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The Best African Novels

recommended by Blessing Musariri

Only This Once Are You Immaculate by Blessing Musariri

OUT ON NOVEMBER 18th

Only This Once Are You Immaculate
by Blessing Musariri

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"We are connected to the spirit and it's an active connection. It's not somewhere that’s only in the afterlife, it's here in the present as well. That, I think, is endemic across all African cultures and traditions," says Zimbabwean novelist and poet Blessing Musariri. Here she recommends some of the best African novels, books that had a big personal impact and have stayed with her.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Only This Once Are You Immaculate by Blessing Musariri

OUT ON NOVEMBER 18th

Only This Once Are You Immaculate
by Blessing Musariri

Read
Buy all books

We’re talking about African novels—Sub-Saharan African, to be more specific. Before we talk about the books individually and why you chose them, can you tell me a bit about African novels in general?

I only started reading African novels when I went to university, from the age of about 18 upwards. That’s when I started realizing that I should probably try and read more African books, because our school system here in Zimbabwe is very British. We studied Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens, so I grew up knowing those authors: they were the mainstream, the classics you needed to have read. We had the African classics—Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe—but we were not taught them at the school that I went to, so I wasn’t really exposed to them. It was quite an awakening for me when I started getting into the literary scene, which wasn’t until maybe my late 20s: I felt so ignorant of literature from Africa. And I think there’s a certain stage where, if you don’t read certain books at school, it becomes a mission that you have to read them. It’s not necessarily out of pleasure anymore, but out of a sense of obligation: ‘How can I be in this space without knowing these writers and their stories—our stories?’ You start to realize, ‘Gosh, I’ve grown up with a completely one-sided mindset, about my own continent, the place where I come from.’

The only writer of note I did know growing up was Tsitsi Dangarembga. I had read Nervous Conditions in my teens because I’d heard a lot about it. It was one of the books that made it into the mainstream very early on. She was the first Zimbabwean woman published in English and it came out around the time I was reading independently and starting to widen my horizon. The book was a big deal.

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Now there is so much to read that I have to read very purposefully. I don’t think, ‘Oh, this is an interesting book. Why don’t I pick it up?’ I think, ‘I now must read this book. Everybody’s talking about this writer. I must also read about this writer and stay up to date’. But it’s a huge undertaking, especially now because African writing has become quite mainstream. Before, it wasn’t, it was quite a specialist thing.

When I think of the time The Famished Road came out, Ben Okri’s novel, that was a big book out of Africa. I’m sure other people who were already in the world of African literature would have different viewpoints but, for me, that was my first book. It opened my mind up to what was possible with African literature in the mainstream, and I think that’s probably why I picked it as one of the best books.

Yes, The Famished Road won the Booker Prize in 1991, probably the most prestigious prize for a novel in the English language. Tell me more about it.

It was the beginning of African literature getting a space in Western literary culture and it was very impactful on me because it told stories that I hadn’t come across before. It’s the story of a spirit child, and Africa has a strong spiritual tradition. In fact, our whole culture is based on a lot of spiritual practice. It’s not necessarily Christianity, but it’s a part of our life, of our connection to our ancestral roots. It goes with the stories that we tell. The folk tales we grow up listening to, and stories about our own relatives and family, defy our understanding of reality. The things that happened, the things we do, why we follow certain traditions: a lot is based in our spiritual beliefs.

“I actually realized, in retrospect, that I chose three books about war”

When this book came out I was, like, ‘Wow! I get this, this speaks to me, it makes a lot of sense.’ As a child, growing up, people always said to me, ‘You have the wildest imagination.’ But to me, a lot of my imagination didn’t feel like imagination. It felt like what was going on in my head, it was part of my reality. It’s not necessarily not real, just because other people don’t have the same experiences as I do. And I was a very lucid dreamer. I had this life that was so…I can’t even explain it. I just lived in my head and my imagination, and it spilled over into my real life and into my dream life. So, when I read The Famished Road, it felt like a reality I understand, about the spirit child moving in and out of the world.

I gather that in Nigeria these spirit children are known as abiku, they’re the souls of children who have died before reaching maturity. Do you think you need to understand local folklore to appreciate the novel?

I don’t think you need to at all. It’s a story. You just have to be open to believing the story, or not even believing it, just being able to appreciate it, to find something in it that appeals to you—even if it’s just the language or the cadence of the words. Whatever it is, so long as you find something in that story that works for you, you don’t have to know everything. I don’t know everything about every novel that I read. Some novels will obviously hit differently than others, based on your own personal experiences and your mindset.

Also, presumably traditional beliefs vary a lot across Africa: in Nigeria they aren’t the same traditions as in Zimbabwe.

No, they’re not. It’s just the simple principle that we are connected to the spirit and it’s an active connection. It’s not somewhere that’s only in the afterlife, it’s here in the present as well. That, I think, is endemic across all African cultures and traditions.

Having introduced the spirit world, I feel several of the African novels you’ve chosen—correct me if I’m wrong—introduce events in African history, including very recent history. Let’s talk about Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna next, which is set in the aftermath of the Sierra Leone Civil War. Is that why you picked it, for readers to learn about these important events?

It’s not so much about the events, it’s about the personal stories from the events. I’ve always been about the personal in my own stories, which is why I tend not to write political fiction. If I am writing about politics it’s always in the background, it’s always about how it’s affecting my characters at a micro level. That is why I picked Memory of Love.

I actually realized, in retrospect, that I chose three books about war. I know I have this fascination with war because even my book, Only This Once Are You Immaculate, is set in a time of war, there are wars happening, and the landscape is a war landscape. I was thinking about it last night, and I realized that it might have something to do with my own experience of war, which was not very direct. I was born three years before the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe began, and my parents were quite active in it. My father was helping the guerrilla fighters, who were considered terrorists. My memory of war is when my parents were arrested. I remember these plainclothes policemen coming to the house and taking my mother away. They planted a letter on her and said, ‘Oh, you’ve got this letter from xxx.’ I was there when she was taken away. It was a very dark time after that, I remember a lot of darkness. I was with my aunts and my siblings and we were always in the dark in the house, for some reason. I remember going to see my mother and taking her food when she was in the stockade. I could see her from the car, and they were behind this fence. So I think maybe, somewhere along the line, I have had a passive trauma from the war.

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Even when I did my Master’s, my dissertation was on the role of the military in African politics. War is so rife in Africa, there’s always a war somewhere. For me, it’s just trying to rationalize why it happens and, when it happens, what are the effects? Just the fact of taking lives. It’s like a fear: I have this fear of being in an actual war situation, even though what I know of it is always on the periphery.

Maybe this is why personal stories really, really interest me, because this is the real effect of war, not so much soldiers on the battlefield, but how everybody else is affected by it. I like a close look, putting lives under a microscope and really examining what is happening with people within that space. And that’s exactly what Memory of Love does.

Tell me a bit more about the novel and the story it tells.

It’s about Adrian Lockhart who is a psychologist in Sierra Leone and talking to Elias Cole, who is telling his story. Adrian also befriends a doctor. The doctor is trying to heal people physically affected by the war, whereas Adrian is trying to deal with those people affected psychologically. So it encompasses both aspects of the effects of war.

Ultimately it was quite a personal story of Elias Cole, who I didn’t like very much, who he was in the telling of his story. But the way the story sort of unravels…I was particularly intrigued by the mother’s state of ‘fugue’, where she shuts off and loses her sense of space and time. That was really interesting for me, because I’m also interested in psychology, what makes people who they are and how they behave, and what affects them.

The fugue state was a response to the war?

Yes. It’s the unravelling of things that affect all the people in the story. You don’t just hear, ‘Oh, this happened, and this happened, and this happened.’ It’s a very close study of what is happening with the person and then a revelation of why that is happening. I thought that was masterfully done, it was very well-crafted. There was always something at the end of the character’s story that you discovered, and made you think, ‘Wow’. I thought it was a very strong piece of storytelling.

Let’s go on to the next novel, which is Burma Boy. This is by Biyi Bandele who is a Nigerian writer.

Burma Boy made me laugh a lot. I really enjoyed the book because it felt lighthearted. The character was so funny—I loved that the language was so specific to him. And it didn’t try and make it easy for you. It took me a while, as I was reading, before I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what he saying! He’s been saying ‘general’’. These wonderful little surprises like that, it’s like a little puzzle to work on with the language while you’re reading the story. I like the quirky, funny characters. It’s a very serious setting, but I can imagine that dark humor being very real—because I see it every day here in Zimbabwe. Our circumstances can be so dire, but people are still always finding something humorous in the situation. I love that.

The main character, Ali Banana, is Nigerian. How does he end up in Burma during World War II?  

He’s a young boy who lies about his age and gets recruited into the African contingent of the army that was being sent to fight for Britain. So he goes to Burma with all the other soldiers. It’s about his experiences in the war, in the barracks in Burma, and his comrades and people from different parts of Nigeria that he meets while he’s there.

Why I picked this book is because I never knew this about World War Two. We studied Hitler and Mussolini and the Allied forces. I knew that history inside out, and this was just not there: it was never part of the history that I learned. It suddenly made me realize that we’re completely missing from the history that we’re taught. We study what is called ‘contemporary world history’ but this is a story I had to discover.

And why did I discover it? Because an African wrote it. That made me realize that we’re not there if we’re not writing our own stories. It’s the first time I realized the importance of that. It made me look around and see people very differently because I realized that we think of our stories as anecdotes, folktales, urban legends, things that we just talk about amongst ourselves. Other people do know about it, and some people will write about it—usually academics—but it’s not out there in the mainstream. That’s what this book opened my eyes up to and made it, for me, a very important book. It’s a very accessible read. It’s not huge. It’s not laden down by a lot of history. It’s a story about people.

I was wondering, when I first saw the title, how Burma Boy could be an African novel. Apparently, Biyi Bandele’s father was in the King’s African Rifles, fighting in the Burmese jungle.

Yes. I then learned that one of our farmworkers fought in World War II, in one of the African regiments. He was very old, 90 something. I didn’t know that growing up, or early enough to sit down and try and find out his story.

Let’s go on to Half of a Yellow Sun now, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, another Nigerian writer. Are the Nigerians very strong when it comes to African fiction?

Yes, they dominate the literary space. I did struggle with my pick of books because I realized that I chose three, but the Nigerians really are out there. You can’t move without bumping into a Nigerian novel and quite a good one at that. They’re very accomplished. Also, they’re still very connected to their culture. That’s what makes the big difference. The storytelling is very rich and still very grounded in an African-ness. They have a certain confidence, I think, in the way they write their stories.

Tell me about Half of a Yellow Sun and why you chose it.

This is a story about a family during the Biafran war, focusing on twin sisters. They get caught up in the war, and they get separated. It’s about the political landscape at the time, and how it affected this family. I was very impressed by the breadth of the story and the work that went into writing it, the historical research that Chimamanda did, and how she managed to make fact into fiction. That, for me, craft wise, was such a big achievement. It stayed factual, even though it was fiction. That’s why I chose it and that’s why I liked it. I was very impressed by it as a work of literature.

In terms of the story, I didn’t feel it was an amazing personal story, but it was interesting.

The Biafran war happened before I was born, but I didn’t learn about it till I was around 30. I remember an older journalist being horrified I didn’t know about it, because the conflict had such an impact globally. Here, again, maybe a novel is a way of learning about an important piece of history?

If you’re invested in reading about the Biafran war, this book is very accessible. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know about it either. That’s not surprising because I didn’t know about a lot, my worldview was very narrow. This is why works like this stand out to me.

It was turned into a movie, wasn’t it?

Yes. Funnily enough, by Biyi Bandele.

Your novel is about twins as well, isn’t it? Twins are quite special in African culture, aren’t they?

It is and I only just realized that! It depends on where you are: in some areas they’re considered bad luck and in others they’re considered good luck. For me, twins have always been fascinating, because I just had it in my mind, all my life, that I was meant to be a twin. This is actually not even my first story about twins, I have another story, which I haven’t finished, that’s about twins as well. I think, for me, it’s the possibility that two people could be connected telepathically, emotionally and spiritually, and there’s no need for them to speak. If we’re connected in the spirit, then communication is at that level. For me, I wanted to look at how would that play out as a reality, two people who believe they’re one person, but to the outside world, and according to our construct that we know, they’re two people. That’s what I played with.

“We’re not there if we’re not writing our own stories”

I’ve always asked, ‘Who made that rule? Why do they say we have to do this? Why is this like this?’ I’ve always asked those questions. I always want to know why I’m being told a certain thing, and why we believe certain things. Where did it start? So I just wanted to imagine starting from the very beginning, where we’re not told anything. This is what my twins are, characters who know absolutely nothing of world constructs. They are completely connected to spirit and as they emerge from this place, where they’re born and grew up, they now have to navigate a world which has rules and laws and ways of being that have been put in place over time. Nobody knows why, but it’s just how it is. People have just accepted.

Where is it set?

It’s set in quite a stylized East Africa. I used the terrain of the East African continent because it had everything that I needed: mountains, desert landscapes, seascapes, ports. Also, simply because of my original intent to write about pirates. When I started writing, the setting just kind of worked with the story and it felt right.

I borrowed influences from all parts, the stories and histories. I made it to Ethiopia for a day and I have been in Uganda, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zanzibar. I used a lot of the influences of those places in how I constructed my setting.

Lastly, you’ve chosen an anthology of writing by talented writers from across Africa, Opening Spaces: Contemporary African Women’s Writing. It’s edited by the late Zimbabwean novelist Yvonne Vera.

I loved this book. I don’t really like short stories. I just never understood the form. Even as a writer, I find them very difficult to write. They’re very challenging. I feel you can’t just write a story that’s not long and call it a short story: it has to have a certain technique to it. I’d read some short stories, but it was never pleasurable for me until I came across this anthology. Suddenly, there were good stories. There were stories about women that I knew, stories that I heard in my everyday life, women in spaces that I inhabit. I liked that it was contemporary, it appealed to my sense of who I am as a woman in African spaces.

I remember particularly liking a story by a Zimbabwean writer, Melissa Tandiwe Myambo. This was before I started really writing contemporary fiction (I used to write children’s stories and fantasy fiction) but I knew her. Her story is called “Deciduous Gazettes” and the title alone I loved, the way ‘deciduous’ rolls off the tongue. It’s such a fantastic word. It’s a story about women and regular scandals in Harare. I read it and it was like someone was telling me the story and it was written well. That’s the thing, a lot of writers today, especially younger ones, think they can just write a story and say it’s good because they’re a writer.

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There’s also Leila Aboulela’s story ‘The Museum’. I love her style of writing: very mature, very nuanced, very elegant. There’s a quiet beauty in her writing. This book introduced me to her and I actually went and bought her collection, which I also really loved, called Coloured Lights.

I felt that it was a very apt title—Opening Spaces—because that’s exactly what it did. For me, it opened up the space for women’s voices. I felt I wanted to start writing these kinds of stories because I’ve got a lot of them I would like to tell. This book is how I got started writing, it prompted me to look at short stories as a form, I think specifically because Zimbabwean writing was included. I just thought it was a good collection overall.

We’ve been talking about African novels, and you’ve mentioned a Zimbabwean short story. Is there no Zimbabwean novel that you love?

I did question my loyalty. I thought to myself, ‘Am I obliged to pick a Zimbabwean novel because I’m a Zimbabwean?’ A lot of people would have probably picked a Dambudzo Marechera or Yvonne Vera herself. If I was going to pick one, it would be Nervous Conditions, and maybe I should have. But it’s also about the mental space I was in when I started seriously reading African novels. I think that affected my choices: how much impact these novels had because when they came out and what was happening in the world of African literature at the time. I won’t pander to popular opinion by saying, ‘So-and-so is a great writer’ if I don’t feel their work spoke to me.

Chinua Achebe doesn’t feature on your list of African novels either. Is that because he’s too well-known?

It’s not so much that he is too well-known, but it becomes obligatory at some point. I think we can all agree that Chinua Achebe’s books are classics, and they’ve been talked about a lot. So I think if I was going to bring them up as part of a list, I would want them to have had a specific impact on my own literary journey or to mean something to me in some personal way. I don’t dispute everybody who says they’re great, and love them, and they should be up there. I don’t dispute it at all. But if we’re talking about my personal choices, I will speak to what I personally enjoyed the most and what informs my own personal reading journey.

Only This Once Are You Immaculate by Blessing Musariri is published by flipped eye on 18th November.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Blessing Musariri

Blessing Musariri

Blessing Musariri is an award-winning author of short stories, children's stories, radio and screenplays and contemporary adult fiction. She currently resides in Zimbabwe. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in various anthologies including Sunflowers in Your Eyes, Women Writing Zimbabwe, Writing Free and Writing Lives. Her work has been published by the Guardian, Granta, Poetry International, and her poem "Holding On" was read out on the BBC World Service Christmas Special 2005.

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Blessing Musariri

Blessing Musariri

Blessing Musariri is an award-winning author of short stories, children's stories, radio and screenplays and contemporary adult fiction. She currently resides in Zimbabwe. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in various anthologies including Sunflowers in Your Eyes, Women Writing Zimbabwe, Writing Free and Writing Lives. Her work has been published by the Guardian, Granta, Poetry International, and her poem "Holding On" was read out on the BBC World Service Christmas Special 2005.