How can you gather together the stories of a continent... larger than China, Europe and the US put together?" editor Helon Habila asks in his introduction. "How can you anthologise "fifty-three countries, a billion people and over a thousand ethnic groups?"
The daunting nature of such an undertaking does not stop Habila from making a bold attempt. There are 29 stories here, by writers representing 20 countries. The youngest is Nigerian Chimamanda Adichie, born 1977; the oldest South African Alex La Guma, 1925-1985. Most stories were originally written in English, with a handful translated from the French, Portuguese and Arabic – reminders of the unifying role that colonisers' languages play on a continent of a thousand tongues.
Any anthology on this scale will no doubt be defined as much by the absences as by the inclusions. "Some of the best African writers simply don't write short stories," Habila explains.
Recurring themes include exile (Africans forced abroad by the search for a better life), return-from-exile (Moroccan Laila Lalami's story is titled "Homecoming", Namibian Milly Jafta's, "The Homecoming"), slum-dwelling, arranged marriages, and the antics of sexually exploitative tourists. The stories are as likely to be set in London or Paris as in Nairobi or Casablanca.
The prevailing tone is naturalistic. Death and dying loom large, sometimes creeping in disguised as something else, other times sudden, accidental and violent. There is strong humour as well (from Binyavanga Wainaina, Brian Chikwava, Alain Mabanckou, and the delightfully anarchic Dambudzo Marechera). But the sex – not often consensual or devoid of commerce – is almost always summarised. African writers, it seems, have a habit of flitting past the bedroom on the way to Somewhere Else More Important.
It is very interesting to read an anthology like this in the aftermath of the popular uprisings this year. "Gutless, spineless cowards! Since when has standing up for yourself ever been something to laugh about?" the unnamed protagonist of Rachida el-Charni's story (set in Tunis most likely) queries onlookers who do nothing to help when she tries fight a mugger.
There is no shortage of references to "roads" and "paths" and journeys: further confirmation of the enduring fascination African writers have with the motif of the road (as in Wole Soyinka's The Road and Ben Okri's The Famished Road). "But here there were neither roads nor paths; everything betokened disorder and decay," observes the narrator of Camara Laye's "The Eyes of The Statue". In Jafta's "The Homecoming", "the long dusty road ahead" of the narrator and her daughter is both real and metaphorical.
Some of the most satisfying stories here are the shortest; in their succinctness, Alaa Al Aswany, Jafta and Yvonne Vera are devastatingly powerful in their evocation of powerlessness. Conspicuous by its absence in this collection is the internet. Not a single person is to be found Googling or sending emails. Mobile phones show up only a handful of times, although in the Africa of the 21st century, Russian Kalashnikovs have largely given way to Chinese mobile phones.
Still, Habila has done an impressive job, given the challenges that accompany any attempt to capture "Africa". This anthology, home to some of the best writers anywhere in the world today, is a worthy introduction to the diversity and against-all-odds exuberance of the continent's people.