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Reaching across Borders: Canadian Girls Reading African Girls' Stories
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For this review, I was asked to read and to consider ten recent titles in children's literature, all of them about Africa and all of them published in Canada. What relevance does Africa have to young Canadian readers? It can have a lot of relevance if they see themselves reflected in African stories, as Nelson Mandela points out in Long Walk to Freedom, when he recalls bonding with a group of Inuit teenagers while his plane refuelled in Labrador. Sometimes the relevance is not quite so obvious, however. For me, this is a particularly personal question, as I am often pushed to think about the relationship between what I study (Southern African literature) and who I am (a white Canadian woman). In recent years I find myself increasingly engaged with this question as I try to work out the relationships between Canada and South Africa, and between Canada and Zimbabwe. Moreover, I increasingly find myself going back to my own childhood experience of Africa on the southern shores of Lake Ontario, in a small city close to the United States border. For me, Africa was experienced through family stories and photographs (many members of my father's extended family moved across the continent in search of status and security), through books (a child's reference book, David Mountfield's A History of African Exploration, still occupies a space on my bookshelf at home), and through friends (as a child, I was thrilled to have friends from Kenya and Uganda). Africa seemed exotic, different, and far removed from my experience growing up in a quiet suburban neighbourhood in Canada. I had a kind of long-distance adolescent relationship with the continent, and so, when I read Lisa Joyal's novel Swahili for Beginners (one of those recent ten titles) and encountered Georgie, an equally zealous white Canadian adolescent girl with a fixation on Africa, I knew how I could manage these widely divergent texts: I decided to focus only on the six novels for and about adolescent girls and to foreground Georgie from Joyal's novel, one of the many and diverse Canadian girls reading African girls' stories.

The title of my review essay contains two present participles: reaching and reading. The action is in the present, is ongoing, uninterrupted, never finished. Engagement, interpretation, and comprehension are always in process. It is this sense of process and possibility—evident in all of these books for and about adolescent girls—that engenders hope. These six novels that tell stories of African girls are set in a wide range of countries: Mozambique, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Ghana, South Africa, and Tanzania. What is the effect of reaching and reading across the borders that separate Canadian girls' experiences and stories from African girls' experiences and stories? What is gained? Does a girl like Georgie read in order to learn about another culture, to understand her place in the world? Are readers like Georgie able to "identify" with the characters in these stories? It is both impossible and problematical to assume a homogenous readership, so here I am interested in exploring the complications of reading African girls' stories for a girl such as Georgie, whose life experience is radically different from the girls whose life stories she encounters. Borrowing from Margaret Daymond's introduction to South African Feminisms, I argue that these texts may facilitate a "community of purpose" (xx), rather than an earlier generation's unsustainable model of "sisterhood," which implies sameness (xix). My hope is that these new titles will help young Canadian readers to understand the complexities of Africa and African girls, and to understand a little bit about the possibilities of ethical engagement with African problems and ethical exchange with African girls. Moreover, they may help to destabilize a number of prevalent national myths: namely, that Canadians are saviours and peacemakers, and that Canada is a place without a violent colonial history and present. My hope for these texts is that they foster critical thinking in adolescent girls (and perhaps offer a brief sabbatical from "vampire fiction"!). Georgie is an example of the kind of ethical engagement that is possible for white and privileged Canadian girls.

I first consider three texts with...

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