Reading to unveil the inner life of Africa.
Alexandra Fuller’s wonderful memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight drew readers into the true story of her African upbringing with unflinching honesty and surprising humor. Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, her new book, goes back a generation to her parents’ childhoods and the honeymoon period they enjoyed before their lives were upended by violence and hardship. This week, Fuller recommends two works of non-fiction that illuminate facets of the African experience as well as a volume of poetry.
By Binyavanga Wainaina
“An earthbound, laugh-out-loud Bildungsroman by an East African writer whose work, until now, has appeared only in periodicals and magazines. In his first full-length work, Binyavanga Wainaina proves that he is more than ready for front-and-center space on the shelf. His style is so heady and self-assured (think early V. S. Naipaul and Junot Díaz) that it breaks the rules of language and grammar and in so doing asks the very good questions: What were the rules anyway, and who the heck made them? The son of a Ugandan mother and a Gikuyu Kenyan father, Wainaina writes about being addicted to trashy novels and his obsession with his ‘five pimples’ even as Africa falls apart: apartheid violently dissolves; independent African nations turn to civil war; bodies pile up in the streets of Nairobi, Johannesburg, Kigali. ‘We are afraid to be inside the house,’ Wainaina writes the week of Jomo Kenyatta’s death. ‘Shapeless accordion forces have attacked the universe.’”
By Helene Cooper
“Helene Cooper, now the New York Times White House correspondent, grew up in Liberia, West Africa. The privileged descendant of two Liberian dynasties that could trace their heritage back to the first ship of freed slaves to have set sail from New York for West Africa in 1820, Cooper grew up in a 22-room mansion near Monrovia oblivious — as were most of her friends and family — to the growing unrest that threatened to upturn her own life and precipitate one of the most infamously violent conflicts in modern Africa. Then on April 12, 1980, ‘native Liberian enlisted soldiers, led by twenty-eight year old Master Sgt. Samuel Kanyon Doe, stormed the executive Mansions.’ Cooper’s uncle was one of eleven incumbent politicians assassinated by firing squad during the first days of the coup; her mother was raped by Doe’s soldiers; the family was forced to flee, back to the country that had first enslaved and then ‘freed’ their ancestors: America.”
By Dean Young
“I rarely read a book of poetry from cover to cover in a single sitting, but Young is addictive and finger-on-the-pulse; reminiscent of both Frank O’Hara’s insouciant impertinence and of Wislawa Szymborska’s existential jigsaw-making. Take these lines from Young’s brief, gorgeous poem, Late Valentine: ‘We weren’t exactly children again,/ too many divorces, too many blood panels,/ but your leaning into me was a sleeping bird./ Sure, there was no way to be careful enough,/ even lightening can go wrong but when the smoke/ blows off, we can admire the work the fire’s done….’ What reader of a certain age with a few heartbreaks and one or two late-night conversations with mortality under their belts won’t find a way to sink into the discomforting, gentling truth of that sentiment?”