Turning the Page by Peter Leyland


Turning the Page – "African Novels" *


It was by chance rather than design that my course on “African Novels” just happened to coincide with two momentous events in the world of African writing. The first was the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Abdulrazak Gurnah who was born in Zanzibar and who has written 10 novels dealing with displacement and dislocation; the second was the award of The Booker Prize to Damon Galgut for his novel, The Promise, set in South Africa. This book I bought when it was first published because I am a great fan of the writer; the books by Gurnah I will explore further when I have time. 


And indeed there will be time, to paraphrase the poet, T.S.Eliot, as this will be my last course for the WEA. I know now as I write that at the end of “African Novels” I will not be doing any more teaching, that there will be no more lengthy drives to Ivinghoe where I am holding my final course, no more opening up the centre and setting out the chairs for my awaited students. No more positioning the flip chart stand so that everyone can see. Everything, I suppose, must have an end.


The pandemic meant that I had not met the group based here for two years and in that intervening time we have all become older, less able to travel. Now they arrive in taxis, and I have to negotiate a variety of unforeseen roadworks, forcing me down a number of circuitous routes. Thank goodness for Satnav, I say to myself as I arrive at the centre a good half hour before the start. I pull up, retrieve the key from the coded box attached to the wall and unlock the door…


Today is the second session on Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. For this I have listened to the writer being interviewed on the World Book Club, made some notes, and have written a chapter-by-chapter summary of the novel. It is the harrowing story of the Biafran war which took place in the 1960s, an event of which I have my own dim memory and which one or two of the group remember too, although many of them were too busy raising families to have a precise recollection of the events depicted.


And some of these are as I said, harrowing – Olanna’s journey by train as she returns from finding the dead bodies of her uncle and aunt and seeing the woman sitting next to her with her baby’s head in a calabash; Richard, leaving on a flight from the airport and witnessing the bloody massacre of a group of Igbo people by Nigerian soldiers. The story, as Adichie said in her World Book Club interview, is one that she had to tell. 


As I arrange the chairs in a semi-circle I think of how I began the course five weeks ago, introduced with a quotation from Chinua Achebe, another Nigerian writer and father of African literature:


“I tell my students, it is not difficult to identify with somebody like yourself, somebody next door that looks like you.


What’s more difficult is to identify with someone you don’t see, who’s very far away, who’s a different colour, who eats a different kind of food.


When you begin to do that then literature is really performing its wonders.” 


We have looked at Achebe’s book, Things Fall Apart, and I have summarised events in the novel for the group. They were not always impressed by my interpretation of the story:


“What about all the women?” asked David at the end of my exposition and yes, he was right for I had concentrated my teaching on the story of Okonkwo, a tragic character of Shakespearean dimensions, who in the book suffers a series of defeats and who at the end takes his own life. I had neglected the story of Ekwefi, his second wife, all of whose children were either still-born or suffered an early death, until the arrival of Ezinma who survived. Do we all read books differently I wonder, depending on who we are?


We have tackled July’s People by Nadine Gordimer. This is the story of a white South African family who are sheltered by their black servant during the chaotic violence that engulfs the country after the apartheid system is overthrown. If you know the book, it is an imagined story that Gordimer wrote to explore the predicament of liberal whites caught up in the changes that swept across South Africa before the 1984 State of Emergency. (De Klerk who took over from P.W. Botha as Premier at the time has recently died.) The ending of the novel is striking as the lead character, Maureen, runs towards the sound of a helicopter landing in the distance. Will she reach it and escape her white middle class family responsibilities the author seems to be asking?



Laura is 93 and is unable to walk unaided. Fourteen years ago through a chance contact she invited me to teach her local WEA (adult education) literature class because their tutor had moved away. I had just returned from a visit to Cambodia where I had been staying with my sister. I had recently retired from teaching children and had seized upon the opportunity to travel to a place where I could clear my head of any regrets about retirement. When I returned I found Laura's invitation. I had never taught literature before despite having a degree in the subject as long as my arm. Life had intervened. The WEA class, which had been founded some years before, was then held in the village library and I can remember Greta and I setting out the chairs around the precariously stacked shelves, which had to be wheeled into place to accommodate the students. I have now taught over thirty courses to this class, ranging from authors like William Faulkner to Penelope Fitzgerald, and from novels to short stories to novellas and back to novels again. People have come and gone, but apart from illness and bereavement Laura and Greta have never failed to attend.


Laura now takes my arm and I help her over the uneven ground of the car park to where her taxi awaits. Once installed in the cab with three of the other students, she is driven away and I return to the empty centre, shutting the windows and turning off the heat and the light. Today most of the group have managed to stack their chairs. I close the door and return the key to the coded box on the wall.


Next week we will begin our final novel, Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga. It is a coming-of-age story and contains a great deal of humour. Literature will again perform its wonders I think to myself. The page turns and I drive away.

*Names have been changed

References: Africa Turns the Page on BBC1 presented by David Olusoga


                    The Future is African Literature, an essay by Ben Okri (pictured)

                    The Companionship of Books by Peter Leyland in INSTED Vol.23 No. 2(90), 2021



LyzzyBee said…
What a wonderful essay! I have been exploring some African novels, although I just can't cope with reading about extreme violence, however much I know such books are vital and we must stand witness, too. Doing my best to read what I can and share it out on my blog, though.
Reb MacRath said…
Great post, Peter. You've introduced me to a new literary world that I plan to start exploring next year.
Marina Sofia said…
What a shame that this is coming to an end! Saying goodbye is always so bittersweet. I am sure you will miss the teaching and the discussions, although not the journey there and all the extra preparation. It will be nice to read purely for pleasure again, too.
Griselda Heppel said…
Your course sounds terrific. I've read Things Fall Apart and I can see why you concentrated on the tragic main character rather than on his wives. So does Achebe, who is perhaps only reflecting late nineteenth century attitudes (when the story is set), or even the world of 1958 (when he wrote it). I've heard of Half of a Yellow Sun and should read it but it sounds very harrowing... not sure I can cope either!

Does anyone read Alan Paton anymore? Cry the Beloved Country must be dated now but the extraordinary quality of the writing and the incredibly moving storyline make it a classic.

Thanks for sharing all these authors!
Peter Leyland said…
What great comments. Thanks. The final session yesterday was brilliant too with eight of the sixteen students talking about the leading characters in the books. Four of them were men which gives the lie to the idea that men don't read novels.

I do like Alan Paton Griselda and Too Late the Phalarope is a favourite. The students always play a big part in choosing the books so I had to negotiate carefully between the post-colonial and the literary before finalising the course. I just about got it right I think. Half of a Yellow Sun was difficult, but Kainene came out as the most interesting character of of all the books I thought.

I would highly recommend David Olusog's programme and Damon Galgut's The Promise.

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