Africa is a Country recommends: Books of 2014

Christmas is coming, and like the German Bundesliga we’re going to be taking a wee break on AIAC, returning in the early days of 2015. Everyone has their own ways of getting through those long, blogless days of festive family over-eating, and AIAC generally relies on Gin and Tonic, long walks, and English football. But there are also books. Remember those? Especially good for giving you that faraway feeling as you try to zone out of your uncle’s homophobic musings. Here are some recommendations from AIAC contributors for some books we enjoyed in 2014 (not exhaustive by any means, please add your own favorites in the comments).

Sean Jacobs: Barnaby Phillips’ Another Man’s War. Promoting the release of his World War II film, Miracle at St Anna, director Spike Lee upbraided Clint Eastwood who did two films about Iwo Jima “back to back and there was not one black soldier in both of those films.” Lee’s outburst was part self-aggrandizement and also expressed frustration with the erasure of black, or African, soldiers’ involvements in “the Great Wars.”  Which is why Another Man’s War: The Story of a Burma Boy in Britain’s Forgotten Army (2014) by journalist Barnaby Phillips is my best book of 2014. Another Man’s War covers the extraordinary tale of a 16-year old Nigerian soldier, Isaac Fadoyebo, who volunteered for Britain’s colonial army in Southeast Asia (at least 100,000 Africans went to fight), whose company is routed by the Japanese and manages to survive the war through a mix of guile and kindness and protection of local people. But the book is more than that: it is a window into the workings of British colonialism in Nigeria and a corrective to “Greatest Generation” myth-making.

Honorable Mention: Clicko, The Wild Dancing Bushman (2009) by Neil Parsons. The story of Franz Taibosch, a Korana (Khoi) from what is now South Africa’s Eastern Cape, who was a fixture of 1920s and 1930s traveling circuses in the United States.

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Neelika Jayawardane: I See You, Ishtiyaq Shukri. If you want to know how African writers are engaging with the long-term effects of the War on Terror, and how African governments, African nations have become central to rendition, outsourced torture, this is the novel to go to. Lyrical, gorgeous writing that I spent a whole wakeful night reading, only to close the last page feeling a vast emptiness. It’s a book so lovely that it will become a companion in life. If the War on Terror, and how its taken a firm foothold in Africa is something you want to read about (better than half the self-serving “post-911” drivel written by Phillip Roth and Jay McInerney), also read Passage of Tears by Abdourahman Waberi.

Fairytales for Lost Children, Diriye Osman’s collection of short stories, is an exploration of how those who are multiply displaced create family, stability, love, and home; it is also an exposition of pain, and the escapes one might seek – through fairytale and fantasy – in order to live with that unbearable understanding. Gorgeous.

Regarding Muslims: From Slavery to Post-Apartheid. Gabeba Baderoon’s critical text will undoubtedly become one of the most referenced texts on South African matters. Baderoon analyses the ways in which South African Muslims – who trace their ancestry back to slaves transported from South and South East Asia by the Dutch East India Company (the VOC), and who were subsequently instrumental in building the infrastructures on which South Africa’s wealth was built – have been constructed by colonial rulers, the apartheid government, and present-day democratic political structures. She addresses a wide range of materials through which Muslim identity has been fashioned – including fine art, in which Muslims are shown to be largely picturesque and docile, and political narratives, in which Muslims are nearly always depicted not as threats, but as agents and actors in the journey to freedom. By laying bare the inherent contradictions within such contrasting narratives, Baderoon invites scholars of literature, art, and the political culture of South Africa to question their easy assumptions.

Emmanuel IdumaDouble Negative by Ivan Vladislavic, which put in perspective the dialogue photography has with the history of Apartheid. Ingrid Winterbach’s The Elusive Moth, with the strange emotions of its characters, defined elusiveness for me. Shailja Patel’s Migritude, a truly human and liberating book of prose poems. Chris Abani’s The Secret History of Las Vegas, at once a thriller as a meditation on estrangement and belonging. Finally, I am indebted to Intimate Stranger, Breyten Breytenbach’s book on writing, which has helped me clarify what I mean when I say I am writing. I had other favorites, which I mention here.

Julianne Okot Bitek: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor wrote Dust for me. For once, I’m a perfect reader; both my creative and academic curiosities are satisfied. Dust tackles some big questions inside the story of a family tragedy — a man is killed right at the beginning of the novel and his sister wants to know why. What does Kenya mean? How do English, Swahili, Silence and Memory serve as national languages? Ah, but the beauty of the novel lies in Owuor’s excellent ear. She uses Luo, Kikuyu, Swahili, Turkana among other Kenyan languages liberally and nails local accents so beautifully it makes me want to cry. Msee, and I can hear it. Mzee, and I know that it’s someone else and where he or she is from. If Kenya is a colonial construct, it’s also a collection of myths. “You can’t live in the songs of people who do not know your name,” is a cynical refrain, but perhaps, some day we can. For those who need verbs to temper the lyrical prose, be assured that I found three: see, feel, hear. It’s a very good novel. Read it.

Chika Unigwe: Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is an intense meditation on the nature of friendship. Elena and Lila are best friends, although they are not always so. The novel follows the trials and joys of this friendship,from childhood into adolescence and then womanhood. Ferrante’s writing is subtle and powerful. There is not a single superfluous word.

Katarina Hedren: Ethiopian/American Dinaw Mengestu’s brilliant third novel, All Our Names, spans over two continents and tells of the intertwined lives of Ugandan rebel Isaac, his multi-nicknamed Ethiopian refugee friend and Helen – a young American idealist, who, despite having never left the town where she was born, is as rootless as the other two.

In his both factual and personal second book, One day in Delhi, my friend, Swedish/Indian historian Henrik Chetan Aspengren, reveals a slice of little-known shared history between his country of birth and his adoptive country, as well as his own quest to belong. Petition for it to be translated into English.

Tseliso Monaheng: The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga. I like Masande’s book because he renders familiar settings onto paper, then uplifts them into extraordinary shrines which all of a sudden feel very important. A taxi ride from one side of Cape Town to another becomes this trippy experience dripping in a haze of self-loathing, drugs, and the inanity of making it in life as a young adult with no immediate end in sight. And don’t get me started on the sentences! He crafts these beautiful, self-contained objects which make his debut novel, The Reactive, feel like a breathing, living being which can only blossom fully through regular visits by the reader inside its pages. Masande, the don!

Jeremy Weate: Submergence by J.M. Ledgard. Submergence tracks the last days of James More, an Englishman captured by Al Shabaab in Somalia.  Its a sublimely reflective novel, with some memorable passages on a painting by Bruegel, the essence of jinns and our nature as photosynthetic beings. Submergence also offers a profound critique of Islamism, as refracted through the separation between two lovers. A real treat.

Chandra Frank: Willful Subjects by Sara Ahmed. Highly recommended for all the feminist killjoys and other willful subjects out there and for those with a general interest in the field of cultural studies, feminist theory and philosophy. In Willful Subjects willfulness is explored through literary and philosophical texts and grounded in feminist, queer and anti-racist politics. “A history of willfullness is a history of those who are willing to put their bodies in the way, or to bend their bodies in the way of the will” (161). Warning: after reading the book you might see willful arms and other willful subjects pop up everywhere!

Achal PrabhalaThings We Found During The Autopsy by Kuzhali Manickavel. This is a small book from a small publisher by a quiet writer with a fanatical following. Kuzhali Manickavel writes dense, dazzling prose that is thick with local grit and soars in a cosmopolitan wonderland. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful and also completely bonkers. You will find yourself flailing, whether reading her intermittent blog, her first book, or this one, her second, but rest assured that this is the best kind of bonkers; she is incapable of making anything less than perfect nonsense.

Marissa Moorman: Isabel Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading. This book is beautiful inside and out. Hofmeyr sketches the work of Gandhi’s Indian Printing Press, founded in Durban (in 1898) and then located at his Phoenix ashram just north of Durban. Hofmeyr elegantly traces both Gandhi’s anti-industrial and anti-commercial reading and printing practices (a satyagraha rooted form) and the disjunctures of this intra-imperial world; noting, for example, the lack of solidarity and communication with John Dube’s Ohlange Institute, just miles away.

Adam Shatz: The best book I read this year was The Good Spy, Kai Bird’s gripping and rueful biography of Robert Ames, a CIA Arabist who died in the 1983 bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut. The story of how Ames forged a relationship with the Fatah security chief Ali Hassan Salameh, only to be sabotaged by the Israelis and his own government, is a heartbreaking reminder of opportunities squandered by short-sighted politicians. Bird’s book is also a masterpiece of real-life espionage literature, with a cameo by John Le Carré himself, wandering around the Shatila refugee camp with the model for The Little Drummer Girl.

Abdi Latif EgaAmerican Civilization by C.L.R. James. James’s discussion on America in the 1950s is a breathtaking collage of interdisciplinary genius. Its range is as breathtaking as his prose and ideas are. In 2014, i came back to this again, again and again. I want everyone to read the enlightened text.

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Pablo Medina Uribe: I think the only 2014 book I read was The Last Magazine: A Novel by Michael Hastings, the journalist. It’s pretty good, but it is evidently not finished (Hastings’s widow discovered the unfinished manuscript after her husband’s death and edited it for publication). Still, it is a great peer into the workings of American print journalism, and especially into The Magazine, a fictionalized version of Newsweek (where Hastings worked), during the early days of the 2003 Iraq war. It shows how disconnected American editors are from what happens elsewhere in the world, and how none of it matters as long as they have the ego (and reluctance to change their opinions) needed to be on cable TV and become famous commentators.

The book is fascinating in its depiction of a war correspondent slowly going crazy and being duped by his bosses–who care more about appearances, than about content–and in its satire of Fareed Zakaria (in the character of Nishant Patel) and Jon Meacham (in Sanders Berman). But it’s also on point in its depiction on the rise of the relentless news cycle brought forth by new online media and the incompetence of print journalism to cope with it. At some point it drifts into a pointless sexual tourism adventure in Thailand, but other than that, it’s a very interesting read.

Jesse Shipley: Omens of Adversity: Tragedy, Time, Memory, Justice by David Scott. Focused on the demise of the Grenada Revolution in the 1980s, it examines conjunctures of American Empire that get layered on older colonial-racial regimes of rule. The book uses notions of tragedy and the dramaturgical to think about the experience of time and the past with an eye to re-imagining political futures and social justice.

Kathleen BomaniEvery Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole. I initially bought it for a friend but found myself engrossed. All I thought I was doing was glancing, but I could not put the book down. Teju’s ability to paint pictures of everyday Nigeria with words is refreshing and not only that as the book is accompanied by his photography, a true work of art, perhaps the only missing element is the soundscape but then again, he tackles that part by arresting our imagination.

Connor Ryan: Ato Quayson’s Oxford Street, Accra. For years now, the biggest names in African studies have been clamoring for us to “do theory” from the global South. How might scholars clear a space for the example of Africa to contribute something new and unexpected to our understanding of the world we share in common. Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism, Ato Quayson’s new study of street life in Accra, Ghana, rises to meet their calls. His study draws together an archive of “texts” that actually reflect the diversity of African urbanism: brand advertisements, subtle changes in the street’s infrastructures, novels, the body-builder’s physique. There is no tro-tro slogan too frivolous, no bodily gesture too minute, and no verbal exchange too banal to escape Quayson’s effort to learn what street life in urban Africa has to teach us.

muhammad-ali-psychologyZachary Levenson: Keith Breckenridge, Biometric State: The Global Politics of Identification and Surveillance in South Africa, 1850 to the Present (2014). This is one of those rare books in which the empirical object of analysis is simultaneously the work’s major theoretical contribution. Breckenridge masterfully engages literatures on state formation, bureaucracy, and the African state, all in the service of developing a biopolitical theory of an emergent state-form rooted in empire, surveillance, and technologies of identification. While the empirical chapters are specific to South Africa, the implications are discussed in relation to regimes across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

T.O. MolefeLong Division, by Kiese Laymon, and its sort of metatext, How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, are important books for black writers and others who want to write for people like them but can’t because they are told such books won’t sell. Why? Because hegemonic whiteness and systems like it have a standard audience to appease. The first book is a fiction story set in the American South and follows a protagonist named City, a black teenager living in 2013 who is reading Long Division, a book about another young black protagonist named City living in 1985 who discovers a portal in the nearby woods that allows him to travel to 2013 and 1964. The book-within-a-book set up is complex but it does not in anyway impede the storytelling, which is often laugh-out-loud funny and lush with dynamic sentences that bring into sharp relief the intractable nature of white supremacy, from its grotesque Ku Klux Klan forms to its insidious, well-meaning-white-liberal forms. Like Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, which I also recommend highly, Laymon’s Long Division can be classified as being for young adults but in the same way that Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird would have been had it been published today—which is to say the classification is a misnomer.

The second book, How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, is a timely collection of new and previously published essays from Laymon, with topics ranging from Kanye West and black male feminism to racism and police brutality, and the struggle the author went through to publish a book he wanted to read.

Jill Kelly: Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account is the fictional memoir of an enslaved Moroccan man who took part in the 16th century Spanish expedition to Florida. While students of American history may be familiar with Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s account of this trip, Lalami imagines the journey from the point of view of America’s first black explorer, known only in the official historical record as “Estebanico” or “el Moro.” Lalami gives Estebanico a name, Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, and a history, drawing us into his travels and flashbacks to his youth in Morocco. It is a powerful and complicated account of enslavement and colonization that suggests the ways in which enslaved persons shaped early American encounters. I read it on Thanksgiving day and could not put it down. Read an interview with her on it here.

Zachary Rosen: Based on a recommendation from writer Bongani Kona, I picked up a copy of Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful: a book about jazz at Cape Town’s Open Book Festival this year. Diving into it, I was blown away by how Dyer composes lyrical literary portraits inspired by the lives of legendary jazz musicians including Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Chet Baker, Duke Ellington and more in a freeform jazz-like fashion. A master of metaphorical style, Dyer finds wonderful ways to illustrate how deeply jazz artists’ lives and character echo their music.

Another book that resonated with me this year was At the Edge of Sight by Shawn Michelle Smith. Published in late 2013, Smith’s most recent commentary on the social relevance of photography wrestles with the unseen in images. In examining the creation and interpretation of photography, Smith reveals how people and concepts, intangibly present within an image’s frame, have been historically projected and hidden within a society. Notably, the first chapter offers an insightful racial critique of philosopher Barthes’ much adored Camera Lucida.

Jessica Blatt: Josh Freeman’s Working Class New York is an account of working people in New York struggling and in many ways succeeding in building a social democratic city for a brief period in the post WWII era. Given the cramped political universe of the last few decades (do you want a lot of austerity, or a whole lot of austerity?), it induces a certain amount of nostalgia. And as people are mobilizing to insist that #BlackLivesMatter, the book is a link to a deep–if often racially problematic–history in which people have reshaped this city from below.

Benjamin FogelThe Man Who Loved Dogs, by Leonardo Padura Fuentes. Originally published in 2009 in Spanish by the Cuban novelist Leonardo Fuentes, the book was finally translated into English this year. The Man Who Loved Dogs tells the story of the murder of Leon Trotsky by a Stalinist agent, from the perspective of three characters, a failed Cuban novelist working as a vet’s assistant, Trotsky’s murderer Ramón Mercader and Trotsky himself. The book reads like a synthesis of Isaac Deutscher’s legendary biographies of Trotsky and James Ellroy at his most paranoid. The book delves into the horrors of Stalinism and the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, in a way which moves beyond smug anti-communism and liberal moralism. Trotsky is presented as a tragic figure, a revolutionary Hamlet, Ramon is a murderous Idealist trying to please his psychotic mother and later towards the end of his life, somebody to confess his crimes to. Honourable mentions: A Colossal Wreck by Alexander Cockburn, Narcoland by Anabel Hernandez, The Empire of Necessity by Greg Grandin.

An Impatient Life by Daniel Bensaid. Perhaps the most important memoir of the 68-generation, by a key militant and theorist of the French Left. It moves seamlessly between theory, literature and political history, from May 1968 in Paris, to the Buenos Aires during the height of the Dirty War and Brazil during the early years of the Worker’s Party (PT). A memoir of a revolutionary, in which ‘the hasty Leninism’ of the 60s and 70s doesn’t culminate in the cynicism brought upon by defeat that led so many of his comrades back into establishment politics.

Maria Hengeveld: Lila Abu-Lughod’s Do Muslim Women Need Saving? For those who find themselves agitated, insulted or simply baffled with the post-9/11 construction of The Muslim Woman as the ultimate victim-subject, waiting for liberal traditions rights to set her free from the quintessentially oppressive traditions she faces in this mythological bastion of homogeny, a.k.a IslamLand, you’ll like this one. Frankly, anyone who has uneasily raised the occasional eye-brow at the latest global cocktails of ideology, loudness, erasure, reductionism, elitism and ‘common-women-sense’, which some women’s rights champions serve us with so much zeal, you won’t regret this read either. Reading Abu-Lughod’s take on ‘saving campaigns’ and human rights frameworks is as delightful as it is insightful because of her background as an anthropologist, who spent decades in the Middle East. Entering what she calls the “territory of rights”, in a world that is “characterized by new forms of empire,” as an anthropologist, inspired her to confront the ethics and politics of global discourses on the rights of Muslim women (including class privilege within various feminist movements and an occasional lash at Nicholas Kristof). And successfully so. The book caused a storm. Check it out.

Elliot RossThe Book of Scotlands by Momus. I spent much of the year following Scotland’s independence debate from a distance, and found Gerry Hassan‘s writing indispensable for understanding what exactly is at stake. Hassan’s main reading recommendation, The Book of Scotlands, by Momus (artist Nicholas Currie), was written several years before the referendum debate took over Scotland’s public sphere. But it endures as a rich, finely textured sequence of 156 attempts to imagine an expanded set of social and political futures for a society that often seems to have permanently settled into a very narrow sense of its own possibilities. Not everyone is that interested in the Scottish situation, of course, but there is inspiration to be had from Momus for anyone who feels their range of conceivable futures has diminished. I would love to read The Book of Nigerias or The Book of Kenyas or The Book of Malawis — what else can be imagined?

Elliot Ross

Elliot Ross is senior editor at Africa is a Country. He tweets at @africasacountry and @futbolsacountry

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