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Short books, carefully chosen: the alluring path to African lit

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Not long ago, I met a young woman who had taken a college course in African literature. "What did you read?" I enthusiastically inquired. I was in the midst of rethinking the African lit course I am teaching this fall.

A quizzical expression settled on her face. Obviously her thoughts had not revisited that course in the five or six years since she graduated.

"Things Fall Apart?" I suggested. "Chinua Achebe. Nigerian."

"I think maybe," she acknowledged. Then she grinned sheepishly. She had not expected to be quizzed about her college course work. "I really didn't read all the books," she admitted.

There it was out in the open, the dilemma of teaching literature to a generation accustomed to absorbing visual, rather than literary, information. I felt a visceral twitch.

I am only a visiting professor. Even so, I do understand that reading books and acquiring an education are only the ostensible reasons for going to college. These activities rate much higher: making lifelong friends, cementing those friendships by getting into and out of memorable scrapes, checking out the possibilities of finding a life partner, keeping up with fashion and celebrities. Oh, yes, and trying to figure out what will be on the tests so as not to waste time acquiring insights and information that will not be required for regurgitation.

Given these realities of college life, I have taken defensive action in my African literature course. Since Americans generally get information about Africa from news reports – most of it negative – I want students to read what Africans themselves have to say. I am asking them to master ... er, study ... well, at least read 10 books in as many weeks. And so I have chosen books they might actually enjoy.

One is Camara Laye's "The Dark Child," with its warm recollections of growing to manhood and falling in love in West Africa – and being given the heart-wrenching opportunity of postsecondary study in France. My students will have left home just as Laye does and will understand the loneliness he encounters.

In Mark Mathabane's "Kaffir Boy" they will meet a young South African. With grit and persistence (not bad qualities for college students to contemplate), he claws his way out of an apartheid ghetto and leaves for a better life in the United States.

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