Edited and with an introduction by Olu Oguibe, 'Sojourners: new writing by Africans in Britain'

IssueMarch 2005
Review by Sarah Irving

The British literary scene is pretty infatuated with English language writing by Indians and the Asian diaspora. Figures such as Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie are established icons, and newer names like Monica Ali have massive sales. Black British writers of Afro-Caribbean descent are also widely known, despite the discrimination they still face in getting published.

With one or two prominent exceptions, such as Chinua Achebe or Wole Soyinka, African writers are much less widely known in the UK. This compilation of poetry and short stories by African writers living in the UK is, therefore, a fascinating contribution to the literature available to British readers.

Olu Oguibe's introduction sets the stories and poems in a historical context which features the expected analysis of imperialist and colonialist history and of more recent oppressions and waves of economic and asylum seeking migration. However, it also contributes a range of historical facts that demonstrate the length of time that Africans have been present in Britain and the unnoticed contributions that African cultures must have been making to that of these isles. According to Oguibe, Africans have been present in Britain since Roman times as soldiers, merchants and slaves (as long, if not longer, as the Anglo-Saxons who tout their “rights” to this country so loudly and offensively).

As with all compilations, the quality of the actual literature in this book is variable. The writers cover a wide spectrum, from the well-known Ben Okri to those for whom writing is a hobby or second occupation. Some were born in the UK, others, according to the brief biographies in the end pages, came to Britain with their careers or as refugees. This variety is reflected in the writing, some of which deals with the experiences of recent migrants facing cultural and linguistic challenges - as in one high point of the collection, Gbenga Agbenugba's London for Gburu, a snapshot of life which juxtaposes a Twi naming ceremony with cleaners travelling to work on the early-morning buses. Another piece, Esiaba Irobi's Horizons, is a bitter evocation of transient exile existence in a string of world cities, while Bola Makinjuola's Johnny-Just-Come is a pointed, sarcastic depiction of exploitation and tokenism in white-run workplaces and the variations in the experiences and emotions of different classes or immigrants. In contrast, Taata Ofuso's prison diaries look to the events that drive people into exile, describing the horrific brutality, pettiness and monotony of political incarceration.

Let down only by occasionally sloppy proofreading, this book is recommended as an important contribution to the literature of exile, and a series of conscience pricking images of the variety of African experience in Britain.

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