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Learning about Ourselves by Reading about Other Cultures: A Visit to Africa

by Kristin Anderson on 2020-06-23T09:39:00-07:00 in Diversity, Book List, Historical Fiction | Comments

I tend to process big ideas by reading fiction. So, while I have read my share of nonfiction, I tend to feel my brain “leveling up” and broadening my perspective when I am reading fiction. This broadening has a very specific kind of “ooooooh, now I get it” feeling to it… and I have learned to love this feeling and seek it out. Most recently I experienced this while reading a book about a place I’ve never been: Zambia… and through visiting Zambia with Namwali Serpell, in The Old Drift I was able to process harms done against the Indigenous population in the United States by looking at it through the lens of a story about a different place and time than our own... because much of recent African literature has anti-colonialism themes that have parallels here today.

So, let me tell you a little bit about The Old Drift: Spanning more than a century of Zambian history, from colonization (which is clearly not the beginning of history in that place, but which, as the author points out, is often where Zambia’s history is considered to start because it starts with white man, because of course it does). Through generations of family, some originating in Zambia, some in Italy, and some in England, their histories interweave until the near-future final generation starts dismantling the system from within. Throughout, mosquitos form a sort of Greek chorus. Walking in the steps of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie’s sweeping historical works before her, Serpell creates her own unique magical realistic fiction that follows the origin story of a colonially-created country that has become its own.

Here’s the thing, the voices of those who originated in Africa were a part of the story throughout. What makes me sad about our own country after reading this, is the fact that the combined voices of Native Americans aren’t as loud a voice in the ongoing cultural evolution of our country as they could be. Because this is the direct result of genocide and other ongoing injustices committed against them by America’s colonizers it sits heavy in the context of this story as I approach it as a reader from this place and this time. This is not because the United States as a place is inherently different, but because of choices that have been made by the dominant culture. The author likely had very little thought of how this book would be read in other countries, and that’s what makes the message all the more powerful. It is a by-product of the reader's perspective, not the author’s. This is why reading books centering other cultures different than our own and perspectives other than our own is so helpful for our own personal growth.

All of this inspired me to build a resource list of books written by and about those from African countries, some I’ve read and some I want to read. If you want to read The Old Drift or another title that will take you this huge and diverse continent, click here to browse and reserve some titles. If this post has gotten you thinking about our own indigenous population, check out this list of Native American authors.

What “aha” moments have you had thanks to fiction?


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