Spice of variety

29th December 2000 at 00:00
THE PICADOR BOOK OF AFRICAN STORIES. Edited by Stephen Gray. Picador pound;16

This welcome collection of 40 contemporary stories from Africa radiates diversity. It had me reaching for my map and revelling in its wealth of voices, styles and forms. Only a couple of the stories draw consciously on the oral tradition - playing with it, challenging it. The majority emerge from a strong tradition of the written short story across the continent.

As Stephen Gray reveals in a fascinating introduction, he has deliberately searched beyond better known writing in English. Just over half the stories have been translated into English - from French, Portuguese, Arabic and Afrikaans - and it's good to see biographical data on translators.

The collection is divided into five regions: North, South, West, East and Central and, represented for the first time, Indian Ocean African islands.

The majority of stories have not appeared in print before and most were written after 1980. They reflect, Gray says, "the hybridisation of subject matters and ... hugely increased formal innovation" following the post-independence period in most countries.

Earlier writing focused on challenging the legacy of former colonial masters, while later work reflected bitter disillusion with the new rulers. This collection constantly surprises with its range and subtlety of references.

It's salutary to remember that more than half its writers do not live in their home countries. Gray has looked especially for writing that crosses borders.

An Indian wife makes an unwitting, unforgiven mistake when visitng the village home of her mother-in-law in Kanchana Ugbabe's "Exile" (Nigeria). In "Lice", Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana) weaves prose poem thoughts of "an ordinary wife with a normalmarriageignored, double-timed'' into a story that mounts in tension with horrific pace. Explorations of gender relations are not confined to female authors. Read "Minutes of Glory" by Ngugi wa Thiong'o (Kenya) and M G Vassanji's "Breaking Loose" (Tanzania).

But the strength of this collection lies in its variety. In "Dolorosa", Mich le Rakotoson (Madagascar) writes a painful, poetic story of a mother nursing her son dying from Aids. There is biting satire in Emmanuel Dongala's "The Ceremony" (People's Republic of the Congo); a humorous, satirical dialogue between a nationalist French father and his curious young son in "Colour Blues" by Lotfi Akalay (Morocco); and gentle probing by Idris Youssouf Elmi (Djibouti) when Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Little Prince returns to earth in "He Has Come Back".

There are many gems in this collection. Although it is published on an adult list, I hope it makes its way into every secondary school library. These stories open up our connections. No reader is likely to forget the final climactic image of the woman in Yvonne Vera's "Independence Day" (Zimbabwe).

Nor are they likely to resist the innovative fantasy and gentle humanity in Aboubakar Ben Said Salim's "The Revolt of the Vowels" (Comores) in which the vowels from a small island off the coast of Africa take control of the world's rapacious words - and make the world a safer place.

Beverley Naidoo

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