18 February 2010

Black Sunlight Available Again

I was excited to discover that Dambudzo Marechera's bizarre, beautiful, disturbing, and utterly unique book Black Sunlight is now available again in what looks like a handsome edition from Penguin as part of their new African Writers Series.  It's an even wilder book than the novel Marechera is best known for, House of Hunger, and because of that fact it hasn't gotten the same attention, but Black Sunlight deserves as much notice.  If you're curious for a taste of the prose, I've quoted it here on the blog in the past.

I discovered that the book is available again when I read Akin Ajayi's commentary at The Guardian's Book Blog, "Penguin's African Writers Series is stuck in the past" (via The Literary Saloon).  Ajayi makes the case that the five books being released in the U.K. to inaugurate the new series are all at least 15 years old (a sixth book, Karen King-Aribisala's The Hangman's Game, is part of the series in South Africa, but not available [yet] in the U.K. or U.S.; it is more recent), and this presents an odd contrast to the accomplishments of the original African Writers Series from Heinemann, which made hundreds of contemporary African works available to a wide audience.

Ajayi's general point is an important one, and one I expect Penguin is aware of, given their sponsorship of the Penguin Prize for African Writing -- they do seem interested in new writers and new writing, and I would not be surprised to learn that the decision to start with older books had something to do with a desire to launch the series with titles that already have some name recognition.  I have a very different view of literature than Ajayi, though, who writes:
I don't have anything against the selection itself, it's just that it's hard to see what the selection can tell the curious reader about lives lived across Africa today. These books can't say much about the challenges of globalisation, migration, or the struggle by the citizens of Africa's 53 countries to form an authentic identity, because these books are not of the moment. Classics, yes; contemporary, no. And in this sense at least, the new AWS disappoints.
There's lots of great writing happening on the continent right now, and that's one of the reasons why I hope Penguin will move their primary focus to new works, but Ajayi's view of what books should do or be seems to me an awfully narrow one, and the idea that African writers are primarily valuable because of the up-to-the-minute content of their writing is ridiculous.  A book like Black Sunlight will not tell you what is happening in Zimbabwe right now, no -- for that, you need journalists and eyewitnesses.  For a whole lot other than that, you need Black Sunlight.

And while we're talking about exciting books being reprinted, I should also note that Tin House will be bringing Marlene van Niekerk's extraordinary novel Agaat to the U.S. this spring in Michiel Heyns's translation from the Afrikaans (complete with a blurb from Toni Morrison).  I read the first third or so of Agaat when I was doing research for my essay on Coetzee, Promised Land, and the plaasroman, and for a while I thought I might include Agaat in that essay, but the novel was too rich and too long, and so I returned it, reluctantly, to the Dartmouth Library, hoping one day to have time and cause to return to it again.  Now that Tin House is publishing it here in the States, perhaps I will find that time and cause.

1 comment:

  1. I think you points here are valid indeed, especially given the nature of "Black Sunlight." Yes, it is written with distinct political tonalities, but Marechera did not write the novel as some kind of commentary. The idea that the novel is a social document (and little more)and written solely to comment on contemporary issues is a very odd approach to the novel, but then, a lot of recent African work strives for such definition. Marechera did not-- one of his difficulties.

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