and I look forward to your thoughts on the dif books and perhaps I will be able to expand my reading world

    • Buried In Print June 15, 2017 at 12:25 pm - Reply

      It feels like there should be a GIF in there somewhere. I imagine you choosing one (perhaps something with silly string). I know you’re always looking for more POC reading rec’s, so I hope to tempt you with something good as I read on!

  2. Karen June 14, 2017 at 10:18 am - Reply

    I’ve been trying to read more books from Africa for a few years now. Although the population size is large, you’ll find it hard to,get anything in English from some African nations unfortunately. South Africa and Nigeria are the easiest – Nigeria you have Chimamanda Adichie of course but if yiu want more recommendations take a look here https://bookertalk.com/2016/10/03/south-african-fiction/

    I also strongly recommend Petals of Blood by

    • Buried In Print June 14, 2017 at 11:06 am - Reply

      Although the publishing world isn’t representative and translation is an issue, I’m focussing on what I can change, which is simply to expand my reading more methodically and, hopefully, more lastingly. Which it seems is your approach as well: read what you can! The political situation south of the border is an all-too-familiar reminder of what happens when one’s worldview is too narrow (Toronto had a mayor like that not long ago).

      I had an old Penguin paperback of Petals of Blood and you’ve reminded me to have a look for it (on the shelves by size, not author, easy to miss), but I think I’ll read the memoirs first to see if I can gain some understanding there before trying his fiction. The Wizard and the Crow has also caught my eye many times. Have you read others of his as well?

      The South African recommendations are terrific: thank you. I really appreciate the inclusion of a variety of voices/styles and non-fiction too. The library doesn’t appear to have any of the ones which most interested me, but I shan’t give up!

  3. Naomi June 14, 2017 at 9:26 am - Reply

    I have a feeling my own record of reading African books would be worse than yours – I don’t think I’ll do the math. The pile above looks beautiful. I hope you’re able to make a big dent in it.
    I doubt I have any recommendations that you don’t already know about, but I could recommend a blog I’ve been following:

    • Buried In Print June 14, 2017 at 10:52 am - Reply

      Thanks for the recommendation: I was suddenly watching a short documentary on Morgan Parker and doubly glad to be on the hold list for that collection. Right now I’m really enjoying Nervous Conditions, a coming-of-age story set in Zimbabwe. In some ways, I can’t believe it took until 1988 for such a story to be written, for it to seem revolutinary to educate a girl, but in other ways I’m unsurprised. In any case, I’d planned to simply read this one, but now I’m already checking the borrowing status on the sequel. (And, yes, the math is sobering.)

  4. Mel u- The Reading Life June 14, 2017 at 4:01 am - Reply

    I recently read and posted on Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi. A beautiful work. I am also posting on a series of set in Kenya short stories by Farah Ahamed. I have participated in Kinna’s event for several years.. glad to see you joining in and I look forward to your posts

    • Buried In Print June 14, 2017 at 10:48 am - Reply

      I had your review in mind when I picked this one up and I hope I enjoy it as much as you did. It’s been a few years since I participated last (2013, 2012), which reminds me that I would like to get back to some Australian and New Zealand reading too (which I know you’d approve of)! I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts on the short stories.

  5. JacquiWine June 14, 2017 at 1:26 am - Reply

    It’s good to see Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go in your pile of books. I liked it a lot when I read it a few years ago – I hope you find it interesting too. Best of luck with your reading endeavours.

    • Buried In Print June 14, 2017 at 10:45 am - Reply

      There were actually two copies of this one in the paperback section and one in the stacks as well: clearly a popular choice. Thanks for the good wishes!

  6. iliana June 13, 2017 at 5:42 pm - Reply

    I really want to read The Woman Next Door so I’m looking forward to your thoughts on that book. This is a wonderful challenge and I had thought about joining but ended up skipping. Maybe next year. So far this year though I have read one novel by a South African writer and while it wasn’t a favorite read I’m glad I read it as it made me think of a different place.

    • Buried In Print June 14, 2017 at 10:44 am - Reply

      I’m very late starting too, but I actually started all of this year’s reading projects late, so perhaps that’s not surprising. I’ve only read a few South African stories, but I have always enjoyed them (well, Coetzee isn’t exactly ‘enjoyable’ I suppose, but the others were, mostly) and I’m looking forward to finally reading the Malla Nunn mysteries that Aarti has recommended.

  7. Sharlene June 13, 2017 at 3:51 pm - Reply

    What a lovely pile of books! I’ve only read The Woman Next Door and I really liked it. I’ll have to look into the challenge. I think that may have been the only book I read this year by an African writer.

    • Buried In Print June 14, 2017 at 10:42 am - Reply

      I’d be curious to know how easy it is to browse for African writers’ works in California. I have browsed some library branches’ paperback sections and not come up with a single option to borrow (sometimes because their own offering was Chinua Achebe, other times because there was nothing to choose).

  8. Aarti June 13, 2017 at 11:59 am - Reply

    Ooh, I am excited to see what you find! I see that you say “this year,” which I think means that you have read more African authors in the past.

    Assuming you have read the more prominent ones like Adichie and Achebe, I would highly recommend Malla Nunn’s mystery series set in South Africa. I am not sure if you have read those, but they are excellent. Also, the Aya graphic novels are a unique glimpse into daily life in C’ote d’Ivoire.

    • Buried In Print June 14, 2017 at 10:39 am - Reply

      Yes, I have read more in the past, but only by making an effort in those years as well (thanks, again, Kinna, among others who’ve encouraged such a focus). I still have a note about the Malla Nunn series from the first time you posted about them: I really must make time for them. Thanks for the reminder. And, oh yes, I love the Aya stories. Did you know there is a spin-off? I haven’t read it yet, and might want to reread the others first.

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