I’ve just stumbled across a blogging meme called 6 degrees of separation. Once a month a book is proposed as the starting point for a chain of six more books – each linked in some way to the one preceding it.
I decided I should seize the opportunity to have a go at this because:
- I feel like getting back into blogging and this is a good excuse
- This month I’ve actually read the starting book, which will probably not often happen. It’s Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible
- It’s a fun way to avoid study (reading about risk assessment!)
My first book is Still a pygmy (my review) because like Poisonwood Bible, it is set in Central Africa. Congolese-Australian Isaac Bacirongo tells his story as an advocate for the human rights of pygmies (he is one, from the BaTembo people), and his later escape to Australia when this advocacy became too politically dangerous. From growing up in the forest, to war-torn Rwanda, to the suburbs of Sydney, the book offers plenty of insights into culture, oppression, and the experience of refugees.
Songs of a War Boy is also an autobiography by an African refugee to Australia; in this case South Sudanese Deng Thiak Adut, who came here as a teenager, having been a child soldier since the age of seven. It’s a hard subject but ultimately hopeful – at least about human beings’ ability to not only heal after trauma, but to contribute to the greater good in spite of what’s happened to them. I loved the cool simplicity of the writing, Deng’s honesty, the way he writes about his culture and the depth of his self-awareness.
Back to Africa for China Achebe’s classic novel, Things fall apart. I picked this one because it shares themes with Songs of a War Boy – disruption to the old order, what it means to be a man in a changing world. Unlike Adut’s novel, however, the main character (Okonkwo) is unable to deal with change or reflect on his own shortcomings. This brings tragedy to him, as well as to those he loves.
Purple Hibiscus is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichies’ first novel. Although not as well known as her later books, I think it’s just as good. It’s a while since I read it, but what I remember most is that it is like an answer to Things fall apart, half a century on – there’s a character very like Okonkwo, who suffers the same inability to face the challenges of a changing world, in this case a modernising Nigeria and the changing roles and expectations of women and young people.
Okonkwo’s struggle clearly resonates with Nigerian writers, because Foreign Gods Inc (my review) by Okey Ndibe, shows similar links to Things fall apart. A Nigerian taxi driver (and qualified economist) in New York decides that the solution to his poverty and hopelessness is to go back to Nigeria, steal his family’s hearth god and sell it to a high-end gallery in the US. Of course, this turns out to be a bad idea, not least because Ike is so lacking in self-awareness and courage — but also because this is a fantasy novel so anything can happen …
… like the shape-shifters, unusually intelligent camels, and nomads living in the calm centre of a permanent sandstorm that all feature in Nnedi Okorofor’s Who fears death (my review). This wonderful fantasy (by another Nigerian American) explores racism, gender inequality, war and power. It really affirms the power of fantasy as a genre, and as I’m very fond of fantasy, I’m glad to see more African writers taking it on — they are bringing wonderful insights and breaking the old fantasy/sci fi paradigms. Who fears death is being made into a TV series – bring it on!
There are so many more connections between all these books that I don’t have space to explore. And I just wanted to keep going, as other books kept popping into my mind that also dwell in this network of associations. I like this #6degrees game, I might play it again.