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If there were a printing press in Africa for every poem or story an American has written about the continent, perhaps American University professor Charles Larson wouldn’t have needed to put together Under African Skies, an anthology of short stories by Africa’s best authors.
In the ’70s, Larson edited two smaller anthologies of African literature, which laid the foundation for this much more comprehensive collection. “I wanted to give the historical perspective of almost half a century of African short fiction, from a geographic and a linguistic perspective,” says Larson. The new book features 26 writers from 17 countries, everyone from Bessie Head to Ben Okri. The bulk of the stories were originally written in English, but some are translated from the Portuguese, French, or Arabic.
At the same time books by American writers detailing their experiences in Africa fill bookstores and best-seller lists, African writers have had an exceedingly difficult time getting their work published, let alone distributed and read. On top of these logistical difficulties, African writers typically face a high degree of political oppression. Recall the brazen execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, one of Nigeria’s most prominent writers and activists, less than two years ago.
“Buying a book or a magazine is a luxury item. In some of these countries the per capita income in $300,” states Larson. “If [Chinua Achebe’s] Things Fall Apart is $10, then one-30th of your yearly income is spent buying one of these books.” Last year, Nigerian Wole Soyinka’s latest book cost about 4,000 nairaabout $50more than the average government worker’s monthly salary.
On a different front, Larson, who is currently researching a book to be called The African Writer and getting ready to publish his fourth novel, had to overcome difficulties in bringing African literature to American readers. When he initiated the first African literature course over 30 years ago, he faced uninterested, uninformed students and outright resistance from his colleagues. When he gave them books to read, “The professors would say, ‘This isn’t any good.’ That’s what they’d say about Chinua Achebe. ‘He uses English differently than I do.’” To which Larson would reply, “Well, he should!”
“The best writers in the English language are not from England. They are from Africa, from India,” says Larson. “That’s been difficult for a lot of Westerners to accept.”Holly Bass