From the December 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 12)


The Inner Life of Africa

Jane Rosenthal, Mail & Guardian (liberal), Johannesburg, South Africa, Sept. 27, 2002

Nigerian novelist Helon Habila receives the Caine Prize for African Writing in Nairobi, Kenya (Photo: AFP).
Here in Africa, as elsewhere, where the sophisticated doublespeak of politicians and power-mongers often bamboozles the voters, it is a relief to find that writers of fiction are speaking the truth, sustaining their readers with a version of Africa that illuminates and satisfies. This can be found in Timbuktu, Timbuktu, a selection of writing from the second Caine Prize for African Writing (2001).

The Caine Prize winner was Nigerian Helon Habila, whose story, “Love Poems,” is about Lomba, a journalist imprisoned for merely reporting on a pro-democracy demonstration. His life in prison, where he is still hopelessly awaiting trial after two years, becomes bearable only when he acquires paper and a pencil and starts to keep a diary. His hidden rolls of writings are found, and unexpectedly writing again becomes his salvation when the prison superintendent, an inarticulate oaf, makes him write love poems for his girlfriend.

Hope, sanity, and freedom are at the mercy of brutish force—Lomba’s survival and release seem so precarious, yet the very existence of the writing and the writing mind stand steady against the shifting of power from regime to regime.

Some stories in this elegant selection will be familiar to lovers of African fiction who know the work of Mia Couto, Nuruddin Farah, and Lília Momplé. The fifth author is Hassouna Mosbahi, a Tunisian whose work is published in German and Arabic. An excerpt from his novel, Tarshish Hallucination, tells of a Bedouin who “betrayed his Bedouin forebears in everything except their love of nomadic wandering,” and deals with the wandering over the Earth of a man born in a culture of nomads previously restricted to their corner of North Africa.

In his speech made at the presentation of the Caine Prize, Dan Jacobson reflected on the misgivings of those who consider fiction, “works of the imagination,” to be inappropriate, or perhaps unhelpful, on a continent ravaged by “disease, war, corruption, tyranny, famine.” These doubters question the value of those writers whose intention is to “articulate their inner life.”

Paradoxically, it is precisely in articulating their inner life that many writers reveal the society they are living in, heightening social awareness through individual experience and addressing ongoing issues. Mia Couto’s “The Russian Princess” and “Caramel Rose” are reflections on the aftermath of colonialism in people’s personal lives.

Momplé’s stories examine the inequalities of life in rural Mozambique through simple everyday events. In the same way, Zimbabwean Yvonne Vera, in her latest novel, The Stone Virgins, which won the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa, 2002, uses the intensely powerful interior life of four main characters to show us the devastating effects of war and so-called freedom. Thenjiwe and Nonceba are two sisters from the village of Kezi, where life centers around the Thandabantu Store, the turnaround place of the bus from Bulawayo.

There are also two men in the story, one a soldier, deranged and brutalized by war, the other a gentle man from Bulawayo. Vera situates the story in the colonial-indigenous divide and celebrates both city and the rural enclave of Kezi, where atrocities and human-rights violations occur after independence.

As in her previous novel, Under the Tongue, she uses the mutilation of the organs of speech to symbolize the silencing of victims, the voicelessness of the terrified. She achieves an extraordinary penetration of the existence of her characters at the same time as she celebrates life, asserting this joie de vivre in spite of evil and suffering.

Easier to read than Under the Tongue, because the narrative is stronger, this is a wonderful novel. Vera is to Ben Okri what Jeanette Winterson is to Salman Rushdie: as magical and rich but shorter, stronger, and more elegant.

Vera’s writing is constantly fresh and mind-altering. She begins this novel with a celebration, a tad ironic perhaps, of Selbourne Avenue in Bulawayo (“long, straight, jacaranda-lined”). She ends it musing on the virtues of a grass hut: “the manner in which the tenderest branches bend, meet, and dry, the way grass folds smoothly over this frame and weaves a nest, the way it protects the cool livable spaces within—deliverance.”

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