Boubacar Boris Diop, ‘Kaveena’

Kaveena pic.pngBoubacar Boris Diop is “one of the giants of Francophone African Literature” but sadly not so well known to English-speaking audiences. His most recent novel, Kaveena, was published in French back in 2006 but only came out in English last year. The book is an intense read, about dark deeds in the corridors of power in a fictitious African country – but it’s also a timely meditation on ‘truth’ in an era of lies and ‘fake news’ in both rich and poor countries.

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Teju Cole, ‘Known and Strange Things’

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Teju Cole, best known in development circles for his trenchant critique of what he called ‘The White Saviour Industrial Complex’, is also a sophisticated novelist and art critic. This insightful collection of essays demonstrates Cole’s formidable knowledge and the wide range of his interests and passions. But it also points to ways in which ‘culture’ seems to be simultaneously bridging one societal divide whilst creating another one.

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Jowhor Ile, ‘And After Many Days’

Days pic“Summer Reading”… a chance to catch up on important books you feel you should have read? Or the only time of the year you can get away from it all? I don’t know about you, but when I go on holiday I’d rather take a novel with me than a heavy development book. So here is my recommendation for reading this summer: * Jowhor Ile’s And After Many Days. It’s already been showered with praise by the big shots of contemporary African fiction including Taiye Selasi, Binyavanga Wainaina and Igoni Barrett. But does the first novel by Nigeria’s ‘new star’ live up to the hype?

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Edward Wilson-Lee, ‘Shakespeare in Swahililand’

Today is 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, so here’s my contribution to the celebrations. Edward Wilson-Lee’s Shakespeare in Swahililand is an account of the wide range of influences Shakespeare has had in East Africa from the late nineteenth century to the present day. Mixing travel writing with history and literary criticism, Wilson-Lee tells a story which starts with Victorian adventurers and ends with new translations of Shakespeare in Tanzania, Ethiopia and South Sudan.

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José Eduardo Agualusa, ‘A General Theory of Oblivion’

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This harrowing and beautiful novel is based on an extraordinary true story. Ludovica Fernandes Mano walled herself up in her apartment in Luanda, Angola for 28 years – in fact, for the entire duration of the Angolan civil war (1975-2002). In telling her story, Agualusa gives us some fleeting glimpses of what life was like in those troubled times – but more importantly, tackles the difficult question of how those days should now be remembered, or forgotten.

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Chigozie Obioma, ‘The Fishermen’

Fishermen picIt’s perhaps a surprising thought, but a novel can often give a clearer picture of issues in development than a hundred policy papers or academic articles. If you are flummoxed by the jargon of ‘corruption as a collective action problem’, for example, and want to know what it actually feels like – read Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, or even a Raymond Chandler novel. Both will give you a sense of how difficult it is to be the only person trying to be honest “in a world where it’s out of style”. I’m a great believer in the power of fiction to make issues in development more real, to help them reach a wider audience and even to raise different issues than those brought up by the policy literature. Because, as David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers, and Michael Woolcock, argue in a brilliant 2005 article ‘The Fiction of Development’, policy and academic writing about development tends to construct development problems in particular ways which justify interventions by technical ‘experts’, whereas fiction can emphasise different aspects of the development process – the human, the moral, the political – which are too often ignored in academic or policy accounts.

The first novel I’m going to review here on Development Book Review is Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, shortlisted for the Booker prize last year. It’s a gripping story but has a serious purpose too: the author describes it as “a wake-up call to a dwindling nation – Nigeria.” Continue reading “Chigozie Obioma, ‘The Fishermen’”