Too much of a very good thing

Monday Book Review

June 28, 1993|By D. R. Fair

DAUGHTERS OF AFRICA. Edited by Margaret Busby. Pantheon Books. 1,089 pages. $35. WHEN I first laid eyes on "Daughters of Africa," I was thrilled. To think that here were a thousand pages dedicated solely to the writing of women of African descent!

"Over 200 women writers from across the globe," the dust jacket promises, "from Angola to Zimbabwe, Brazil to Uruguay, Barbados to Santa Domingo, Canada to Scotland, the U.S.A. to Russia." Ms. Busby has taken to heart the call of Maria W. Stewart in 1835: "Show forth to the world that ye are endowed with noble and exalted faculties."

Ms. Busby begins the book with traditional African love poems, work songs, lullabies and the like and concludes it with poems and prose by women who were raised and/or are living in exile in other parts of the world (Russia, Germany, England). Between, there are Egyptian love songs; speeches by Queen Hatshepsut (1501-1447 B.C.) and Phyllis Wheatley; portions of slave narratives; essays on the African-American woman's right to vote; poems from the Harlem Renaissance and Black Power movements; and an address by one-time Communist Party vice presidential candidate Angela Davis.

There is also the work of Maya Angelou, Lucille Clifton, Toni Morrison, Ama Ata Aidoo and science fiction writer Octavia Butler. The list seems endless. Indeed, the book is too big.

I hate to say that. As an African-American poet who teaches creative writing, composition and literature, I know how difficult it is to find a representative sampling of African women's work. I have been forced to require my students to purchase individual books, which can be quite costly.

So part of me is pleased that Ms. Busby has been successful in locating and compiling such a vast quantity of work. But it is too much for one volume. Ms. Busby seems to acknowledge this at the outset, when she apologizes to "all those excellent writers [she] had to leave out." This is perhaps inescapable when one considers the quantity of material created by women of African descent.

I also found myself frustrated over the abrupt ending of some sections. Once I became interested in a particular piece, I would suddenly be dropped cold because Ms. Busby was able to give little more than nibbles of individual works. I walked away from this book hungry, and this could be its saving grace: Once a reader has sampled one of the writers here, she might be eager to go to the library for more.

Perhaps Ms. Busby should have considered several volumes, dividing them by type of writing, time period or region. In this way, she would have had the opportunity to offer a more complete representation of an author's works. There would have been more than one or two poems by Sojourner Truth and Ann Plato. There might have been more than one chapter from "The Story of Mattie J. Jackson" and "Beyond All Pity," by Carolina Maria de Jesus, a Brazilian writer.

"Daughters of Africa" is priced at $35. As a university instructor, I would find it difficult to ask my students to pay that price for a text. Still, as a daughter of Africa, I'm thrilled to know that such an anthology exists. It's a welcome addition to a personal library, if one can afford it.

I hope this "celebration of unity in diversity" will be followed by others.

D.R. Fair, a Baltimore poet, will receive a master's degree in creative writing from the University of Pittsburgh in August.

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