Margaret Busby is a pioneer in the literary world. In 1967, she became the first black woman to start a publishing company in Britain. The small company, Allison & Busby, was co-founded with Clive Allison, when both were recent university graduates. At first, it focused on poetry. Over the years, however, Busby, who was born in Ghana and educated in England, turned her attention to all writing by women of African descent. By 1992, after leaving the publishing firm, she had produced a compendium, “Daughters of Africa,” to fill a glaring literary gap.
Now Busby has met an even greater challenge. In a book published this year, she has not only updated the story of African women in the literary diaspora but also added 200 more writers — in fiction, poetry, drama, humor and nonfiction commentary — not included in her 1992 book. Her recently collected and edited work, “New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent,” includes writers scattered around the world from more than three dozen countries, many African or Caribbean.
Writers jumped at her invitations to contribute. “[W]riters not only came on board with enthusiasm and alacrity,” she wrote in introducing the anthology, “but often steered me in the direction of others whose work they admire, lest these were not already on my radar.”
The book contains universally recognized names, such as Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Edwidge Danticat. The anthology features many more names still to be discovered by readers.
“There is legitimacy in the joy and burden of one’s place of origin, the joy and burden of one’s place of settlement, the joy and burden of one’s adopted homeland, the affiliations rejected or chosen,” Busby, 74, noted in her introduction. While a resident of London for years and a well-known broadcaster, writer and literary critic who has been awarded several British honors, she understands the conflicting emotions of transplantation from a culture and familial roots. A bittersweet tone infuses numerous works.
A large proportion of the African writers in this book do not share the heavy burden of past slavery that ripped their ancestors from their home and obliterated their identities. The writers in the anthology are often the children of African independence, and they remain placed in their land and deep generational cultures. They know the villages where their grandparents are buried. Often their educations began in African (albeit colonial) institutions, from which they moved on to some of the best universities abroad and collected many fellowships and awards along the way. Still. . . .
Sisonke Msimang is a South African who has lived in Canada, Ethiopia, Kenya and Zambia and wrote a book in 2017, “Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home.” In a trenchant piece in this anthology, “Black Girl in America,” she wrote about how her proud sense of being an African was crushed in the United States. “All across the continent,” she said of her place in Africa, young people were “Africa’s promise, middle class children birthed with the purpose of walking away from the past with absolute confidence.
“The post-colonial children of the elite, whose parents’ hearts were filled with dreams, we carried the vision of a decolonized future in our smiles,” she wrote.
“In America I am given a new meaning. I am just a black girl.”
A poem, titled “Invocation,” by a renowned South African woman in theater and the arts, Lebogang Mashile, ends with these lines, which though cosmic in intent, resonate also as a personal plea:
Tell us what we have lost
We are not afraid of remembering
Tell us what has been erased
We are not afraid of time
Tell us who we once were
We are not afraid of ourselves
This is a big book, nearly 900 pages, born of a big idea: to catalog and offer samples of the contributors’ work and the often-migratory lives that inspired their writing. Its encyclopedic reach has been welcomed, although some criticisms have been made about its construction. Literary figures are listed by their decade of birth rather than by genre or country of origin.
Ladee Hubbard, the author of the novel “The Talented Ribkins” and other works, who was born in Massachusetts and lives in New Orleans, nevertheless wrote in a long review for The Times Literary Supplement in London: “Taken as a whole, the book constitutes a powerful affirmation of literary achievement. . . . Just as significantly, the anthology brings these works into dialogue with one another, becoming a potent assertion of a collective identity that transcends political, religious, linguistic, regional and generational boundaries.”
“New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent,” edited by Margaret Busby; 9780062912985
This review was updated.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.