Book of the month: ed. Nikesh Shukla, The Good Immigrant

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One of the main points of this project has always been accessing voices that we don’t hear enough of in the anglophone world. Often, these voices are quite remote: stories by writers in minority languages and marginalised groups from distant regions where little gets picked up for publication and even less makes it through the translation bottleneck into the planet’s most-published language.

However, it’s often easy to forget that there are plenty of underrepresented voices closer to home, such as people writing in languages other than the dominant tongue (like Welsh writer Caryl Lewis, whose novel Martha, Jack and Shanco I read as my UK choice) or those from communities that rarely get the opportunity to tell their stories in their own words.

This is a problem that my November book of the month pick, The Good Immigrant, sets out to tackle head-on. Bringing together essays, think pieces and life writing by 21 black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) writers working in or connected to Britain today, the crowd-funded collection builds a compelling case for the importance of diverse storytelling. It is, as Nikesh Shukla states in his editor’s note, ‘a document of what it means to be a person of colour’ in the UK, assembled in response to ‘the backwards attitude to immigration and refugees, the systemic racism that runs through this country to this day’.

As Shukla’s comments suggest, much of this book does not make for comfortable reading – nor is it meant to. Many of the contributors narrate harrowing incidents that they or their family members have experienced, from being held at knifepoint by skinheads, as has happened to actor Riz Ahmed on several occasions, to receiving a prescription for drugs from a child psychologist in response to suffering racist bullying, as Daniel York Loh recalls.

Many of the anecdotes contain unpleasant surprises for white British readers like me. For example, I was unaware of the extreme abuse often experienced by people of Chinese ethnicity in the UK, but Wei Ming Kam and Vera Chok bring this home memorably, with Chok’s discussion of the sinister objectification of Asian women being particularly powerful.

Alongside these personal and specific examples, a number of the writers expand on larger themes that illuminate the mechanisms of the blindspots and doublethink that make such inhumanity possible. Reni Eddo-Lodge, whose forthcoming Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race promises to be brilliant, is great on the UK’s collective forgetting of black British history, while Sarah Sahim has thought-provoking things to say on Britain’s role in entrenching and solidifying the Hindu caste system.

And lest you get the impression that an uncomfortable read equates to an unpleasant one, it’s important to point out that the book has plenty of beauty, generosity and humour too. Stand-up comedian Nish Kumar’s account of his discovery that his photograph had been appropriated for an internet meme about Muslims (he’s Hindu by origin) is both funny and insightful. In addition, Salena Godden’s wry observations on the illogic of half the world spending money on skin-bleaching while white Brits strip off at the sight of sunlight in hope of a tan in ‘Shade’ – which also contains some of the collection’s most lyrical and playful writing – will no doubt raise a smile.

Perhaps the most important point, however, concerns the significance of complex, diverse storytelling and the role this has in allowing people to imagine and thereby appreciate the humanity and varied difference of those too often squashed into a box labelled ‘other’. This argument is made in many of the pieces, but most strikingly in the several accounts in which BAME actors share their experiences of typecasting and limited opportunity because of the paucity of roles available for people of colour in mainstream British culture. Miss L, for example, describes the day she waited along with her fellow drama students to be told what type of role was likely to be the mainstay of her career. ‘Wife of a terrorist’ was the verdict, a prediction that proved largely accurate, alongside a number of roles as powerless women in arranged marriages.

Representation, these accounts show us, is not enough. The mere tokenistic inclusion of a person from an ethnic minority in a well-worn, two-dimensional role does nothing to enlarge viewers’ or readers’ perspectives. Instead, we need to break free of those familiar narratives – those single stories as Chimanda Ngozi Adichie so memorably dubbed them – and push for a vast array of complex, challenging and even conflicting accounts.

This is important within nations like Britain, as much as across borders, because, as Bim Adewunmi puts it in ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Tokenism’, the superficial and inadequate representation of minorities in the stories we consume ‘leaks into the everyday too – if you cannot bring yourself to imagine us as real, rounded individuals with feelings equal to your own on screen, how does that affect your ability to do so when you encounter us on the street, at your workplace, in your bed, in your life?’

And if you wanted an example of the real-life consequences of such tokenism, the final piece in the book by British-Ugandan writer Musa Okwonga provides a salutary vision of the harm that insufficiently diverse representation can cause. As one of a handful of black students at the elite schools and university he attended, Okwonga felt an ‘ambassadorial responsibility’ to represent not simply himself but all those who shared his ethnicity to his white peers, holding himself to impossible standards in an exhausting effort to be a walking billboard for his race.

The encouraging news is that most of the writers of The Good Immigrant appear to believe that change is possible, that Britain for all its flaws and challenges has the potential to do better in the way it treats and values its citizens. Although many are saddened by the events of recent years – Okwonga, for example recounts his decision to leave the UK for Germany in search of greater tolerance and inclusiveness – the contributors seem to have faith in the power of storytelling and the healing quality of human connection, a sentiment Salena Godden expresses beautifully towards the end of her piece:

‘Human colour is the colour I’m truly interested in, the colour of your humanity. May the size of your heart and the depth of your soul be your currency. Welcome aboard my Good Ship. Let us sail to the colourful island of mixed identity. You can eat from the cooking pot of mixed culture and bathe in the cool shade of being mixed-race. There is no need for a passport. There are no borders. We are all citizens of the world. Whatever shade you are, bring your light, bring your colour, bring your music and your books, your stories and your histories, and climb aboard.’

The Good Immigrant, ed. Nikesh Shukla (Unbound, 2016)

Picture: ‘Know Your Rights’ by alister on flickr.com

St Kitts & Nevis: deep roots

For a long time, there was only one name on the table for the tiny Caribbean nation of St Kitts and Nevis: Caryl Phillips. The award-winning playwright and novelist had been suggested by Sue for the list, and his track record was certainly impressive. No doubt if I read one of his 10 novels (and counting), I would find much to admire.

But there was something that made me hesitate: although born to Kittian parents in St Kitts and Nevis, Phillips left the country when he was just four months old and grew up in the UK. He is now Professor of English at Yale University. Phillips’s work certainly had a claim on being considered Kittian – in much the same way that Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is linked to the Dominican Republic – but I couldn’t help wondering what else might be out there from writers who had spent more time living in the country itself.

For a while, the answer seemed to be: not a lot. Much like writing from St Vincent and the Grenadines, books from St Kitts and Nevis seemed to be thin on the ground – at least as far as works that had made into wide enough circulation to reach readers outside the country were concerned.

Then I stoogled upon an article about Bertram Roach, a senior citizen on Nevis, who published his first novel in 2008. The book by the former electrician, who spent some time in the UK as an adult but was raised, educated and trained on the island, was greeted with a great deal of local enthusiasm and government minister Hensley Daniel praised the example Roach’s achievement set for the island’s younger citizens. It sounded like just the thing I’d been looking for.

Inspired by stories heard from the villagers and labourers on the Brown and Bush Hill estates, where Roach’s father was manager in the early decades of the 20th century, Only God Can Make a Tree traces the long shadow of slavery. The narrative focuses on Adrian, the mixed-race son of an Irish immigrant and a local woman, who, because of his light skin, has a degree of social mobility not afforded to many of his peers.

The early 20th century world should be Adrian’s oyster and he gets a good job as an overseer on St Kitts. Yet he finds himself caught between the two communities and, when he starts relationships with both a local Sunday school teacher and his boss’s daughter, it is only a matter of time before disaster strikes, setting off a chain of events that will take a generation to make good.

Roach’s plain style lends itself to his subject matter. Whether he is describing the race-based hierarchy of the society, where gradations of skin colour affect job prospects and status, or the mixture of fear and fascination that leads him to jeopardise his relationship with his true love Julia for the rich and flighty Alice, the author’s clear and direct prose makes his story memorable.

This is particularly the case when it comes to his handling of local traditions and customs. From zombie dances and Easter celebrations, through to curiosities such as the saying that when the sun shines while it is raining ‘the devil is beating his wife’, Roach delights in sharing his knowledge of his country with his readers.

This sense of authenticity is clearly important to him, as he makes clear in his Prologue:

‘Non-Caribbean authors have written books after brief encounters on the islands, taking back a notebook full of local gossip. One, Island in the Sun, was a bestseller and was made into a film.

‘I grew up on a sugar plantation in St Kitts and Nevis. The stories I tell are my real stories.’

In fact, the Prologue reminded me of a piece at the beginning of Cecil Browne’s The Moon is Following Me, my choice for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. At the time I read that, I thought its unusually direct and somewhat declamatory style was peculiar to Browne, but finding a similar introduction at the start of this book makes me wonder whether such pieces might be something of a literary tradition in some Caribbean nations.

Such directness, however, is not always successful in the main body of the book. At times, Roach pushes the narrative aside to expound on topics such as the unscrupulousness of obeah men and his belief that ‘class and colour are the two greatest social evils in most parts of the West Indies’. The plot is also threadbare to the point of reading more like an outline at some points, as though Roach is rattling through it in his impatience to get on to the next episode that sparks his interest.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to like in this book – and much to interest the non-Kittian or Nevisian reader. Roach set out to tell the stories he wanted to in his own way. And, in that sense, the book is a great success.

Only God Can Make a Tree by Bertram Roach (Athena Press, 2008)

Comoros: beyond belief

I thought this one might defeat me. As far as I could see, there was not – nor had there ever been – a single novel, short story collection or memoir published in English translation by a writer from the Comoro Islands. No matter who I asked or how charmingly I smiled at the Google homepage, the answer was always the same: nada. It seemed I had come to the end of the road.

In despair, I mentioned the dilemma to my colleague – the same colleague who came up trumps with the Niger book. A few weeks later he was back with, in his words, ‘possible gold’. He’d found a CV online of Anis Memon, a lecturer in French and Italian at the University of Vermont. It stated that in 2005 he’d done a translation of Le Kafir du Karthala by Mohamed Toihiri, the Comoros’ permanent representative to the United Nations and, according to Simon Gikandi’s Encyclopedia of African Literature, the country’s first published novelist. Perhaps if I contacted Memon, he might be able to dig out the manuscript for me?

I fired off an email and received a modest response from Memon. He said he couldn’t vouch for the quality of the translation as it was a personal project he’d undertaken when Mohamed Toihiri was a visiting lecturer one year at Memon’s grad school. The two had spent quite a bit of time together and as a result Memon had decided it would be good practice for him to try and translate one of the writer’s novels. Still, if I wanted to look at the manuscript, he’d see if he could find it for me.

A nail-biting wait ensued. The way I saw it, Memon’s translation was probably my one chance of reading a Comorian novel in English. I just hoped he was better at backing up and archiving his files than I was.

Luckily, that turned out to be the case and when I next checked my emails while on holiday in Spain, the file was waiting for me. The Kaffir of Karthala was mine to read.

Beginning on the day Dr Idi Wa Mazamba discovers he has terminal cancer, the novel tells the story of one man’s struggle to free himself from the conventions, patterns and prejudices that have dogged his life. Liberated by the knowledge that his days are numbered, married Mazamba embarks on an affair with a French woman, Aubéri, and comes to look at the world around him with new eyes. Yet this fresh vision brings with it a heightened awareness of the racism, corruption and contradictions that riddle society. Appalled by the hypocrisy he encounters, Dr Mazamba hatches a plan to challenge the status quo while he still can.

Toihiri is a clear-eyed writer, who excels at presenting complex situations in concise, memorable ways. Whether he is describing the inequality of living conditions in Chitsangani – ‘a neighbourhood where the Middle Ages and the Third Millennium went hand in hand’ and where ‘here one slept on a mat of fleas, there one got ill from hyper-cleanliness’ – or the double standards that see foreign nationals and the ‘generous partner’ donors who pull the political strings behind the scenes receiving top treatment while patients in Mazamba’s hospital can not afford drugs, Toihiri’s descriptions are precise and fearless.

Often, they are very funny too. Ranging from witty anecdotes to satirical attacks, such as the summary of the political career of Marshal Kabaya – ‘at first Minister of Sand in Your Eyes, he was then promoted, following a shuffling of the cabinet, and became the Minister of State in Charge of the Occult Sciences’ – they puncture pomposity and pretence wherever Toihiri sees it. Meanwhile, the writer balances these descriptions with a wry affection for some of the customs on the archipelago that keeps the narrative from becoming overly bitter, as when Mazamba explains the rivalry between the islands to Aubéri:

‘In Ngazija and Mmwali they say that the Anjouanese are poisoners, that they’re skinflints, morbidly jealous, that you mustn’t even look at their women otherwise they’ll arrange to have you thrown off a bridge; we actually say a lot of nonsense about each other.’

Perhaps the most fascinating passages of the book for readers unfamiliar with Comorian culture, like me, are those surrounding marriage traditions in Mazamba’s home village. There, the concept of the ‘great wedding’, a huge celebration which each man is expected to save for and go through once in his life, regardless of whether he is already married to another woman or not, holds sway. And when Issa, Mazamba’s best friend, allows himself to be flattered into going through a great wedding with a canny teenager, the folly of the institution is laid bare.

Occasionally, Toihiri’s desire to encapsulate contradictions and struggles in punchy imagery runs away with the narrative. Muslim Mazamba and Jewish Aubéri’s first physical encounter, for example takes place in a church during a trip they both conveniently have to take to apartheid-riven South Africa. Reading the descriptions of Mazamba breaking his Ramadan fast with Aubéri’s bodily fluids under the shadow of a crucifix, I couldn’t help feeling the author was labouring the point. In addition, the final stages of the plot, during which Mazamba is unexpectedly manoeuvred into a position of influence that enables him to take radical action, rely too much on coincidence and luck to be entirely credible.

But then I’m writing this having just read a translation that until a couple of months ago existed only on the hard drive of an academic I’ve never met more than 3,000 miles away. Hmmn. Perhaps anything is possible after all…

The Kaffir of Karthala  (Le Kafir du Karthala) by Mohamed Toihiri, translated from the French by Anis Memon

Papua New Guinea: novel techniques

This was one of several recommendations from Bernard Minol at the University of Papua New Guinea Press and Bookshop. Although I had not found many Papuan books in my initial searches, he was keen to stress that there is a thriving publishing scene on PNG – and the large number of recommendations that he and his colleagues gave me certainly seems to bear this out.

Mata Sara (Crooked Eyes) by Regis Tove Stella follows Perez, a young Papuan man, as he arrives in the Australian capital to take up a postgraduate scholarship. Disorientated and homesick, he sets up home with three other wantoks (literally ‘one talks’ – speakers of the same language in Tok Pisin) and the friends set about making a new life in a culture very different from their own.

But as the days go by, they become increasingly uneasy. Ghostly presences in their flat and rumours of a murder there in years gone by set them on edge. More suspicious still, there seems to be an odd connection between the dimdim (white person) Kate who befriends Perez, her friend Wilmott and life back home…

The clash between Western culture and traditional Papuan life is the central theme of the book. Coming from a place where ‘the belief in ghosts and spirits is part of daily existence’ and ‘women fly at night’ to 21st century Sydney – where CCTV cameras capture every move, homosexuality is accepted and immigrants are treated with suspicion and sometimes downright racism – the students discover much to challenge, unsettle and alarm them. Sometimes this can be very funny, as when Perez dreads meeting an anthropologist because of his memories of the Western academics he encountered back home:

‘Since a child, I had always dreaded anthropologists with their long white beards, round-shaped glasses which conjured up an image of a white monster, watching every move ready to pounce on you. Whenever I saw photos of Father Christmas, I immediately connected them to anthropologists and gradually I also dreaded Father Christmas.’

Such light-hearted observations, however, are indicative of a much deeper sense of disenfranchisement born of a conviction that Papuan culture is treated as little more than a specimen by much of the rest of the world – something to be prodded at, picked over and interpreted in Western terms. ‘It is through their eyes that the world sees us, not our own eyes’, says Perez, explaining to Kate: ‘Many outsiders have written about my country out of their private visions […]. They just want their friends to believe they are great explorers and discoverers.’

This leads to a great deal of resentment, which is articulated through lengthy passages of conversation between the friends in which they frequently express (sometimes unjustified) criticisms against the Western world. While Stella tries to balance this by having Perez emphasise that the concept of ‘crooked eyes’ – or skewed perspective – is common to all people, and therefore likely to be true of them too, the lack of characters or events to counteract the accusations is problematic. The dialogue is also frequently repetitive and stilted, as though the friends are talking purely for the benefit of the reader peering in on their cosy world.

It’s a shame, because when events drive the narrative forward, the book is compelling. The early section, where Perez moves into the flat on his own and experiences some uncanny occurrences is gripping. Sadly, though, this momentum is not carried through into the latter half of the book. Here, the increasingly labyrinthine plot, which takes in tribal chiefs, lesbian abuse, long-lost relatives and a paedophile ring, becomes ever more difficult to buy into. This is not helped by shaky motivation for some of the characters’ decisions. Some readers will also find the male characters’ casual expressions of misogyny and homophobia difficult, although they may of course be further evidence of the young men’s ‘crooked eyes’.

Perhaps the issue goes back to the central theme of the book. By using the Western novel form to tell a Papuan story, Stella may have highlighted the limitations of the ‘dimdim  way of doing things’ when it comes to cultures where storytelling is predominantly oral. Significantly, as has been the case in several other novels I’ve read from countries that were colonised by Western powers in the past, Stella puts some of the dialogue in the latter stages of the book in the characters’ mother tongue, Tok Pisin, thereby shutting the English-language reader out from these exchanges. It’s as though the novel form itself is an imperialist throwback, which exerts rules and constraints that writers from countries where it is not the traditional form of storytelling may prefer to disobey or subvert.

‘That’s what’s wrong with you dimdims. You don’t believe in other cultures,’ says Perez. Perhaps he’s got a point.

Mata Sara by Regis Tove Stella (University of Papua New Guinea Press and Bookshop, 2010)

Swaziland: teenage rebellion

The tiny Kingdom of Swaziland doesn’t sound too promising when you’re on the hunt for world literature. According to the CIA World Factbook, it has the globe’s lowest life expectancy, with those born in 2011 only predicted to live an average of 31.88 years – just a year older than I am now.

Given such a bleak backdrop, I assumed any story I did find would be pretty solemn. So when The Modern Novel recommended Sarah Mkhonza’s self-published memoir Weeding the Flowerbeds, I was in for a surprise.

Recalling Mkhonza’s time boarding at Manzini Nazarene High School in the seventies, the book reflects on life in southern Africa in the years after Swaziland declared independence from British rule. With Apartheid and racism enshrined in the statutes of all the region’s nations, there is much for young girls Bulelo (Mkhonza), Sisile and Makhosi to struggle against, but there is also a wind of change blowing that promises more opportunities and possibilities for young women than ever before.

As in John Saunana’s novel The Alternative (my Solomon Islands book), boarding school with its British structures and legacy is a microcosm of the struggles the nation faces as it tries to shape an identity independent of its colonial past.  From the prejudice against Zulu and the very anglocentric reading lists – including Shakespeare, the Victorian classics and The Flies of the Lord as one confused English teacher calls the book he has to give lessons on – to the continued religious efforts to teach the ‘saga of the cross […] to the children of Swazis who still believed in muti [magic] and sangomas’, Bulelo is surrounded by the attitudes of the old regime.

Mkhonza treats this with a great deal of humour, recalling how she and her classmates ‘wondered what the United States of England was like’. She is also refreshingly honest about the way she and her fellow students ‘used the power of the underdog toward white people’, bamboozling their British-born teachers with dialect and slang. This is nevertheless tempered with a great deal of affection for many of the staff and the opportunities her education gave her: ‘This is why you are reading this book,’ she writes at one point. ‘We had some very good teachers who were dedicated to teaching us’.

The memoir really comes alive in the passages where Mkhonza recalls her female friends and the challenges facing them as young women, a subject to which Mkhonza has devoted much of her adult life and because of which she was forced to leave Swaziland in 2003. Among the more serious accounts of the mistreatment of women in wider society, there are some wonderfully funny stories of the sisterly bond developed over boyfriends, whose letters came secretly to PO Box 315 Manzini (I wonder what would happen if we wrote to that address now?), and the covert reading of Drum magazine. Indeed, the brusque problem-page advice of Agony Aunt Dolly is too good not to share:

‘You are stupid if you think the man loves you and you are still in high school. You are stupid when you think an older man can love you better than his wife. If you have sex with him, you will become pregnant, and that will be the end of you.’

Powerful episodes aside, though, the narrative often lacks tension and a throughline to drive it forward. At times, particularly when Mkhonza reflects on the boredom that characterises much of school life, we can feel as though we are plodding with Bulelo from class to class and, like her, begin to wonder exactly why we are bothering. There are also some quirks with the writing style, which skips between the past and present tenses in a way that is too erratic for it to be deliberate.

Many of these problems could have been ironed out with the help of a sensitive editor, something that Mkhonza, as a self-publishing writer, was probably obliged to do without. As it stands, though, this is an intriguing and witty, if inconsistent, account of how a significant moment in Swaziland’s history played out in young lives. It is full of hope, and worth reading for Aunt Dolly alone.

Weeding the Flowerbeds by Sarah Mkhonza (Sarah Mkhonza, Xlibris, 2009)

South Africa: getting a perspective

I can still remember the day I first heard about South Africa. I was eight years old and sitting in my classroom at school when our teacher – a young, smiley woman who reminded me of Miss Honey in Roald Dahl’s Matilda – came in excitedly to tell us it was a great day because a wonderful man called Nelson Mandela had been freed in a country that had been being unfair to black people for a long time and we were all going to write a story about it.

Twenty-two years later, that memory came back as I found myself having to decide which South African book to read for this project. I had a great list of titles kindly suggested by Sophy at South African literary site Books Live, but, for the first time this year, the question of the author’s race seemed significant. Should I choose something by a black or a white South African?

In the end, largely because I realised I couldn’t think of a book by a black South African author I’d read, apart from Mandela’s autobiography – whereas Gordimer, Trapido and Coetzee are regular guests in my imaginary universe – I decided to go with a black author and plumped for Siphiwo Mahala’s intriguing-sounding African Delights. 

Spanning the mid-late twentieth century, this irreverent, gutsy and absorbing collection of interlinked stories paints a picture of life in the townships and luxury districts of South Africa. From witty, local tales of men’s attempts to cover their infidelities, as in ‘The Suit Stories’, to parabolic portraits of the betrayal of the nation for short-term gain in the title story, the pieces span South African society, weaving a complex, rich and vibrant picture of this land of contradictions and unsettled scores.

Mahala’s conversational style is one of the keys to the book’s success. From the very first page, he casts us as characters in his stories so that reading his words is like sitting down at the kitchen table with the protagonists as they tell you the latest gossip, reaching over now and then to tap you playfully on the arm – ‘Ag man, I forgot that you young people wouldn’t know those dresses,’ says the narrator of the first story, for example, as he attempts to describe a girl who caught his eye.

This familiarity combines with a winning audacity to make many of Mahala’s characters irresistibly likeable even as they cheat, lie and pull the wool over other people’s eyes. In ‘Hunger’, for example, an impoverished student’s attempts to impress a Danish woman with his family connections are very funny:

‘”Yes, he’s my grandfather,” I said. Traditionally speaking, I was telling the truth. Mandela shared the same clan name as my grandmother, and that made him my grandfather. But the closest I had come to meeting him was seeing him on TV.’

Behind the bravado, wit and ingenuity, however, lurks a starker, darker truth. Shaded into the background of every story is the monstrous injustice of a society weighted heavily against more than half its citizens on racial grounds. Sometimes this is present only in the fleeting choice of which road to run down after dark because ‘a black man fleeing with a parcel tucked under his arm […] could make a perfect shooting target’. At other times it erupts into the midst of stories, dragging lives off course, as in ‘White Encounters’, in which a maid loses her job for bringing her sick child to work and allowing him to play with the houseowner’s son.

Mahala, however, is careful not to allow his stories to become tales of us and them. Told from a variety of contradictory perspectives, which often see the narrators taking issue with one another’s descriptions of events, they are instead tales of me and me and me. We discover that the pious radio pastor of the previous story is running a racket and that the wronged woman is secretly pregnant with another man’s child. Or are they?

Memorable, fearless and funny, Mahala’s characters burst off the page. While apartheid may have engendered ‘a lingering bond that always brought [Africans] together’, Mahala’s stories prove that it did nothing to erase the individuality of those it sought to oppress. As this life-affirming and engrossing book shows us, nothing is ever truly black and white.

African Delights by Siphiwo Mahala (Jacana Media 2011)

Botswana: mind over matter

Mention the words ‘Botswana’ and ‘books’ in the same sentence these days (at least in the UK), and you’re almost certainly talking about Alexander McCall Smith. His No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series has been a smash hit since it burst on to the scene in 1999.

Unfortunately, as I discovered with Mia Couto in Mozambique, the trouble with such run-away successes, no matter how well-deserved, is that they tend to eclipse all other work from or about a particular country in the UK literary market. Their authors become the go-to wordsmiths for writing about a particular place and we forget that there might be other quite different texts out there.

This is bad for contemporary writing as it makes publishers less keen to scout for works to bring into the UK, but it takes its toll on classic literature too. There are some literary giants that we simply don’t hear about. For me Botswanan novelist Bessie Head was such a one.

Partly autobiographical, Head’s 1974 novel A Question of Power, tells the story of a mixed-race South African woman, Elizabeth, who comes to Botswana with her young son to make a new life. Desperate to shake off the abuse she witnessed and suffered in her homeland, ‘a country where people were not people at all’, she looks forward to a simpler existence filled with community life and working the land. It’s not long, however, before Elizabeth’s demons catch up with her and she is forced to confront the fact that much of the misery and sickness she grew up with has taken up residence in her own mind.

The book is one of the most powerful and vivid depictions of mental illness going. Dramatised through two characters, Dan and Sello, who come to visit Elizabeth at night, the narrative takes us through the rugged country of psychological dysfunction, charting its crushing lows and dizzying highs.

Head finds an impressive range of tangible metaphors to capture both ‘the grandeur of this view of life’ and the ‘sensation of living right inside a stinking toilet’ that accompany psychosis. So we hear how ‘a wide corridor opened up in [Elizabeth’s] mind’ and how at one point Sello appears to be ‘sitting at a switchboard plugging in the lines to all the beautiful people’, in addition to the visions of extreme violence and sexual cruelty that turn Elizabeth’s life into a waking nightmare.

Interspersed with these powerful periods of insanity are a series of interactions with the local community in which Head’s powers of observation and sense of the ridiculous combine to create a series of memorable cameo characters who all point to larger truths about the world. Chief among these is the ‘half-mad Camilla woman’, a Dutch volunteer at the community garden project Elizabeth joins who, in love with her own beneficence, is unable to look past her prejudices to meet people on their own terms. ‘Elizabeth’s nativeness form[s] the background to all her comments’ and when she comes to pronounce on Dutch literature, her true colours are revealed:

‘ “In our country culture has become so complex, this complexity is reflected in our literature. It takes a certain level of education to understand our novelists. The ordinary man cannot understand them…”

[…]

‘And she reeled off a list of authors, smilingly smug. It never occurred to her that those authors had ceased to be of any value whatsoever to their society.’

While excelling at tracing the steps by which psychotic episodes blow up and play out – the description of Elizabeth’s initial meltdown in the local radio shop, for example, is outstanding – Head makes a point of keeping the line between the real and the illusory blurred. This forces the reader to partake of Elizabeth’s bewilderment and share her conviction for much of the book than many of the things she sees are real.

This can give rise to flashes of frustration, but most readers will quickly come to trust Head’s obvious skill and give themselves over to her narrative. By the end, there can be no doubt of Head’s immense giftedness and her deserving of every bit as much recognition as other more widely read texts. An outstanding book.

A Question of Power by Bessie Head (Heinemann Publishers, 1974)