LOUD WHISPERS: Thirty Of My Favourite Books
‘A reader lives a thousand lives before s/he dies, the one who never reads lives only one’
George R.R. Martin
I won a prize when I was eight years old for being ‘the best read student in the school’, going by the number of books I took out of the library, so this means I have always been a bibliophile- a lover of books. It is no surprise that I met (and married) another bibliophile, guess where – in a library! As we celebrate World Book Day on April 23rd, I thought I should share a list of some books that have influenced me over the years. In compiling this list, I tried to stay away from books we all had to read when we were in school, because I wanted the focus to be on books I chose to read other than those I had to read in order to get through school. This is why the books of Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Orwell, Jonathan Swift, Alexandre Dumas and many of the famous books from the African Writers Series are not on this list.
In the good old days of the original Heinemann African Writers’ Series, we used to compete with each other over how many we had read, it did not matter if the books were recommended school texts or not. We grew up seeing the contestations of an Africa finding its way in a changing world, through the eyes of Ngugi wa Thiong’O, T.M. Aluko, Elechi Amadi, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ama Ata Aidoo, Denis Brutus, Ayi Kwei Armah, Okot p’Bitek, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta and so many others. We also invested heavily in James Hadley Chase, Harold Robbins, Nick Carter and Jeffrey Archer novels. I did not care much for Denise Robbins and Mills and Boon romance novels, but, hey, a young girl needs to dream about love, so I did have a lengthy relationship with Barbara Cartland’s fairy tale-ending novels. As a young adult in my early twenties, I acquired a taste for the steamy ‘bodice-ripper’ genre through the novels of Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers. My mother picked up one of my ‘bodice rippers’ once, she started to read it, and then asked me when I would be buying another one! When I was young, we read because we knew no other way of exploring the world. Yes, we had television, but our viewing window was restricted to the two hours between after we had finished our homework and we heard Dad’s car turning in.
A good book took us back in time to ancient lands around the world. We could take part in treasure hunts, wars, death defying stunts, exciting car chases and high wired schemes of clever criminals that writers such as James Hardley Chase liked to champion. We could also acquaint ourselves with the constant struggles between tradition and modernity, through the lives and choices of Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo and Flora Nwapa’s Idu and Efuru. Whether we were looking for action, drama, history, romance, sex (yes, we read those too!) or fables as our means of escape into another world, there was a book we could read. Fast forward to now, we are literally begging our children to read something that goes beyond 140 characters. Everything is now ‘too long’, ‘too intense’, ‘too deep’.
When I was in my first year at University of Ife (now OAU), 1980/81, I was in the History department and I took an elective, the History of Theatre in the Drama Department. My lecturer, Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi asked us one day if any of us had read Walter Rodney’s ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’. None of us had. Dr Ogunbiyi proceeded to declare all of us illiterates who had somehow managed to impersonate their way into his classroom posing as students. ‘How can you be in University and you have not read Walter Rodney’s book’? he asked. After the lecture we all fled to look for the book and we made sure we read it before we presented ourselves in his next class. In our day, it was not that our parents and teachers did not make us feel like idiots every now and then. The difference is that it mattered to us. We did not think that being called ‘illiterates’ while we were in a University was a good thing, so we went out of our way to prove them wrong and fix the problem. Even though it is currently difficult to get hold of certain books, now we have the internet which provides access in ways we could only dream of then.
A book from my school days did find its way on to this list – Chinua Achebe’s ‘Man of the People’. You might wonder why I did not choose ‘Things Fall Apart’ because not only was it a compulsory literature text when I was in high school, it is one of the greatest books of our time. I loved ‘Things Fall Apart’, but ‘Man of the People’ resonated with me more, as a frank tale about political power, ethnicity, gender, caste and class in a post-colonial State. I found to my relief – thanks to Google and Amazon, I no longer need to labour to find an exact publication date and name of publisher, it has been made easy, thanks to ‘new school’! I hereby present my list, in no particular order, and I hope it inspires you to draw one up too. These are just a few of the books that helped shaped my thinking in the fields of history, cultural studies, feminism, Diaspora politics, Pan-Africanism, development and human rights.
- ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’, by Walter Rodney‘, 1972
- ‘Black Skin, White masks’ by Frantz Fanon, 1952
- ‘Man of the People’ by Chinua Achebe, 1966
- ‘The Joys of Motherhood’ by Buchi Emecheta, 1979
- ‘Efuru’ by Flora Nwapa, 1966
- ‘So long a letter’ by Mariama Ba, 1981
- ‘Jagua Nana’ by Cyprian Ekwensi, 1961
- ‘The History of the Yorubas’ by Samuel Johnson, 1921
- ‘Black Feminists Speak Out’ Feminism and Oppression in Black Africa, by Awa Thiam, 1978
- ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ by bel Hooks, 1981
- ‘Infidel’ : My Life, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 2007
- ‘You Must Set Forth at Dawn’ : A memoir, by Wole Soyinka, 2006
- ‘Daughters of the Goddess, Daughters of Imperialism’: African Women, Culture, Power and Democracy, Ifi Amadiume, University of Chicago Press, 2000
- ‘The Female Eunuch’ by Germaine Greer, 1970
- ‘Women, Race and Class’ Angela Davies, 1981
- ‘I know why the caged bird sings’ (the first of a six volume autobiography) by Maya Angelou, 1969 onwards.
- ‘Anything we love can be saved’ by Alice Walker, 1997
- ‘The Bandit Queen of India’: An Indian woman’s amazing journey from peasant to international legend, by Phoolan Devi, with Marie-Therese Cuny and Paul Rambali, 2006
- ‘One hundred years of solitude’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 2006
- ‘The Red Tent’ by Anita Diamant, Martin’s Press, 1997
- ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’ by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, 1982
- ‘Our Sister KillJoy’ by Ama Ata Aidoo, 1977
- ‘Integrative Feminisms’: Building Global Visions 1960s-1990s by Angela Miles, 1996
- ‘What I hope to leave behind’: The essential essays of Eleanor Roosevelt, 1995
- ‘Omoluwabi 2.0’ : A code of Transformation in 21st Century Nigeria by Adewale Ajadi, 2012
- ‘NGAMBIKA: Studies of Women in African Literature’ edited by Carole Boyce- Davies & Anne Adams Graves, Africa World Press 1986
- ‘Speak Rwanda’, a collection of short stories on the Rwandan Genocide, Julian Pierce, 1999
- ‘Part of my Soul went with him’ – Winnie Mandela, 1984
- ‘That thing round your neck’, a short story collection by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2009
- ‘Beasts of No Nation’ by Uzodinma Iweala, 2005
In addition to drawing up a list of your favourite books, regardless of the generation you belong to, I would also like you to write down a list of books you have not read and would like to read. The Above Whispers team will give away some free books to the first ten respondents. Let us bring back a culture of reading. I could have shared my favourite 100 books, or given reasons why I like each these 30 titles, but then that would have been ‘too long, too intense and too deep’! Happy World Book Day!
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com