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ISBN: 978-0-9547023-6-6 | 272 pages | Weight: 0kg | Paperback | Published 2006 | Rights: World
Categories: African | Black Interest | Fiction | Literature | Feminism | Women |
This anthology is a collection of contemporary love stories by African women. The collection combines the tentative freshness of budding writers with the confidence of established and award winning authors from Africa and the African Diaspora.
The collection is a radical departure from conventional anthologies and the theme of love is aimed at dedunking preconceived notions about African women as impoverished victims whilst showing their strength, complexity and diversity.
The stories deal with a range of challenging themes including taboo subjects such as same-sex relationships, domestic violence, female circumcision and ageism to produce a melting pot of narratives from interesting and informed perspectives.
Contributors include Sindiwe Magona and Antjie Krog from South Africa, Véronique Tadjo from Cote d'Ivoire, Leila Aboulela from the Sudan, Nawal El Saadawi from Egypt, Helen Oyeyemi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sarah Manyika, Sefi Atta and Promise Ogochukwu from Nigeria, Yaba Badoe from Ghana, Wangui wa Goro from Kenya and Doreen Baingana from Uganda.
African Love Stories: An Anthology ed. Ama Ata Aidoo
Ayebia Clarke Publishing Ltd, Banbury, 2006, pb 272pp
I couldn’t help noticing that the twenty-one stories included in this anthology are all written by women, yet there is nothing in the title to suggest that this is the case. Is the word love on its own enough for us to assume that its authors will be female? Should we conclude that men do not write love stories and certainly not African men? If they did, how would the collected works be termed? ‘Love Stories’, with its Mills and Boon connotations, is an unlikely moniker I suspect.
Inevitably, these kinds of concerns crop up when we analyze anthologies and writers of African origin across the Diaspora are continually called upon to negotiate tiresome issues around categorization. What it comes down to though, ultimately, is where the book might end up in the bookshop and there I’d say the less narrow the category the better. I was therefore only a little disappointed, having allowed myself momentarily to get my hopes up, to discover that there were no new metrosexuals, with stories from a distinctive male perspective, lurking within the covers.
Equally challenging and far more important is deciding on and compiling within the unifying premise, which in this case is stories about love by African women writers. In this regard, Ama Ata Aidoo – herself a distinguished editor and novelist – answers any queries we might have in two ways. First, she has assembled a distinguished cast that includes many prize-winners and notables including Nawal El Saadawi, Véronique Tadjo, Helen Oyeyemi, Wangui wa Goro and Sindiwe Magona to name a few.
Then she has selected an array of stories, which as she explains in her introduction are as:
Diverse, yet strangely linked as the continent they represent. Examined closely the dissimilarities are neither geographic nor ethnic, even when certain authors thought that they were exhibiting specific ethnic and cultural tendencies. This is not only because emotional naivety or pain and bewilderment are universal, but also because the collection exposes a general African landscape hat is uniformly bewildering in every vital aspect: social, political and economic.
The latter sentiment is echoed in Leila Aboulela’s stunning opener, ‘Something Old, Something New’ – the story of a Sudanese-Scottish mixed marriage that encapsulates all of the above and more. It begins:
Her country disturbed him. It reminded him of the first time he had held a human bone; the touching simplicity of it, the strength. Such was the landscape of Khartoum: bone coloured sky, a purity in the desert air, bareness.
Delicate, precise and achingly lyrical in its telling, ‘Something Old, Something New’ is a finely balanced piece, that explicates the personal and the political predicaments of its protagonists without judgement, Through the relationship, the author explores the dichotomies between East and West, Islam and Christianity (the groom is already a converted Muslim when he meets his fiancée in an English Edinburgh mosque) and poverty and wealth. None of the situations or characters conform to stereotypes; and while the boyfriend’s experience of his new adopted culture is often awkward, Aboulela writes with an assured grace that allows every complexity to stand alone:
He had thought, from the books he’d read and the particular British Islam he had been exposed to, that in a Muslim country he would find elegance and reason. Instead he found melancholy, a sensuous place, life stripped to the bare bones.
‘Life stripped to the bare bones’ is a phrase that applies to Sefi Atta’s “The Lawless’. Set in Nigeria in 1994, at the time of he Abacha regime, when ‘lawlessness’ tugged at every thread of society, it is the story of Ogun and his rag-tag band of fellow drama students; Crazehead, Professor, Fineboy and Shango, who all reside in Ogun’s family home. When the government closes down their university for some misdemeanour or other, the gang put on plays – often religious allegories and fold tales, hence ‘Shango’ – in the empty swimming pool and seek, unsuccessfully, funding from he Americans and the British Council.
Their world is precarious; their lives disrupted by social and political events more than any British student or citizen could ever comprehend. As Ogun puts it:
Armed robbers took over Lagos streets at night. They attached homes with machetes and guns. People swore some of them were university students – they spoke so well. The raids were a social revolution, I’d bragged at the time, not knowing I would be personally affected.
Ironically, we learn that this is the source of Ogun’s own tragedy: he comes from college one day to find his whole family has been wiped out by armed robbers.
Humour, whether ironic or shambolic, is one of this story’s distinguishing characteristics and Atta employs it to suit each situation with skill: ‘How can we ever have decent sex with rollers?’ I’d asked my last girlfriend. ‘I mean, can’t I ruffle up your hair once in a while?’ She said, as an African woman. She didn’t appreciate her hair being ruffled up. I complained and complained until she agreed. ‘Okay I’ll take them out, but after sex I’m rolling my hair up again.’
When out-of-work soap star Toyosi arrives on the scene with her baby daughter, the action steps up. The water is cut off, the baby gets ill and at Toyosi’s bidding, the gang becomes more ‘lawless’ than they ever imagined. Yet beneath the laughs—and there are many—there is sensitivity and pathos: “Toyosi smoothed the mattress with such diligence I knew she was scared. The child kicked weakly. I’d never seen a baby with cheekbones before.’
Of the twenty-two writers here, eight hail from Nigeria, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize winner Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, whose ‘Transition to Glory’ is a witty and poignant tale of a Lagos radio presenter who breaks down after the death of her lover. Affairs inevitably feature throughout the collection, whether thwarted or otherwise, from Yaba Badoe’s hilarious yet magical ‘The Rival’ to Blessing Musariri’s ‘Counting Down the Hours’. This is an effecting account of a 17-year-old Zimbabwean girl who, left at home alone by her parents who ‘share children and property – where neither of them resides – and little else’, embarks on an affair with a family friend. But there is a price to pay: a separation from self that Musariri expresses through metaphor, which the protagonist describes as being like ‘separating the yolk of an egg from the white’. Eventually we get the omelette, but not until a few eggs are broken.
These themes of isolation and at times degradation, from self and community, are most powerfully manifested in Doreen Baingana’s brilliant and quietly heartbreaking ‘Tropical Fish’ – the story of a Ugandan student’s relationship with an English businessman. While Christine is aware of Peter’s mercenary nature – ‘He paid next to nothing to the local fishermen, then sent the fish by tank to Britain for pet shops – very good profits’ – she is also complimented by his attention and allows herself to hope for more. But despite the ‘bubble baths, gin and tonics’ and ‘clean, airy white house’ that she gets to visit, there is never any relationship that goes beyond ‘ganga sex’. Baingana won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the collection of which this is the title story and it is small surprise. This deeply moving account describes not only the deterioration of a relationship and a young girl’s self esteem, but simultaneously addresses the colonial paradigm in all its complexity.
Given the enormity of the task in hand, Ama Ata Aidoo has done a sterling job. The collection has depth and diversity and while faithful to the theme, the stories are distinct and vibrant in tone, texture and content. Nawal El Saadawi’s 1978 classic ‘TheVeil’ is as timeless as Magona’s folkloric ‘Modi’s Bride’ as mystical and poetic as Oyeyemi’s magic realist ‘The Tell Tale Heart’; while Promise Oguchukwu’s “Needles of the Heart’ – a depressingly familiar account of a woman who endures a lifetime of domestic violence – confirms that life can begin at 80! Most experimental in terms of structure is Antjie Krog’s ‘Three Love Stories in Brackets’, whose explanatory note reminds us that:
The brackets are to say; women’s lives usually take place in brackets, in silence, in places we don’t know. They don’t tell you about it, someone else tells you about it. So now you have the stories about women told by others, but the brackets remind you that the voice you hear is not that of the women, it is the voice of others.
African Love Stories: An Anthology
Edited by Ama Ata Aidoo
Ayebia Clarke Publishing Limited (2006)
A quarter of a century after Alice Walker was lambasted for depicting a black lesbian relationship in The Color Purple, Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko won the 2007 Caine Prize for her story “Jambula Tree.” Written with deep poignancy, the author details the desire that forever marks the friendship between two schoolgirls.
“I just wanted to write about pure love…in a complex society,” said de Nyeko, 30, about her landmark achievement.
The saga is among many well-crafted tales in African Love Stories, edited by pioneering Ghanaian author Ama Ata Aidoo, “Love is at the bottom of nearly all earthly happenings,” she asserts in the Introduction. For a continent long burdened with damning images of violence, the volume is a vital counter-narrative that presents Africa as a landscape of tenderness, however unruly or complex.
Indeed, the book is a refreshingly devoid of couplings with blissful Hollywood endings. Consider “Deep Sea Fishing” by Kenyan writer Wangui wa Goro. The evocative story chronicles a pair on the brink of their first sexual encounter. As their passion rises, the woman reveals her pained history as a survivor of female circumcision. The author writers: “He had known that there was something significant troubling her, but not for one moment had he imagined that it would be this… He was proud that he had not acted adversely, that the need in his loins was not the only propulsion in his desire for her.”
“Marriage and Other Impediments” maps the emotional turmoil of a Nigerian woman soon to present her German fiancé to her family. “My mom jumped up… and started screaming in Yoruba,” writes Tomi Adeaga. “You want to kill me! Where is all this nonsense coming from?” …’How will I show my face in public,’ she screamed.”
Zimbabwean author Blessing Musariri explores an adulterous affair between a sassy teenager and a “constipated hippo” of a man in “Counting Down the Hours.” “The ‘s’ in seventeen doesn’t stand for stupid,” the protagonist declares. This winning collection celebrates the myriad faces of love in Africa.
Salt Spring Island, B.C., writer Evelyn C. White is the author of
Alice Walker: A Life.
After Heinemann stopped publishing new titles in its African Writers Series, commissioning editor Becky Ayebia Clarke took the chance to go it alone.
“ In the news about Africa, all you really hear about is the wars, the famines, the child soldiers. I’m not saying this doesn’t exist, but despite all the trouble, people still lead happy, full lives. And they do normal things like fall in love” Becky Ayebia Clarke, Ayebia Clarke Publishing Ltd.
In July, Banbury-based Ayebia Clarke Publishing made the pages of the Daily Graphic, Ghana’s biggest-selling newspaper, with the arresting headline: “Ghanaian Publisher Publishes Book on Lesbianism that Wins Major Award”. The paper related how the Caine Prize for African Writing, often called the “African Booker”, had been won by Monica Arac de Nyeko for “Jambula Tree”, a short story about a relationship between two girls that appeared in Ayebia’s African Love Stories: An Anthology edited by Ama Ata Aidoo (a prominent Ghanaian writer, critic and academic).
Becky Ayebia Clarke, a Ghanaian ex-pat and the publisher of Ayebia, shakes her head ruefully at the angle of the story. She says: “Same-sex relationships are still taboo in Africa. But perhaps we are moving to where we can have a grown-up debate about it when a story like ‘Jambula Tree’ wins a major award”.
Whatever the controversy in Ghana, the Caine Prize provided the independent publisher with some welcome publicity. The book, first published in 2006, went into its second reprint, and the publisher says sales worldwide of African Love Stories are nearing the 12,000 mark.
A former commissioning editor for Heinemann’s African Writers Series, Clarke founded her own company in 2003 with her husband David, and the first titles appeared in 2004. Ayebia has thus far released 10 books, consisting of African and Caribbean fiction and essays, and biographies of notable Africans. A further 10 titles are in the pipeline, including a series of critical essays on African writers and planned biographies of African footballers playing in the European Leagues including the Chelsea and Ghanaian footballer Michael Essien.
Clarke joined Heinemann—whose seminal African Writers list introduced such authors as Chinua Achebe to the UK—in 1991 as an editorial assistant, quickly rising to be series commissioning editor. She was made redundant in 2002, when Heinemann, in the series’ 40th anniversary year, decided not to commission any more new titles. “My world fell apart”, she says. “I came home and stayed in bed for three days”.
She recovered when an agent friend, unaware that Heinemann had decided to drop new work from the list, offered Clarke The Cry of Winnie Mandela, a novel by Njabulo S. Ndebele, then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town. “I thought: ‘I want to publish this book,’” she says. “I didn’t know if I had the means, but I was sure I was going to do it. I felt a surge of strength and confidence.
She and David, a retired university lecturer, got together about £35,000 from savings, her own redundancy package and Arts Council of England South East funding to start the company. The two remain its only employees (although they work with a list of freelance editors, typesetters, illustrators, web management team and a designer). “David does the figures and I do the creative side”, Clarke says.
The Caine Prize win came amid increased recognition of African writers in the UK. In April, the Orange Broadband Prize was awarded to Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for her novel Half of a Yellow Sun. In the same month, Achebe won the Man Booker International Prize for his great work Things Fall Apart, first published in 1958.
While careful not to overly criticise Heinemann—“I had 12 very, very happy years there”—Clarke feels vindicated by recent awards: “It seems odd to continue with a backlist when you are not commissioning new work. You need to be able to find new voices. But, it is good for me, because I am trying to position myself in the space vacated by Heinemann”.
Before the Caine Prize, Ayebia’s biggest boost was from the astute acquisition of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions from the Women’s Press. An African classic, it has sold over 22,000 copies in the UK and South Africa for Ayebia.
Given the make-up of Ayebia’s list, African and Caribbean studies courses are the company’s bread and butter. Ayebia is actively courting the US market too, recently signing a distribution deal with Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc. Africa is also a potentially huge market, albeit a problematic one, says Clarke. “Most of our sales to Africa are to ministries of education. The retail infrastructure isn’t there and sadly, there is not the great reading culture that there is in the West”.
In the UK, white middle-class women are Ayebia’s target audience. Part of the reason for publishing African Love Stories was to appeal to this demographic. Clarke says: “In the news about Africa, all you really hear about is the wars, the famines, the child soldiers. I’m not saying that this doesn’t exist, but despite all the trouble, people still lead happy, full lives. And they do normal things like fall in love.
Ultimately, what drives Clarke is finding new talent. She’s work the British Council’s Crossing Borders Online Magazine as an Editor, a collaboration between the British Council, Lancaster University and African partners, which mentors new African writers. The programme, although now closed has paid dividends, with Caine winner de Nyeko one of its graduates.
“When you open a manuscript that comes from Africa, often you can literally smell the wood smoke”, Clarke says. “These people are so committed that they have been writing in a home without electricity, by the light of kerosene lamps. It does break my heart if I have to turn them away, but that kind of passion is inspiring”.
Ama Ata Aidoo clearly sets out in the introduction the difficulty of an anthology of love stories. "One clear problem … is that the moment you describe anything as such, readers and audiences begin to look for the frivolous and the sentimental."
So begins this collection of short stories edited by Aidoo and written by female writers who live or have lived on, or have a links to the continent. As one reads on, one encounters the varied experiences of love conveyed by recognisable names such as Wangui wa Goro (who translated Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Matigari), Purple Hibiscus’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Antjie Krog, Molara Ogundipe and Helen Oyeyemi et al.
These tales are varied, necessarily so, and what comes out is the richness and diversity of African love experiences – if ever such a concept could be pigeon-holed in a specific locale. The stories range from the mountainous landscapes and old country near the southern tip of the African continent of Sindiwe Magona’s ‘Modi’s Bride,’ right up to Germany, in the heart of Europe. Where they are set in Europe, such as ‘Marriage and Other Impediments’ by Tomi Adeaga, what emerges is the reality of exile, how the protagonists deal with race and the negotiation and forging of new identities.
One such is ‘Something Old, Something New’ by Leila Aboulela, a moving tale of a Sudanese Muslim girl who is getting married to a Scottish convert to Islam. It tells how he negotiates his rites of passage through sheer patience and US dollar bills paid to a crooked brother-in-law to smooth the rugged road.
But it is ‘Transition to Glory’ by Adichie that stands out. This is as much a story of female rivalry as it is a paean to enduring love. Emotionally controlled, it is written in spare prose and easily achieves what it sets out to do: celebrate love.
In sum, this is an often-beautiful anthology of what one may describe as a comprehensive collection of the nebulous concepts that make up love. It tackles, with some success, varied themes like unrequited love, familial love, same-sex love, love across the colour line, religion, age and sexual love...
“We too love, we fall in love and love quite deeply, just like people in the West do, but do we ever really hear about that?” asks Ghanaian publisher Becky Ayebia Clarke.
Very rarely, she contends. And that’s why she has gathered a collection of short stories on love, from established and emerging writers from all over Africa.
Clarke has dreamt of this love anthology, African Love Stories, for a long time – infact, throughout her 12 years as editor of the highly regarded Heinemann African Writers Series. But one thing has always got in the way – most notably, other people’s reluctance to venture into what they have wrongly, according to Clarke, dismissed as frivolous, sentimental and unnecessary.
It is not that African writers cannot write about love, says fellow Ghanaian Ama Ata Aidoo, who edited Clarke’s new anthology. She reels off a list of moving, deeply emotional love stories: Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter, Ngugi wa Thiongo’s The River Between, her own Changes and Grace Ogot’s The Rain Came, a version of the classical love story motif from African oral traditions.
But, argues Aidoo, African writers have been reluctant to write about love, mainly because they have felt compelled to deal with so-called weightier issues such as poverty, corruption and incompetent leadership.
Having set up her own publishing house in 2003, Clarke has finally fulfilled her dream of publishing a book about love, what she passionately believes is a serious subject.
She has broken new ground. Have a trawl through any of Africa’s market stalls selling books and you will be hard-pressed to find anything but second-hand romance books of the saccharine-sweet type, set in Europe or the United States, without any African characters.
All the stories in the anthology are written by women. And none of the stories are either sentimental, inconsequential or riddled with clichés that more often than not are totally alien to most people’s experience of love.
So why was it important for Clarke to include only the stories of women writers?
“I wanted our women, the backbone of our societies, to talk about their feelings because it is not done often,” she says. “ Even in our traditional communities, it would probably be the men who would be encouraged to talk about their love for the woman. But for us women, we are encouraged not to air our feelings – it is just not done. But now it is time.”
Kenyan Wangui wa Goro, author of the short story Deep Sea Fishing, which is about two people who fall in love even though they have not spoken to each other, agrees: “I think there is a myth, an idea that people in Africa don’t enjoy love, don’t enjoy sex, that it’s not physical and that it’s not emotional and we don’t have the same feelings as everyone else in the world.
“This anthology gives us women’s voices talking about their desires, for the very first time as far as I am aware and doing so in a unique way,” she says.
These stories are very different to what people may expect and as Clarke challenges, “prepare to be surprised.”
They are very African and very modern and are full of complexities and intrigues – including an unexpected and brave twist in Goro’s Deep Sea Fishing when she introduces a taboo subject into an otherwise seemingly conventional love story: as a man and woman start making love, he discovers that her vulva has been stitched together. Despite her infibulation, he does not recoil. He still loves her and still wants to marry her.
Some stories in the anthology tackle young, requited love and rivalry, while some cross continents and racial boundaries.
In Marriage and Other Impediments by Nigerian Tomi Adeaga, a Nigerian woman falls in love with a white German man, much to the alarm of both families. She stands fast, refusing to bow to the pressure not to pursue the affair – but she does seek their blessing for the marriage, bowing before her father in the traditional way.
Other stories in the 21-story anthology focus on arranged marriage and one even tackles the subject of same-sex love.
In a continent where homosexuality is widely condemned, The Jambula Tree by Ugandan Monica Arac de Nyeko is a bold story about a childhood friendship between two girls that evolves into something more. What is interesting and courageous about the way she writes is that at no stage is either girl ashamed of their love, even though their families react harshly, sending one of the girls to live in London and their communities ridicule and despise them.
At the root of all these stories is the question of desire – and desire from the point of view of women. All stories defy what we consider to be normal. The characters have to battle with supposed norms, in terms of what they think, what they feel and what they want. To hear so loudly what women want for themselves, is refreshing.
Yaba Badoe is Ghanaian-British. Her story, The Rival, centres on the disruption to a happy marriage by the arrival into the household of the husband’s niece, who starts to make all sorts of demands as she vies for her uncle’s attention. She desires her uncle for the material possessions he can give her, an experience which many families in Africa go through as women, dependent on men for everything, compete with each other for scarce resources.
“Each of these stories reflects a norm, which is very diverse, because we come from a very complex continent with many different traditions,” says Badoe. “And we are actually making ourselves the subject of that story in a new way. That’s what I find really exiting about this anthology.”
Penny Dale is a BBC African Service producer.
The night Mrs Mensah dreamt of fruit bats in her garden, she knew that she was in trouble. Forcing herself awake, she whispered a prayer for guidance, for protection from the evils of the world, the machinations of her enemies. ‘Thy will be done, O Lord,’ she murmured in affirmation, folding her body against the frame of her husband, ‘Let thy will be done, Amen.’
Closing her eyes, Mrs Mensah tried to retrieve her dream. She relaxed her body, allowing her mind to drift once again. This time she was in control, her hand on a rudder she steered towards sleep. She believed that if she could return to what she had seen, she could undo it, repelling the bats from her trees, protecting herself and her husband.
For the rest of the night she tossed and turned, assailed by dark-winged moths. These she struck with a broom. But when she hit them, the moths became crows circling her garden. So Mrs Mensah flung stones at them and once again they became bats. Bats with sharp teeth that devoured everything as they rampaged through the garden: mangoes, sour-sop, guava, ripening avocado. They ravaged Mrs Mensah’s trees until there was no fruit left. Defeated, in tears, the woman awoke.
‘Well, at least I’ve been warned,’ she said valiantly, preparing herself for the day.
She chose her clothes carefully, putting on a faded bou-bou in pale blue and grey; colours selected to dispel envy, to show the world that, although still attractive at fifty-five, her appearance was not uppermost in her mind. Her attention was on higher things. Sitting on the veranda, a well-thumbed Bible on her lap, Mrs Mensah spent the day preparing for her dream to take human form.
“It did not occur to either of us that these were boundaries that we should not cross nor think of crossing…”
We were seated under the Jambula tree. It had grown so tall. The tree had been there for ages with its unreachable fruit. They said it was there even before the Estate houses were constructed. In April the tree carried small purple jambula fruit which tasted both sweet and tangy and turned our tongues purple. Every April morning, when the fruits started to fall, the ground became a blanket of purple.
When you came back during that holiday, your cheeks were bulging like you had hidden oranges inside them. Your eyes had grown small and sat like two short slits on your face. And your breasts, the two things you had watched and persuaded to grow during all your years at Nakawa Katale Primary School, were like two large jambulas on your chest. And that feeling that I had, the one that you had, that we had – never said, never spoken – swelled up inside us like fresh mandazies. I listened to your voice rise and fall. I envied you. I hated you. I could not wait for the next holidays when I could see you again. When I could dare place my itchy hand on your two jambulas.
That time would be a night, two holidays later. You were not shocked. Not repelled. It did not occur to either of us, to you or me that these were boundaries we should not cross nor think of crossing. Your jambulas and mine. Two plus two jambulas equals four jambulas – even numbers should stand for luck. Was this luck pulling us together? You pulled me to yourself and we rolled on the brown earth that stuck to our hair in all its redness and dustiness. There in front of Mama Atim’s house. She shone a torch at us. She had been watching. Steadily like a dog waiting for a bone it knew it would get; it just was just a matter of time.
Sanyu, I went for confession the next day, right after Mass. I made the sign of the cross and smelt the fresh burning incense in St Jude’s church. I had this sense of floating on air, confused, weak and exhausted. I told the priest, ‘Forgive me father for I have sinned. It had been two months since my last confession.’ And there in my head, two plus two jambulas equals four jambulas…
Mention African literature and these familiar themes and buzz words come to mind: post-colonial, war/conflict, poverty, disease, famine. So it comes as a total surprise when one encounters a collection of short stories titled African Love Stories and edited by Ama Ata Aidoo. Love, an idea and theme not often associated with Africa and the lives of its people. It is pleasing to see, listed in the contents, twenty-one stories penned by some of the best writers of the current African literary scene. The stories span the continent from Egypt, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Ghana to Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe and South Africa. As you scan the names of the writers; Aboulela, Adichie, Atta, Baigana, Coker, Magona, de Nyeko, Ogudipe, Oyeyemi, El Saadawi, Tadjo, wa Goro; the best surprise of all is revealed. All the stories are by African women.
The collection deals with the full gamut of love and loving; the process of falling in love, the joys and the pain, the illusions, the betrayals, the forbidden and the consequences. The cast of characters and their relationships are varied; opposite and same-sex lovers, parent and child, uncle and niece, native and foreigner, a citizen and her community. These stories are diverse, complex, nuanced as the African continent. However, each character’s love plays out against the familiar African issues of socio-economic inequalities and political upheavals. Yet, the stories reveal dissimilar reactions against the familiar terrain. Proponents of the notion of the ‘one African story, of a ‘real Africa will be disappointed. For this collection shows Africa in all its colors and complexities.
This is a collection with something for everyone. All the stories are beautifully crafted and most are exquisitely told. Some are heart-breaking, some are joyful, but all take unexpected turns. Like Africa, they can turn on a dime; you might cry and then laugh till your stomach aches. Some of my favorites stories in the collection include:
The Rival by Yaaba Badoe. A story of matrilineal allegiance and love in which the rival of a wife turns out not to be any woman but surprisingly, his fourteen-year-old niece.
At night, the bitterness in her heart turning her blood to bile, Mrs Mensah dreamt of fruit bats, while the child in the corridor, imagining that she was ruler of the house, delighted in having her uncle at her beck… Ever watchful, Mrs Mensah felt the chord running between her husband and niece thickening, growing plumb as a maggot; she felt the fruit of her labour withering as the child’s teeth, becoming sharp and strong, revealed the strength of her desire.
Jambula Tree by Monica Arac de Nyeko deals with a relationship full of promise between two young girls and the consequences when their friendship strays into forbidden territories.
You said it yourself, we could be anything. Anything coming from your mouth was seasoned and alive. You said it to me, as we sat on a mango tree branch. We were not allowed to climb trees, but we did, and there, inside the green branches, you said – ‘we can be anything’.
Give Us That Spade by Molara Ogundipe in which a young woman courageously claims her rights to a dead father, who had failed in life to recognizes her as his child. A story of transformation and identity.
A Sunny Afternoon by Véronique Tadjo in which a woman completely misreads a situation and conjures up a relationship with a man who turns out to be unavailable.
He shouldn’t have shown her his home…. And he should definitely not have taken her to his bedroom. A bedroom is an intimate space. It is the place where you hide your soul, your secrets, and your vulnerability. Only a few carefully chosen people are normally allowed it.
Possessing the Secret of Joy by Chika Unigwe describes a young woman who plots to leave her husband but is betrayed by the joys of motherhood.
Modi’s Bride by Sindiwe Magona tells of a warrior’s love for his chosen bride. It is the only neo-traditional story in the collection.
In this collection, the African woman exposes her strength and her ability to hope and survive, a reality often overlooked for a more convenient portrayal as victim. The publisher, Ayebia, describes the collection as a ‘radical departure from conventional anthologies’ and I wholeheartedly agree. A highly recommended collection.
African love stories? Is that an anomaly? We are tempted to ask this with Ama Ata Aidoo of the book that she edits. As we ask, we wonder what will happen to us if we step into this world. Will we meet the people we expect to meet: the drunken, cheating husbands and the cowed, abused wives? The stereotypes?
Leave your expectations aside. Bring with you nothing but a healthy amount of curiosity. For stretching from Sudan to South Africa, with Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and much of Africa in-between, we see love in the most diverse ways imaginable.
We meet the beautiful Sudanese bride-to-be of a Scottish man with whom she would love to ride off into the sunset. But she must first obtain a visa. We meet Mrs Mensah, whose marriage is threatened by her niece. We congratulate Moriyike, the defiant love child of a union that is never legitimised. We follow two Ugandan girls, Anyango and Sanyu, whose love for each other forces them apart.
From interracial unions and queer relationships to unrequited love and extra-marital affairs, we begin to see just how multi-faceted African love is. But if the themes are diverse, the authors and their writing styles are even more so.
Ama Ata Aidoo puts her own short story in her introduction to the anthology, giving this unconventional and surprising love story a deadpan tone in simple but effective language.
Chimamanda Adichie comes with her own combination of everyday actions accompanied by deep reflection. Sefi Atta brings to her own tale a slight obscurity that makes us have to work to figure out how it fits in with the overarching theme of love. Tomi Adeaga’s conversational style draws us in, Pidgin English, German and all.
And the superb cast of writers, some well known and others upcoming, give the reader different experiences until we get to Helen Oyeyemi’s 'The Telltale Heart', and here we must stop.
We stop, not because it’s the final story in the anthology, but because 'The Telltale Heart' is a most striking story. The anthology thus far leaves the reader happy to realise that African love stories are very real, unlike the usual perfect-protagonists, perfect-timing, ride-off-into-the-sunset tales we associate with love stories.
Oyeyemi’s piece is the closest we come to 'unreal', but not in the sense of fake. Instead her powerful imagery take us into a very different realm, that of the surrealist rendering of a story that leaves us wondering why we ever thought love was only about the mundane.
This piece carries us along and wraps us up in words that we have to read twice, three times over only to realise that we cannot form complete images of the characters or the places or the story even.
We cannot rely solely on our imaginations to visualise things, her words must be our crutch if we are to understand the young man born with eyes like a famine and the young woman who must leave her heart in a love shrine, for it is too heavy for her.
'The Telltale Heart' stands out as a strangely oppressive yet beautifully written story that leaves us floating in the abstract clouds of love and pain and death.
And then as we move on to Veronique Tadjo and Chike Unigwe, and eventually close the anthology with Wangui wa Goro, we realise that our notion of 'African love' as existing only in the harsh realities of life is in itself a stereotype.