Gods and Soldiers
The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing
Edited by Rob Spillman
Reviewed by A. Naomi Jackson
Penguin’s new anthology of contemporary African writing, Gods and Soldiers, was compiled by editor Rob Spillman. Spillman, founder of Tin House, came to African writing while working on a special issue of the literary journal several years ago. The book takes on an incredibly difficult task—to span the whole expanse of a continent divided by language, culture, and politics, not to mention war. In attempting to gather the best of contemporary African writing, Spillman includes classics by master writers like Chinua Achebe and Nuruddin Farrah, and introduces readers to relative newcomers like Djibouti’s Abdourahman A. Waberi. This task, while enviable, has resulted in a book that feels both accomplished in its breadth and unsatisfying because of the lack of a thorough clear line. In short, in trying to represent the best of African writing over the last 75 years or so, Spillman has created an anthology that is at times engaging, and at others disjointed.
At its best, Gods and Soldiers gives the casual student of African literature a primer on some of the major issues that authors from the continent have been facing post-colonialism. The anthology is divided geographically, linguistically, and by genre, with writers represented from Anglophone, Francophone, and Lusophone north, east, west, and southern Africa. There is real value in being able to read a group of writers in English from countries such as Morocco, Mozambique, and Cameroon. And it is interesting to follow the question of the advantages and disadvantages of language that Laila Lalami and Chinua Achebe take up in altogether different, yet elegant ways. Achebe, arguing on the dawn of independence of many African nations in the late 1950s, argues for the utility of writing in English as a way to reach the broadest possible audience, both in Africa and beyond. Lalami writes a short literary biography expressing concern for both the pressure to write and read outside one’s native tongue, and the lack of French and Arabic translations of works from African writers. Beyond the question of language, simmering beneath the surface of the anthology are questions of racial identity and Africanness as explored by J.M. Coetzee in an essay on the memoirs of Breyten Breytenbach.
There are great moments in the anthology when the reader glimpses the innovation and wit of the newest generation of African writers. Doreen Baingana’s “Christianity Killed the Cat,” causes spontaneous laughter. “The Manhood Test,” taken from Mohammed Naseehu Ali’s collection of short stories, The Prophet of Zongo Street, is one of the anthology’s standout selections. An excerpt from Ngugi Wa’ Thiongo’s Wizard of the Crow deftly throws light on the figure of the despot who has become all too common in African politics. Here, on the “ruler’s birthday,” the citizens, including a good number of them wasted away with kwashiorkor, assemble at the national stadium with the promise of eating his birthday cake.
With the inclusion of writers from North Africa, Spillman overcomes the desert divide between sub-Saharan Africa and Northern Africa, which has a complicated relationship to its African identity and Islamic and Arabic cultures and history. An excerpt from Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Sadaawi will be a welcome treat for readers unfamiliar with her work. And many who have been frustrated by the artificial divisions between North Africans and the rest of the continent will be happy to see this development. In any anthology, the pressures to include inevitably result in excluding someone. Sorely missed here are writings by South African giants Zoe Wicomb and Bessie Head, as well as the late South African writer K. Sello Duiker.
Gods and Soldiers invites the reader to learn more about African writers and writing. Found therein are new literary stars Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Binyavanga Wainana, as well as heavyweights like South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer. With this anthology, the list of must-read books by African writers grows long enough that even the most voracious reader couldn’t get through it in the longest summer.