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Binyavanga Wainana on Kojo Laing

By Binyavanga Wainana
Posted on Saturday, 22 January 2011 17:12

In the last of our mini series asking African writers to pay homage to their literary legends, the Kenya writer says Ghana’s Kojo Laing makes a world like no other: intimate, urgent, strange.

Read Parselelo Kantai on why African literary legends continue to inspire, Helon Habila on why Zimbabwean novelist Dambudzo Marechera was a “new post-nationalist writer” and why Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie feels a deep gratitude to Ama Ata Aidoo.

I picked up Search Sweet Country in a flea market in London. I had never heard of the novel before or its author, Kojo Laing. It is a difficult book, but I could not stop myself from dipping into it randomly for months. I carried it everywhere – the language is extraordinary. Even before I had read it, I know it had that thing that I look for so much and increasingly rarely find. Laing makes a world like no other: intimate, urgent, familiar and very, very strange. I have read it 11 times.

It fits no known category. It isn’t magic realism, but it has magic. It is unashamedly and lyrically poetic, but is a working book of prose fiction. It is bawdy, talkative, funny, deeply wise, shamelessly romantic, utterly unsentimental, and every single scene is like nothing I have read before.

It is his ability to build the city of Accra through a cast of characters that is his strongest achievement. He does not separate the city from its people, its people from its other people, people from the land, body from history. Each character is presented in a unique way, each one has a metaphysical life, a spiritual life – it is as if we are able to look into the lines of invisible energy that connect the city, the very spirit of the residents of a city, their dreams and urgencies, their links to each other, to space and time and markets and food and love. We see them at once as individuals and always as part of a larger organism.

Accra is really the main character of this novel – it is not the setting, it is a breathing, throbbing creature. Yet the internal life of each person as an irreplaceable individual is fully achieved. It is a towering book. I am glad the African Writers Series is finally releasing it as a classic.

This article was first published in the October-November 2010 edition of The Africa Report.