‘The Granta Book of the African Short Story’: A Beautiful Failure

In the inaugural Egypt Independent , published yesterday by Al Masry Al Youm, I have a review of The Granta Book of the African Short Story, edited by Helon Habila.

The collection was released this September by Granta Books.

Perhaps “failure” is a bit hard on this collection, which has such radiant short stories and is so worth reading. But what I wanted most from this collection was a dialogue between African writers, not an object about a singular Africa. And a singular Africa seems to be what this collection is trying to pin to the paper.

My review begins:

There are good reasons why it’s hard to assemble a credible anthology of “the African short story.” 1) Too many languages. 2) Too many histories. 3) Too many hardened, colonial-era divisions, which means that: 4) It’s too unlikely that any one editor will be both familiar and sympathetic with authors from Egypt, Morocco, South Africa, Ethiopia, the Ivory Coast, and places in between.

Perhaps this was a project destined to fall short. Still, editor Helon Habila could have failed better.

The stories within this collection are not to blame. Indeed, Habila has found some fabulous stories, full stop. The problem is the framing: “The Granta Book” is a collection for the non-African, a book to be held in both hands like a snow globe, shaken up, and admired for how it represents That Big Continent. This is not a living dialogue between African stories for (mostly) African readers. Instead, Habila has created a panoramic view for the curious outsider.

The stories are arranged chronologically, by the age of the author. Younger authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Mansoura Ez-Eldin thus come first, while elders like Camara Laye and Alex La Guma bring up the rear. Habila explains, in the introduction, that his intention was “to showcase the newest writing from the continent first, before moving back in time to show what came before that, as that is what these younger writers must have grown up reading.”

In so constructing his collection, Habila seems to assert that one can trace a single history of “the African short story,” one he centers south of the Sahara. But the featured writers are almost certainly drawing on a multitude of traditions. Without asking Ez-Eldin, it seems more likely she grew up reading Yusuf Idris than Camara Laye. And, while Moroccan author Laila Lalami writes in English, it seems probable that Leila Abouzeid had a greater impact on her work than Alex La Guma. Buy the inaugural issue at newsstands or download the PDF to keep reading.

If you won’t download a PDF to read this review, download it for a rundown on candidate symbols from the always delightful Ali Abdel Mohsen, titled: “Why are some candidates mangoes?”

From the article: “‘The symbols are important, because everyone has a right to vote,’ states Atef Abdel Rahman, a delivery ‘boy’ with gaps in his teeth and grey hair, before shrugging off the whole issue, since ‘it’s the elections themselves that are meaningless.’

“‘Is there a dog symbol?’ he asks. ‘With a crooked tail? No? That’s odd.'”


  1. An incredibly good review, I really enjoyed reading this, thanks. There is so little written on this problem with ‘African’ writing, and it’s a problem that extends to all the arts and into politics. I live in Cape Town and it’s amazing how many restaurants here are called ‘African restaurants’. In Africa!

    1. On a similar note, I’m sure you remember how many restaurants/foods here are called “Oriental.”

      Elliott Colla and I contributed to an issue of “African Writing Online” (he an Ibrahim al-Koni translation). It was great, I thought, that they showed an interest in northern Africa. Not as fantastic—the image that was run along with al-Koni’s story: http://www.african-writing.com/eleven/images/brains.jpg

      Hope to visit SA some day. I’d love to see some “African” dialogue at book fairs.

  2. This statement says it all for me: “But what I wanted most from this collection was a dialogue between African writers, not an object about a singular Africa. And a singular Africa seems to be what this collection is trying to pin to the paper”.

    Thank you. More and more, I want the collective us to discuss us, how we see us, what we think of us etc all the while being cogniizant of how wildly unwieldy and delightfully diverse this “us” is.

    Thank you again!

  3. Fantastic review. While I’m really looking forward to reading the collection, you raise fantastic points. There is no one Africa and if this is it then a lot of people and places don’t exist it seems.

  4. Hahaha for the picture. Bloody hell.
    You’re right about the Oriental thing, I’d forgotten. It’s horribly pervasive anyway; most obvious when ‘African’ events do ‘Norf n Souf’ together, as if there’s some essence that binds them all… Gaddafi’s loans, perhaps?
    I suppose it feels particularly egregious in South Africa where discourse about culture and commonalities is so sophisticated, or can be. But then again there’s German backpackers in Rasta wigs all over the place…
    And welcome to South Africa any time.

  5. A really incisive review; thank you. I loved your image of a snow globe being shaken. How stubborn the tendency is to compress the many countries and cultures of this vast continent into that term “African”!
    Eva Hunter in Cape Town.

  6. You are a such a perceptive wordsmith, Ms. Qualey. I wish that you would apply yourself to political economy and society as well as to literature and point out how we “could have failed better.” Now that you have enjoyed two happy Cairo ‘Eids, I send you joyous, Minnesota-type “seasons greetings”, too.

  7. I think these kind of books are always doomed to fail. At least the title doesn’t include “the Best of” which they seem to love to do and seldom seems that interesting.

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