sabbatical and literature

Travel to Cameroon and Ethiopia in May and June evidently influenced my extra-curricular reading selections. And this fall I’m on sabbatical, so, in between research and writing, I’ve actually had time to read many of the works I’d hoped to get to. But I think even if I hadn’t recently been in Africa, and even if I weren’t on sabbatical, I would have carved in time for the volumes that have most recently made my best reads short list.

While I don’t think historical fiction or even historically situated (isn’t it all, anyway?) literature can substitute for study of history, politics, and human rights issues, the historical and political significance, profound and moving narrative, and compelling figures introduced in these works can, I think, bend us a little closer to understanding, easing open what might otherwise remain an indifferent or ignorant disposition.

Four of the volumes on my list are fiction, one non-fiction, but all five humanize groups we don’t – and maybe can’t easily – know given the geographic and ideological distance between the US, the Middle East, and Africa. The portrayals of human behavior, simple joy, and tragic suffering in each are impossible to ignore and even more difficult to forget —

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan) – The story of two women, Maryam and Laila, whose lives intersect with one another’s during the height of unrest as Afghans endure the political shift from Communism to the Taliban during the mid to late twentieth century. Abuse, horrific violence, and deepest friendship and self-sacrifice.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (Ethiopia, US), Medicine, Civil War – Shiva and Marion, conjoined twins surgically separated at birth; a story of misogyny and genital mutilation, immigration and the politics of discrimination in medicine, the consequences of ignorance and the absence of adequate medical care in a third world country, and of family and brotherhood.

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Kenya), Islam – The author’s own story of being raised Muslim and the degrees of imposed belief that shrouded her identity. Vivid and for that very reason distressing yet essential.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Nigeria), Colonization, Christianization – A tale best read in Africa, I think, where the significance and consequences of colonization are seen and felt. Controversial and heavily critiqued by some Cameroonian scholars, who argue that Achebe has unjustly portrayed Africans as weak; I don’t wholly agree, though, having found the west shamed and guilt-laden by the troubling narrative.

Map of Love by Adhaf Soueif (Egypt, England, US), Colonization, hegemony, cross-cultural marriage, loss, and longing.