By Edward Nawotka
On the face of it, Rob Spillman is an unlikely candidate to be editor of Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing. He is, after all, a white guy from Brooklyn.
“A few years ago I published an international issue of Tin House, the literary journal I edit,” says Spillman. “For six months I immersed myself in writers from around the world. I thought there was a real vitality in Africa, an urgency that writers from Europe and elsewhere lacked.”
Later, as guest editor at a literary festival in Nairobi, where he worked with Binyavanga Wainaina, author and publisher of the literary journal Kwani?, he became fully intoxicated.
Since then, Spillman has become an advocate for African voices in the United States, regularly discussing them in bookstores, at literary festivals and in the media. His July 2007 piece for Vanity Fair magazine, “The Continental Shelf,” co-written with his wife Elissa Schappell, introduced numerous voices to an broad American readership, even if some of those voices were already in print in book form in the States.
Spillman’s Gods and Soldiers, focuses on the young and interesting as much as on the tried and true. Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe, Zimbabwe’s Yvonne Vera, Somalia’s Nuruddin Farah, and Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o get their due; but so do fresh voices, such as Alain Mabanckou from the Republic of Congo, South Africa’s Niq Mhlongo, and Morocco’s Laila Lalami.
In all, the book includes 30 pieces divided by regions – West Africa, Francophone Africa, North Africa, East Africa, the Former Portuguese Colonies and Southern Africa. Works are translated from Arabic, Zulu and numerous languages in between. Accordingly, says Spillman, you get a sense of the different issues across the continent.
“A writer like Laila Lalami is writing about the colonial past – in her piece she writes of growing up in Morocco reading French and not Moroccan authors,” says Spillman. “It wasn’t until she got to college that she discovered her own country’s writings. While Niq Mhlongo is part of a generation of South African’s in their 20s and 30s that is tired of fighting their parent’s battles. Apartheid is like history to them. He’s more concerned with the day-to-day life in a sprawling city like Johannesburg.”
Spillman admits that a book such as this could in no way be considered comprehensive and would likely look different if edited by an African. “It would also look different if edited by a European, where they have a pre-existing relationship with the continent, or for that matter, by an Asian.”
He points out that there are 54 nations and over 2,000 languages in Africa. “So there’s no way I could be an expert,” he says. “But being more of a generalist, I could have more of a purely literary reaction to the work. It came down to me and whether I liked it.”
As for readers whose only exposure to African writing has been the work of Alexander McCall Smith, Spillman encourages them to try something “meatier,” while promising that, despite the cover which depicts a young girl cowering from a man with a gun, the anthology is not “all depressing.”
“If I’ve done my job well,” says Spillman, “this book should serve as a gateway drug. As an anthologist, what I’m trying to do is get readers hooked.”
READ: Binyavanga Wainaina’s seminal article “How to Write about Africa”
BUY: Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary Africa Writing
TELL US: How this anthology might be different if edited by an African?