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Review of Passages: Africa, the first in a chapbook series featuring contemporary writing from around the world

I hesitate to call Passages: Africa, published by PENAmerica, what it is – a collection of prose and photography from the African continent – because at the end of the day, it’s just plain great writing; no further caveats required.

Passages: Africa is a linguistically and geographically diverse set of poems, fables, fiction, memoir pieces, miscellaneous essays and photographic bits edited by PEN America’s Antonio Aiello and managing editor of Kwani?, Billy Kahora. Many of the pieces were translated from Swahili (by Annmarie Drury) and French (by André Naffis-Sahely), while one short story by Mozambican Mia Couto was translated from Portuguese (by Erick M.B. Becker). I hesitate to refer to the pieces specifically as a collection of African prose, because readers otherwise unfamiliar with writing from the continent may be hesitant to pick up the collection. By no means are the stories featured only relevant to what people on the continent experience: Passages: Africa is full of very, very good writing from culturally distinct places.

Some of the pieces broach topics (both directly and indirectly) that a global audience will probably be familiar with. Billy Kahora’s essay How to Eat a Forest: in Two Acts treads relatively familiar waters: anybody with a basic knowledge of the history of how nation-states were formed in Africa will probably recognize the inherent danger in colonially-dictated ID cards. Manufacturing lineage where it doesn’t exist is a very dangerous thing. The rest of Kahora’s essay is about the Ogiek people, who find themselves at a crossroads between tradition and modernity, and have found fortune by alternating back and forth between the two poles when it suits them. Abomination is also about living two lives as it explores the continuing de facto persecution of the LGBT community despite modest legislative victories.

 

All of us deal with the difficulty of reconciling opposing impulses; all of us deal with the convergence of doubt and belief. This, I think, is why Passages: Africa is worth reading.

 

Despite the overall seriousness of many of the pieces, dark humour shines through otherwise somber stories. In the wake of a particularly gruesome bar fight in Rotimi Babatunde’s The King of Buckingham Palace, the story’s main character is described as “lodging payment for the beers he had been serving himself with the white kitten, which he reckoned a fit and proper financial representative of its owner” (page 31). Other stories shy away even from gallows humour and are instead directly bitter: Euphrase Kezilahabi’s Christian Revivalist cares little for subtlety but is a brief, powerful condemnation of how evangelical Christianity has spread throughout Africa. Garden of Tears, too, appeals directly to the moral sensibilities of the reader: “[…] judges are under explicit orders that forbid them to formally prosecute any state employees and bring them to justice, no matter what the charges are.” (page 89).

The layout of the chapbook seems intuitive: Kahora’s essay is followed by a poem about belief, which is in turn followed by Mia Couto’s story about doubt and the limits of skepticism. I found myself wanting to know more about Faces and Phases, a photographic series reflecting the grievous abuses that members of the black lesbian community have experienced in South Africa. The paragraph was informative and the photos compelling, but the chapbook may have been more cohesive if more space was dedicated to the piece or if it was left out altogether. Likewise, Mohamed Nedali’s The Garden of Tears was a fictional excerpt about corruption in Morocco, but an essay about the same subject would probably have worked just as well, and it would have removed the burden from Kahora’s How to Eat a Forest: In Two Parts being the only essay.

Both Kahora’s essay and The King of Buckingham Palace work extremely well as standalone stories, the latter being the most immediately memorable in the collection. The almost permanently drunk protagonist, the Student, who has resolved to and is perfectly content with drinking his life away, profoundly upsets the complacency of the city’s chief inspector solely because the inspector fundamentally doesn’t understand the Student’s worldview. There is an implied sense throughout the piece that the Student isn’t the root of the inspector’s emotional fragility, but instead highlights how fragile happiness derived from comfort can be.

 

The vast majority of the pieces in Passages: Africa serve to diminish contrast rather than accentuate it.

 

While The King of Buckingham Palace is ultimately about the impermeability of true difference, the vast majority of the pieces in Passages: Africa serve to diminish contrast rather than accentuate it. When reading a collection of stories that is fundamentally about a place (in this case, a very large, very diverse place with a country count that puts even the most dedicated travellers to shame), it is easy to assume the role of reader-as-cultural-tourist, fleetingly learning about a place by reading stories that are set there. However, explicitly reading to look for difference denies how universally applicable these stories are, and how startlingly easy it is for a story to resonate with its reader, regardless of geographical location or cultural context. All of us deal with the difficulty of reconciling opposing impulses; all of us deal with the convergence of doubt and belief. This, I think, is why Passages: Africa is worth reading.

 

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