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Out of Darkness, Shining Light

A Novel

“Engrossing, beautiful, and deeply imaginative” (Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing), this epic novel about the explorer David Livingstone and the extraordinary group of Africans who carry his body across impossible terrain “illuminates the agonies of colonialism and blind loyalty” (O, The Oprah Magazine).

This is how we carried out of Africa the poor broken body of...David Livingstone, so that he could be borne across the sea and buried in his own land.

So begins Petina Gappah’s “searing…poignant” (Star Tribune, Minneapolis) novel of exploration and adventure in 19th-century Africa—the captivating story of the African men and women who carried explorer and missionary Dr. Livingstone’s body, papers, and maps, fifteen hundred miles across the continent of Africa, so his remains could be returned home to England and his work preserved there. Narrated by Halima, the doctor’s sharp-tongued cook, and Jacob Wainwright, his rigidly pious secretary, this is a “powerful novel, beautifully told” (Jesmyn Ward, author of Sing, Unburied, Sing) that encompasses all of the hypocrisy of slavery and colonization—the hypocrisy of humanity—while celebrating resilience, loyalty, and love.

This reading group guide for Out of Darkness, Shining Light includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

This is how we carried out of Africa the poor broken body of Bwana Daudi, the Doctor, David Livingstone, so that he could be borne across the sea and buried in his own land.

So begins Petina Gappah’s powerful novel of exploration and adventure in nineteenth-century Africa—the captivating story of the loyal men and women who carried explorer and missionary Dr. Livingstone’s body, his papers and maps, fifteen hundred miles across Africa, so his remains could be returned home to England and his work preserved there. Narrated by two of his attendants, Halima, the doctor’s sharp-tongued cook, and Jacob Wainwright, Livingstone’s rigidly pious secretary, the story winds through the continent in the time just before its colonization by European powers.

With an unforgettable cast of characters and a powerful journey of struggle and perseverance, Out of Darkness, Shining Light reenvisions a historical event through the eyes of those often written out of the story. Sweeping, profound, and deeply funny, this is a story that encompasses all of the hypocrisy of slavery and colonization—the hypocrisy of humanity—while celebrating resilience, loyalty, and love.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. The very beginning of the novel is narrated by a chorus of voices, the voices of all of David Livingstone’s companions, who point out that the act of fidelity they showed to Livingstone—carrying his body and papers home—unintentionally enabled some of the violence of European imperialism. In beginning Out of Darkness, Shining Light in this way, what does Gappah hope to accomplish?

2. Halima thinks often of her childhood and her mother, a concubine of the Liwali of Zanzibar. How does she compare her present circumstances with her life as a child?

3. Describe Halima’s relationship with Bwana Daudi. What does she do after his death? How does the rest of his retinue react to his death?

4. How does Halima feel about Susi? About Amoda?

5. How does Halima understand Bwana Daudi’s “Nile madness” (page 51)? How do you understand it?

6. What are Bwana Daudi’s feelings about slavery? What does Halima, and the rest of his retinue, think about his position on this matter?

7. Whose narration do you prefer, Halima’s or Jacob Wainwright’s? Why is that?

8. Jacob believes that he is a “natural leader of men” (page 112). How do you think the rest of the companions see him?

9. How did Jacob reach the Nassick school? How did he leave? What are his hopes for the rest of his life?

10. Jacob believes Halima is “empty-headed” (page 132), and in fact has many disparaging thoughts about most of his fellows. Why does he regard them so negatively?

11. Jacob writes that “woman is . . . how sin came to the world” (page 149) and that he would like to send all the women away, but later on the journey he falls in love with Ntaoéka—orchestrated by Chirango—and is quickly and devastatingly disappointed. How does he react to this?

12. On their travels, the companions encounter “bodies tied to trees, slave sticks, skeletons” (page 213). Each member of the retinue has a different history with and experience of slavery; describe some of them. How does the novel engage with the practice of slavery?

13. Chirango attempts to torture a hyena to death, in Jacob’s telling, before he is stopped by Susi. What does this reveal about his character?

14. Jacob describes manumission to Halima, reassuring her—though not with much kindness—that she is a free woman. Why did Halima not know this before? What must have this news meant to her?

15. Chirango reveals that he is responsible for the deaths of Losi, Amoda, John Wainwright, Kaniki, and Misozi. Why did he admit it? Why did he do it? What is his punishment? And what do you make of this revelation?

16. How do Halima and Jacob’s narrations reveal their biases, the complexities of their relationships, their histories—and even their hypocrisies?

17. Where do Halima and Jacob end up? How does the particular point in history in which they live shape their experiences after their travels with Livingstone?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Read Petina Gappah’s earlier works, An Elegy for Easterly and The Book of Memory.

2. Research David Livingstone’s life.
Photograph by Henry Oliver Hakulandaba

Petina Gappah is a widely translated Zimbabwean writer. She is the author of two novels, Out of Darkness, Shining Light; The Book of Memory; and two short story collections, Rotten Row and An Elegy for Easterly. Her work has been short-listed for the Orwell Prize, the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the PEN/Open Book Award, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and the Prix Femina (etranger), among other honors. She is the recipient of the Guardian First Book Award and the McKitterick Prize from the Society of Authors. A lawyer specializing in international trade and investment as well as a writer, Petina currently lives in Harare, Zimbabwe.

WINNER OF THE 2020 CHAUTAUQUA PRIZE
ONE OF NPR’S BEST BOOKS OF 2019

“The real heroes of this carefully crafted novel are Halima and Wainwright and the other Africans history has hitherto condemned to suffer in silence. It is to the novel’s credit that after 150 years we can now hear their voices.”
The New York Times Book Review

“We need novels like Gappah’s Out of Darkness, Shining Light, for they remember the stories that have been papered over by history—by whiteness and empire…stories like Halima’s and Jacob’s, told through Gappah’s expert characterization.”
World Literature Today, Winter 2020 Book Reviews

"A fresh look at the enduring history of colonialism."
The New York Times, 17 New Books to Watch For in September

“Based on Livingstone’s journals and narrated by his gossipy cook and a freedman with a messiah complex, this textured novel illuminates the agonies of colonialism and blind loyalty—Conrad’s heart of darkness in reverse.”
O, the Oprah Magazine

“Ambitious…There are love triangles, power struggles, brushes with slave traders, clashes with hostile strangers—even murder ... Gappah’s characters foresee but cannot stop a future that haunts the novel.”
The New Yorker

“Searing, poignant, often hilarious…Out of Darkness, Shining Light beautifully evokes the moral ambiguities that lurk within the human heart, revealing a talent that continues to grow from book to book.”
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"Glows with the insightful voices of the two servants and the strength of their devotion."
Christian Science Monitor, Best Books of September

"In contrasting styles, [Petina Gappah] lets two characters describe their trek across Africa with Livingstone’s body, beautifully complicating the narrative."
—VultureBest and Biggest Books to Read This Fall

“Petina Gappah's novel is about exploration and adventure in nineteenth-century Africa—the captivating story of the loyal men and women who carried explorer and missionary Dr. Livingstone's body, his papers and maps, fifteen hundred miles across the continent of Africa, so his remains could be returned home to England and his work preserved there.”
—E! Online, 15 Books to Cozy Up with This Fall

"A rich, vivid, and addictive book filled with memorably drawn characters. This is a humane, riveting, epic novel that spotlights marginalized historical voices.” 
Kirkus, starred, Best Historical Fiction of 2019

"Gappah decolonizes the legend of Dr. Livingstone by turning the tale inside out, giving voice to those who are overlooked in the official narratives. The result is an indictment of the legacy of slavery and colonialism that is also an engrossing adventure story.”
Library Journal, starred

“Fascinating … David Livingstone, as I learned from this novel, was this very complex individual who was an early British abolitionist—yet had slaves—who devoted his life to finding the source of the Nile. What Petina Gappah has done in this novel is write about what happened after his death.”
—Nancy Pearl, NPR, Four Fantastic Books For The End Of 2019

 “In the characters of Halima and Jacob, [Petina Gappah] has created two voices whose authenticity and resonance provide both weight and vitality to this tale of darkness and light,”
—Lorna Kearns, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Riveting ... a deeply layered exploration of courage, sorrow, and resilience, culminating in a revelatory quest and an entracing vision."
Booklist

"Readers who enjoy expedition travelogues or smartly drawn characters will appreciate Gappah’s winning novel.” 
Publishers Weekly

“An incredible and important book by a masterful writer.”
—Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing

“A powerful novel, beautifully told, Out of Darkness, Shining Light reveals as much about the present circumstances as the past that helped create them.”
—Jesmyn Ward, author of Sing, Unburied, Sing

“This is a beautiful novel.”
—Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See  

“A sweeping epic that is also startlingly intimate, Out of Darkness, Shining Light is a revelation.”
Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train