Friday, June 3, 2011

The Idlewild Discussion on the African experience

I finally made it to a book club meeting. I've missed the past THREE, and my literary life has seemed so lacking as a result. For this month, we read The Shadow of the Sun by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski.

Kapuscinski first spent time in Africa in 1957, when colonial rule was ending and countries were fighting for independence and learning to govern themselves. His career as the African correspondent to a Polish newspaper brought him back to Africa over and over again for the next 40 years as he traveled throughout the most poverty-stricken, destitute countries, delving deep into the "real," everyday experience in the Africa that is far off the radar. The Shadow of the Sun is a compilation of essays previously published, melded together to form a cohesive novel, that offers brief snapshots into different moments and locations in African history. Some is written as a memoir, some as a history lesson.

The best statement I took away from this book is this, Kapuscinski's introduction:

"This is...not a book about Africa, but rather about some people from there—about encounters with them, and time spent together. The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say "Africa." In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist."

This book just further confirmed that...I know nothing about Africa. Despite having close friends who have spent significant time in various countries, hearing their stories, seeing their pictures, it is not a concept I can fully wrap my head around. I can't imagine an area so vast and so lacking in resources. I took two main things away from this book: (a) Africa is hot. (b) The African mentality is completely contrasting to Western thought. For instance, the concept of distance is measured in time, but time is not the structured, independent variable it is to us. Stuff happens when it happens, on a schedule completely of its own.

If this book was trying to answer a question, I would say that question is this: Why is Africa the way it is? And similarly: Why is it so hard to change that?

I'm interested on your experiences with Africa. Ever been? Ever studied it? Read any other Africa-centric books?


Amy said...

If you are interested in African lit I would recommend Kinna:, Geosi:, and Nana: All three are based in Ghana and regularly promote African literature. I myself do Nigerian lit every Friday and try to read from other countries as well.

I would definitely agree that Africa as an entity isn't something easily discussed. There are many countries, many languages, many completely different situations, you really can't generalize with much success. There are some great nonfiction books that give overviews of the various countries which might be a good starting point.  

Kari said...

Thanks for those links, Amy! I don't seem to read many international book blogs. These will be welcome additions.

Your point about generalization is a good one. The book, and reactions to it that I have read, make a similar point—that discussion on Africa ends up primarily consisting of generalizations, which is unfair and a hard trend to break.

softdrink said...

I've never been to Africa, and I have to confess it's not on my list of travel plans. I read The Black Nile and found it pretty interesting, although it's mostly about the Sudan (and is more of a travel memoir laced with some history). I know Paul Theroux has written a few books on travelling in Africa, but I have yet to read them.

Nicola said...

I'd love to visit Africa.  Two of my favourite novels are Out of Africa and The Poisonwood Bible.  I'm interested in this book, thanks for the review.

chatterrrbox said...

Do check out CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE's Half of a Yellow Sun, and The Purple Hibiscus.I loved both.