Sunday, November 24, 2013

Literature of Place

My reading diary reflects a ten-year flirtation with the literature of the African continent. Starting with the work of Doris Lessing, the flirtation would wander from country to country, exploring non-fiction and fiction alike.

Readers, especially those of us that read without prescribed limits, are a curious breed. We are never at a loss for conversation, even in those circumstances where we are most uncomfortable. We simply mention we are reading a work, make a recommendation of a title, or ask what someone is reading and the awkwardness passes. We roam used book stores in any city in the world and easily justify hauling books home.

Scanning my African reading diary brings many memories and fragments of my life to the surface. Memories of the conversation about the work, the recommendation to read it, and in some cases my own hopes for finding answers in the author's words. 

Books and words are inextricably intertwined with events even as the clarity of the
memories of the events themselves fade. I don't recall the words of a friend's mother's memorial service, but I recall that Marcia D. recommended When the Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa by Peter Godwin. A library book club meeting added Ernest Hemingway's posthumous, True at First Light: A Fictional Memoir to my collection.  A librarian colleague recommended Marsha Hamilton's The Camel Bookmobile for a good will project and I scrounged Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town from Brian's bedside table. Traveling companions on a long flight to Egypt were reading Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone

Some of my other favorites include, 

My flirtation has become a full blown romance in the last few weeks. Two of my LRC colleagues are bibliophiles of the highest order and continue to loan me copies of wonderful works. 

My favorite to date is Aidan Hartley's Zanzibar Chest. It is an extraordinary story of a quest for place, for home, for understanding. Some of my distant relatives get a mention on page 47, when he notes the list of families who trekked north to Kenya from South Africa after the second Boer War included: "Pretoius, Van Venter, Lemmer, Visser, van Rooyen and Bekker." 

Other favorites to date include both both fiction and non-fiction.
Even those that I didn't enjoy as much and struggled through taught me something about this incredible place. Dana Synman's The Long Way Home: A Journey Through South Africa and Christopher Hope's My Mother's Lovers, were both challenging and frustrating, perhaps because both of these South African authors still struggle to understand if there is a place to be called "home."

My bedside table is weighed down by the many I still want to read, including Odyssey to Freedom, by George Bizos, Bram Fischer's biography, Christopher Hope's White Boy Running, and the classic Down Second Avenue by Ezekiel Mphahlele. 

"Politics of place" advocates promote understanding cultural environments in their totality. The literature of a people is a starting point. It is why each year I promise myself I will make it all the way through Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). Perhaps 2014 will be the year my bookmark makes it past the half-way mark. How could anyone resist a work that starts: 

"Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances. For years we lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us; and we were dizzied by the beating wind. At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars. We were a self-centred army without parade or gesture, devoted to freedom, the second of man's creeds, a purpose so ravenous that it devoured all our strength, a hope so transcendent that our earlier ambitions faded in its glare."
Each year with our family end-of-the-year holiday wishes I've thrown in a few book recommendations. Consider this post the 2013 Holiday Book List!

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