2015 booklist – into AfricaPosted: January 2, 2016
With a trip to South Africa planned for the end of 2015, books about Africa, and South Africa in particular, dominated this year’s reading list.
The best of the lot was Rian Malan’s My Traitor Heart. Malan, a South African journalist writes and observes, documents and reflects on Apartheid from the vantage point of someone who carries the weight of the sins of his fathers. He does not for a minute take any undo credit for his anti-apartheid stand, no pats on the back, and is completely honest about his own struggles with biases and conflicts and his place of privilege. It reminded me in some ways of My Promised Land, only 10 times better and much more honest.
Richard Dowden’s Africa: Altered states, ordinary miracles covers the continent as a whole, with each chapter devoted to a country or issue. Dowden, a British journalist, has been coverings Africa since the 1960s and offers both access and insight. There were not that many miracles and the overall sense is rather depressing and hopeless. Everyone got it wrong about Africa, from the colonists, through the super-powers, the aid organizations and the national governments. It’s a hot mess where no-one is spared responsibility (except maybe some missionaries) and good intentions can not redeem.
African fiction complemented the non-fiction readings and mostly demonstrated that real people live in these countries and while they are never really removed from politics, the everyday activities that dominate their lives are very much those of young people elsewhere.
S.J. Naudé, The alphabet of birds is a series of interconnected stories about mostly young South Africans, moving between countries and struggling with national, personal and sexual identity and their place in the world.
NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names is a story of a young girl growing up in Zimbabwe in a shantytown with no indoor plumbing and singing Lady Gaga. It enforces some of Dowden’s thoughts on the role of NGO’s in African countries and like all the other books on Africa, turned upside-down my notions on good-bad, home, desired outcomes, personal and national responsibility, and what one can do to help.
While each book was excellent, I was left feeling despondent and ashamed of my pathetic attempts to help by buying books from Better World Books. It turns out that sending our discarded books to African libraries may not be such a good idea after all. First, it fills the shelves with, at best, children’s books that have nothing to do with the African experience, and at worse, with useless 2004 Excel manuals that local libraries are loathe to discard since the book as an object is given high status and weeding the collection is not common practice. In addition, it turns out the donating books to local libraries undermines the local publishing industry that are producing high quality books that are more relevant to the local population.
Africa aside, I read a total of 30 books in 2015, 20 in print, 10 on the kindle, 16 from the library, many many good ones. In addition to the ones described above, the best literary fiction: Rachel Cusk, Outline. The funniest (humor is really hard to achieve and when done right it’s so wonderful) was Julie Schumacher, Dear committee members. Deserving of the credit it received is Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the world and me and the classic that I missed and glad I caught up on is Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the art of archery as well as Death in Venice.