The Possibilities of Africa: A Talk with Author/Journalist J.M. Ledgard

Look over this week’s list of forthcoming March 2014 titles, and you will be struck immediately by the presence of African and African diaspora writers. The picks include Teju Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief, set in Lagos and following up his original, eye-popping debut, Open City; and Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names, another in his string of remarkable novels about ordinary individuals caught between Africa (especially African revolution) and America. Then there’s The Orchard of Lost Souls from Nadifa Mohamed, an award winner like Cole and Mengestu, whose second novel explores civil war in Somalia.

Look back at recent issues of Prepub Alert, and you’ll spot more literature rooted in the African experience. In Radiance of Tomorrow, Ishmael Beah goes beyond A Long Way Gone, his heartbreaking account of serving as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war, to offer a first novel reflecting on the war’s aftermath. Caine Prize winner Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust, recommended in Sally Bissell’s forthcoming LJ review to “all readers seeking truth and beauty in their literature,” examines the legacy of colonial rule and subsequent upheaval in Kenya.

Sally, my smart go-to reviewer for African-themed literature, also praised Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Noviolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, and Eleanor Morse’s White Dog Fell from the Sky, all titles featured here earlier this year. Then there’s Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, the story of New York–based Nigerian cabbie Ike and his quest to steal a statue from his village, which both former LJ review editor Molly McArdle and I highlighted as BEA Editors’ Picks this summer.

All of which confirms my belief that African literature is the upcoming literature to watch—precisely because Africa is the upcoming region to watch, fraught with change. J.M. Ledgard, an Africa-based reporter for the Economist and the author of two laceratingly beautiful novels, 2006’s Giraffe and the recently published Submergence, says it with more authority: “Right now, Africa is just about the most interesting place on the planet. What will happen there in next decades and the choices made will determine our destiny for the next century.”

I caught up with Ledgard last spring for a whirlwind interview in New York, where he had been promoting Submergence, and have since wanted to draw on our conversation to highlight the possibilities of Africa I’ve seen articulated in the work of some extraordinary writers today (including his). Ledgard delivered a sharp and urgent sense of a continent at the crossroads—the world’s crossroads, in fact, with global political stability and the sheer survival of our remaining species hanging in the balance. “Will we favor our obsession with money over long-term sustainability?” mused Ledgard. “We can’t afford to make the same mistakes twice.”

One of our most heinous mistakes, from Ledgard’s perspective, is the destruction of the environment—with “the biomass down 90 percent. It won’t exist for our grandchildren. Even leaving aside the moral issues, that’s just plain stupid.” In both of Ledgard’s novels, we see a deep attachment to nature—and not just Ledgard’s attachment but our own. Giraffe opens with the birth of a baby giraffe and ends shatteringly with the slaughter of an entire captive herd, an unaccountable act because “we cohabit this planet with wild creatures.” Ledgard’s first peek at a giraffe calf in the African bush was for him a “profound and emotional experience.”

Submergence, meanwhile, features a mathematician who plies her skills in a submersible and was inspired partly by Ledgard’s love of the ocean. The Shetland Islands–born author was routinely left in his pram on the foam-whipped beach, and he’s even spent time at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts to learn how we plumb the stilly deep, which brought him “a wholly different perception of the planet we live on.” Even as we negotiate politics and violence, love and sex, we must remember that evolution took billions of years. Now, we’re rapidly destroying what has evolved—which could eventually include ourselves, emergent in the Rift Valley that Ledgard still finds awe-inspiring.

Africa could be the showcase for humanity’s righting itself, with so much depending on how its youthful population handles such an enormous responsibility. Over half of African population is under 17, and “you can feel the colossal vibrancy in the youth,” says Ledgard. Such vibrancy promises a reshaped society; witness the hopeful schoolteachers in Beah’s Radiance of Tomorrow and the young writer who narrates Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief, who rediscovers himself as he rediscovers Lagos.

But young people everywhere can explode angrily and unpredictably, like the jihadists who gruesomely confine captured British agent James More in Submergence. Calling himself a pragmatist with no strong politics, Ledgard subtly shows us how far we can go in understanding political grievance, then how it must be separated from sociopathic behavior. If Submergence is “a hard-edged, ultracontemporary work, as the New York Times Book Review said (also calling it “a deep immersion in [the] well-imagined characters and setting”), it’s because grand, ancient Africa is hard-edged and ultracontemporary, too.

Nairobi may have a modest road system compared with Utica, NY, as Ledgard points out, but Africa is embracing technology. Ledgard showed me a picture of several armed young men, one holding a Smartphone, and observed that “that kid has more communication in his hand than the President 20 years ago.” The ability to communicate can have some unexpected consequences; Amanda Lindhout, whose humbling A House in the Sky recounts her 460 days of captivity in Somalia, has reported that her captors subsequently contacted her via Facebook to praise her continued humanitarian work for their country. But such communication will help build a society—and fast.

As Ledgard sees it, Africa—and particularly its young people—have “tremendous opportunities in art, science, and advanced knowledge, available at a pretty low cost.” To see how those opportunities play out, stay tuned to what Ledgard calls “the slow-burning staying power of literature.” It will bring better understanding for us all.



Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.


  1. Sally Bissell says:

    Hi Barbara, Thanks for the shout out and the lovely article on the gorgeous literature coming from African writers. I heard you tout Submergence on the Kojo Namdi show and then it flew right under my radar screen. Placing a hold right now!

  2. Karl Helicher says:

    Excellent column with many good recommendations, Barbara! One to add: Ivan Vladislavic’s DOUBLE NEGATIVE. Vlad. is an African writer and this excellent novel, published in Africa a few years ago and being reissued now in the US, tells of a conflicted young man who experiences the evils of apartheid during its death throes in the 1980s. Teju Cole wrote the introduction. Best, Karl

  3. Mark Wentling says:

    Although my location in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso has delayed my pleasure in seeing this excellent piece by and about Ledgard I am delighted to read many of the thoughts he expounds.
    I am an American from Kansas in the US who has spent over 43 years working and living in every corner of Africa, and much of what Ledgard says agrees with my own conclusions. I am attempting to write a trilogy of books that convey an entertaining story while conveying many lessons about trying to help Africa progress. The first, “Africa’s Embrace,” of these three books was published last September and I am pleased with its initial reviews. I wish for a way to bring my book to the attention of Ledgard. It is available on Amazon and Kindle.