Senegalese novelist Aminata Sow Fall creates compelling, deceptively simple explorations not just of what sustains Africans amid poverty, wars and despots, but of what makes any of us human.
In 30 years, seven novels and a book-length meditation on food and culture, the moral of her unadorned stories has been that man can and must resist the forces of the modern world that conspire to strip him of his dignity.
In her latest novel, 2005's "Festins de la Detresse," or "Feasts of Anguish," she argues that imagination is the indispensable weapon in the battle to remain fully human.
"Imagination allows us to create a world in which human dignity is sacred. It is a source of hope, of sustenance for human beings," the Sorbonne-educated Fall said from her book-cluttered Dakar office at her own small publishing house.
She said she was not suggesting people retreat to imaginary worlds but that they draw on their dreams and hopes to give them strength to act.
"All great works begin in the imagination," Fall said. "A human being who does not dream realizes nothing."
She begins her newest novel with a main character's tenderly nostalgic elegy to the dawn:
"He spoke of it with the passion of a poet, trying from time to time to recapture the time when, still just a child, he delivered pails of milk to a few of his mother's customers scattered throughout town. He knew the dawn's voices, its movements from the slightest to the most energetic, its noises, its colors, because, by its first faint light, he had already finished his morning prayers, opened the pen to let the animals out for the day and cast a few of his father's nets if they weren't already in the sea."
The heroines and heroes of "Festins de la Detresse" are dreamers, but also capable of taking control of their lives. Biram finishes his medical studies but can't find a job in his impoverished, unnamed African city. He studies the Hippocratic oath as if it were a poem, and in it finds the inspiration to ward off depression and a sense of worthlessness. He makes his own career, first as a traveling doctor among the poor who rises to earn international acclaim.
Biram's father, Maar, also nearly loses himself in despair. For him, the blow is the death of his wife. He finds solace in a collection of essays he has been writing for years that, when published, revives his love of life and family and is celebrated as a tender homage to his beloved.
In her preoccupation with and sympathy for the poor -- and those struggling on the precipice of poverty -- there are parallels between Fall's work and that of the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. And like Mahfouz in Egypt, Fall is popular at home.
Souleymane Bachir Diagne, who teaches in the philosophy department and African studies program at Northwestern University, said Fall's straightforward style and vivid descriptions draw in Senegalese readers like himself. Then she forces them to question what they thought they knew, he said, citing the way her best-known novel, 1979's "La Greve des Battus," leads readers to look anew at the ubiquitous poor.
Fall "just destroys the familiarity," he said in a telephone interview from Evanston, Ill., calling the book his favorite of her novels.
"The very starting point was so brilliant," he said.
"La Greve des Battus," which appeared in English as "The Beggars' Strike," was made into a movie in 2000 by the Malian director Cheikh Oumar Sissoko. It was an African-American collaboration, with a script by American Joslyn Barnes and a cast that included U.S. star Danny Glover.
Fall's beggars revolt when an overambitious politician tries to drive them from the city -- out of the sight of foreign tourists who might be inconvenienced. The revolt is what Fall describes as an "artistic resistance."
The beggars absent themselves until the rich realize they need the poor, particularly in a country like Senegal dominated by Islam, a religion in which charity is a central tenet.
"They need to give to survive, and if we did not exist, to whom would they give?" one of Fall's characters asks.
"What invalid, even if he's a hypochondriac, doesn't believe that his troubles will disappear the moment his donation leaves his hand?"
Such issues as poverty, corruption and the dark side of globalization appear so frequently in her work because "everything that wounds human dignity wounds me," Fall said.
"More and more, man is a victim of progress," she said. "So many people are excluded from a system that allows others to amass so much wealth."
The beggars are led by Salla, a woman whose description might fit Fall. Salla has "learned to understand people," Fall writes. "To pierce their closest kept secrets and take stock of the preoccupations of the rich as well as the hopes of the poor."
Salla and Kine, Maar's wife in "Festins de la Detresse," are among the many strong women who have peopled Fall's novels.
"Women understand the most subtle things -- nature, family, children. Beyond that, in my opinion, it was woman who created beauty, an aesthetic sense. She started by looking for ways to embellish her body," Fall said, clinking a ladder of gold and silver bracelets ornamenting her own arm for emphasis. Her earrings, heavy clusters of gold hoops, glinted under a purple head wrap.
"I've always felt that there's so much strength in women," she said. "My mother was a very strong woman. In our family, no one ever made us think we were inferior to boys. A woman wasn't someone who had to wait for a man to marry her to give her value. She had her own self-worth."
Fall, 65, was born into a prominent family in Saint-Louis, the former French colonial capital of Senegal. Senegal has a long and rich literary tradition -- its first postcolonial president, after all, was the late, celebrated poet Leopold Sedar Senghor.
Fall, like Senghor, studied at the Sorbonne. She returned from Paris to teach French, publishing her first novel after establishing herself as an academic.
Her work in translation has found a worldwide audience and she has traveled extensively, often as a visiting professor at U.S. universities where her novels are staples of women's studies and African literature curriculums.
In addition to novels, she writes essays and lectures, runs her publishing house and is well known in Senegal for her literary salons and other efforts to promote writing and the arts.
Fall says she considers herself a novelist first.
"In life, you have to make choices. My choice is to write."