Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Senegalese reading list

Here is an annotated version of my Senegalese reading list. I want to save future Googlers the work I did. It's an English-language list. French readers can expand it by a factor of 50 or so.

Especially useful books - books that really helped me prepare for Senegal - have been marked with an asterisk. This is entirely independent of literary merit. If there's no comment, I haven't read it. If there's a comment, I have. No Senegalese movies or music here, despite the quality of both. Most of the novels are extremely short, often 100 pages or less.

Suggestions and corrections are still welcome. Thanks to those who helped out with the original list.

Books by Senegalese authors

Ousmane Sembène: The Black Docker (1956) - Angry first novel, set in Marseilles.

*God's Bits of Wood (1960) - An account of a 1948 railway workers' strike. An epic in 240 pages, and a masterpiece. I'm amazed at how much Sembène stuffs into the novel.

*Tribal Scars (1962) - Short stories, some in the village, some in Dakar.

*The Money Order (1966) - A villager receives a money order from his relative in France. Then his troubles begin. Worthy of Chekhov.

White Genesis (1966) - Something horrible happens in a village. Only the griot will speak the truth. Perplexing, but illuminates the role of the griot in Senegalese society.

*Xala (1973) - A bigshot is struck with an impotence curse on the night of his marriage to his third wife. The funniest Sembène I've read, easily.

Also by Sembène: The Last of the Empire (1981), Niiwam & Taaw (1987)

Cheikh Amadou Kane: The Ambiguous Adventure (1961) - A didactic novel on the conflicts between tradition and modernity. I don't pretend to understand it well.

Mariama Bâ: *So Long a Letter (1979) - A reasoned feminist argument for women's autonomy and against multiple wives. A masterpiece of rhetoric, if not of art, and the best-selling novel in West African history.

Also by Mariama Ba: Scarlet Song (1986)

Aminata Sow Fall: *The Beggars' Strike, Or, The Dregs of Society (1981) - The Dakar government wants to get rid of the beggars. The beggars go on strike. Consequences ensue. Ingenious. In Senegal, I actually saw a news report in which a government official said she wanted to crack down on the children who beg as part of their religious schooling. Strike! Strike!

Birago Diop: Tales of Amadou Koumba (1947/1958) - Fine adaptations of traditonal stories, often animal fables. Diop was also a distinguished poet.

Myriam Warner-Vieyra: As the Sorceror Said (1980) - Not actually about Senegal at all. Warner-Vieyra is Gaudeloupan now living in Senegal. This one is a good girl-pushed-to-the-edge story, about a Gaudaloupan girl in France.

Juletane (1982) - A different Guadaloupan girl in France marries a Senegalese man, and goes to Senegal with him. Things don't go well. Another sharp feminist novel, the crazed alternative to Mariama Ba's rationalism.

Ken Bugul: The Abandoned Baobab (1982)

Fatou Diome: The Belly of the Atlantic (2001)

Djibril Niane: Soundjata (1965)

Leopold Senghor: Poems - A Collected Poems has been published, but the 1964 Selected Poems is probably better suited for most of us. Also see the Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry.

Books about Senegal by non-Senegalese authors

Mungo Park: Travels in the Interior of Africa (1799) - An all-time great travel book. One young Scot attempts to be the first European to visit Timbuktu. He doesn't make it on this trip, lucky for him, emerging from the bush with nothing but rags and his enormous hat, stuffed with his notes. The first place to go for a look at pre-colonial West Africa.

Mark Hudson: *The Music in My Head (1998) - See here. A great book about Senegalese music, and about Dakar.

Reginald McKnight: *Moustapha's Eclipse (1988) - A short story collection of high quality. Three of the stories are inspired by McKnight's experiences in Senegal, the others are about American racial complications. I need to read more of his work.

Also by Reginald McKnight: I Get on the Bus (1990), He Sleeps (2002), and others.

Michael Palin: Sahara (2002) - Senegal is passed through. Well-observed and funny, with good photos.

Jean Baptiste Henri Savigny and Alexander Corréaud: Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal in 1816 (1817) - A great account of a famous shipwreck, with some incidental historical information about Senegal.

Peter Biddlecombe: French Lessons in Africa

Akihiro Yamamura: Senegal

Peter Matthiessen: African Silences

Ryszard Kapuscinski: The Shadow of the Sun

Susan Lowerre: Under the Neem (1990)

Katharine Kane: *Lonely Planet Guide to Senegal and The Gambia - The best written Lonely Planet guide I've used. Meine frau had lunch with the author, while I went out looking for a place to buy shampoo. For a city of 3 million people, Dakar is a small place.


  1. This is a wonderful list and thank you for taking the time to put it together. You remind me how many authors I should look up. I think its a wonderful idea to focus on one country this way, I'll have to keep it in mind for a project next year when my Gordimer work comes to a close.

  2. Thanks, I hope people find it useful. I will try this again as well, maybe next with 19th century Yiddish literature, which I think is manageable. That will be post-Japan, though. Did I mention Japan? I should write something about Japan.

  3. Peter Biddlecombe's French Lessons in Africa is a very droll book about traveling in French West Africa from a businessman's perspective. Laugh-out-loud funny in spots, and well worth a look.

  4. Next time for Biddlecombe, definitely next time.

  5. Thank you -- you really did your research! The onyl thing I read before going was Kapuscinski's In the Shadow of the Sun which was nevertheless incredible. I also bought Dark Star Safari by Theroux, but didn't read it because all my friends who had read it found it depressing beyond words. (But also good.) I want to read So Long a Letter soon though.

  6. I should add the Kapuscinski to the list. I'm pretty sure that Theroux's route didn't pass through West Africa at all, so that one stays off.

    You'll enjoy So Long a Letter - did you happen to pass by the Mariama Ba Girls' School on Gorée?

  7. I added a link to this list to my "Africa" post. Thanks for sharing it!

  8. thanks for this list! I have a hold request in at my library for God's Bit of Wood!

  9. Rebecca, excellent. I hope you enjoy Sembène. It's a heck of a book. This is obviously sunjective, but the novel really felt West African to me. I've been to two, I think, locations used in the novel.

  10. Can you believe it... I read almost all of the novels and more. Sounds a bit show-offish, I know. Sorry. I liked Mariama Bâ and Ken Bugul best. Thanks for your post. It is good to spread the word. There are so many great novels outsie of the US and Europe.

  11. Show-offish, no, that's wonderful. I'll get to the Bugul novel some day, inshallah.

  12. Spelling: Akahiro Yamamura >> Akihiro Yamamura


    M. le Pedant

  13. Nearly 10 years on from your post I'm writing a story set in Senegal in the 18th/19th century. I didn't realise how difficult research would be, and this has been the most helpful resource I've found in 2 days - thanks! I just wish there were accounts from locals of the era around - it's a shame a lot of the most important voices are not recorded, get lost, or are not translated and accessible.