February 2, 2016
25 NEW BOOKS BY AFRICAN WRITERS YOU SHOULD READ
By Aaron Bady
There has never been a better time than right now to be a reader of African literature, especially in the United States (historically, an underdeveloped nation in this regard). Of course, we’re still playing catch-up; many of these books have already been published in South Africa, Nigeria, or the UK, or in their original language. But that just means that old classics are becoming suddenly available alongside emerging new voices. So if you’re looking for something to read, and you want it to have the word “African” attached to it, here are my top 25 suggestions for the first six months of the new year. All dates are for U.S. publications. Chain bookstores won’t carry most of these, so you might have to do something as laborious and difficult as click a link–or ask your local bookstore to place a special order–but the one thing you can’t do, any longer, is complain you have nothing to read. You have your orders; go forth and read.
Available now: The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela (Grove Atlantic)
The winner of the very first Caine Prize for African writing in 2000, Leila Aboulela is always briskly readable, but her intimate stories also have a depth and weight to them that stays with you long after you’ve put the book down. And though there is no shortage of secular writers writing about religion, Aboulela is the rare reverse, a novelist whose deep Muslim faith animates her explorations of Islamic identity in the secular world. Each chapter of The Kindness of Enemies begins in present-day Scotland—where a history professor must grapple with how to respond to a student of hers, she has been told, who has become “radicalized”—before moving back into the 1850s, where we get the story of her student’s ancestor, the Imam Shamil, whose 30-year campaign against the expanding Russian empire stands as one of the most successful military jihads in history. But as with all of Aboulela’s novels, her focus is essentially intimate, the story of small lives and loves; against the backdrop of war and empire, Aboulela’s eye is on human stories about lost faith and lost children, some of which are sometimes found again.
Available now: The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun (Translated by André Naffis-Sahely · Melville House)
Tahar Ben Jelloun is the sort of writer who gets mentioned every year as a possible contender for the Nobel, though he’s probably too good to ever get it. France claims him and he lives in Paris, but the focus of his novels has always been Morocco. From a very nice Paris Review interview, Jelloun describes why he writes in French:
At the lycée we studied the Arab classics; I became aware of the richness and subtlety of Arabic when I began to do translations. To me it was another good reason not to tinker with it. Also, as it is a sacred language, given by God in the shape of the Koran, it is intimidating—one feels very small in front of this language. The other day Adonis, a great Lebanese poet, told me that the Arabic language has not yet had a writer stronger than itself, capable of subduing it. One speaks of English as the language of Shakespeare, of Italian as that of Dante, but we don’t say Arabic is the language of al-Ghazali—it is always the language of the Koran. It is inhibitive; one would feel almost guilty manipulating it… Arabic is a sacred language, and Arab authors are in awe of it; they can’t use violence against it.
In The Happy Marriage, a painter tells the story how his marriage collapsed as he is recovering from a stroke that he blames his wife for provoking; when his wife reads his account of these events, she gives her own side of the story.
Available now: The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory is the only Nabokovian meditation on living in memory—from the perspective of an albino inmate of a Zimbabwean women’s prison—that you need to read this year. The long-awaited first novel by the author of An Elegy for Easterly, this book is a marvel, fluttering from high to low with a deceptive ease, and slipping in more words per page of untranslated Shona than any book this readable has any right to contain. But though An Elegy for Easterly was widely praised for its dissection of contemporary Zimbabwean politics and society, and despite all of its wonderfully granular detail and quotidian attentiveness to the life of a maximum security death row inmate in Zimbabwe—no doubt informed by Gappah’s years as a lawyer—The Book of Memory is ultimately much less interested in the particularities of Zimbabwe in the Mugabe era, or in the law, or even in race than in the story of how we float on the currents of time on the brightly colored wings of memory.
February 15: Rachel’s Blue by Zakes Mda (University of Chicago Press)
I always feel bad that I haven’t read more of Zakes Mda’s work, but every time I read one of his books, it feels like he’s published another novel or two. His dozens of plays and novels were written in the decades of South Africa’s long, slow, painful transition from Apartheid but range across its even longer and more painful history, from early colonialism to the present, excavating histories and memory that never made it to the official records of truth and reconciliation. An astute critic once described him as living in a different country than J.M. Coetzee, and I like the comparison: Coetzee’s South Africa is a white landscape of metaphysics and philosophy, while Mda’s novels are hyper-local Dickensian panoramas, painted in blood-red. His 2012 memoir, Sometimes There is a Void, describes how—after a long journey through a very eventful life—he now finds himself teaching creative writing in Athens, Ohio, and Rachel’s Blue is his first novel set completely in the United States.
February 15: The Maestro, the Magistrate & the Mathematician by Tendai Huchu (Ohio University Press)
February will be a good month for fiction from Zimbabwe: along with Petina Gappah’s long-awaited first novel, the second of Tendai Huchu’s two novels will finally be available in the US, and it will be well worth the wait. His first novel, The Hairdresser of Harare, was a black comedy of political manners, in the Zimbabwe of ZANU-PF and hyperinflation—and along with a sly treatment of sexuality that’s worth the price of admission alone—it put Huchu’s name on a lot of lists of writers to watch. In The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician, he has moved outward to the community of expatriate Zimbabweans living in Edinburgh but waiting for the time to be right to return, triumphantly, home. As he put it in an interview, “most of the novels I read about diasporas are about folks on a sort of upward trajectory and I kind of wanted to go in the opposite direction.” His cast is mostly very highly educated people, living and working in low-wage jobs while dreaming of home. He splits the story between three interlinked-but-detached perspectives—between the maestro, the magistrate, and the mathematician—but out of it produces a single “a book of illusions;” as he puts it, “though the narrators of all three novellas are reliable, they are still being lied to.”
February 16: And After Many Days by Jowhor Ile (Penguin Random House)
Everybody is very excited about this debut novel from a writer living in Port Harcourt, Nigeria—Taiye Selasi, Uzodinma Iweala, A. Igoni Barrett, and Binyavanga Wainaina have all praised it to the heavens, and if Penguin doesn’t send me a review copy soon, I’m going to be as grumpy and petulant about it as a toddler deprived of his milk. I’ve been waiting for this novel since 2013, when Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie happened to mention, in an interview, that “There’s a young man called Johwor Ile who is just finishing a novel, who I think is really spectacular. His novel, when it comes out, will be very good.” So I’m not going to read anything more about this novel until it’s in my hands, which damn well better be soon. (You hear me, Penguin?!)
February 28: Kaveena by Boubacar Boris Diop (Translated by Bhakti Shringarpure and Sara C. Hanaburgh · Indiana University Press)
Boubacar Boris Diop is one of the giants of Francophone African literature, and though he’s never been a very prolific writer, it’s taken some time for the Anglophone world to get around to translating him (thank you, Indiana University Press!); until last year, Murambi, The Book of Bones was his only novel in English; now, hard on the heels of the translation of The Knight and His Shadow, we’re finally getting his most recent novel, Kaveena: a portrait of a nation’s dissolution in coup d’etat, a novel narrated by the chief of an unnamed country’s secret police, trapped in a bunker with the rotting body of the dictator. I hope we get a translation of Doomi Golo, his novel in Wolof, soon; he translated it into French, himself, so I can’t see why we wouldn’t. By the way, if you are totally unfamiliar with literary Françafrique, his collection of essays Africa Beyond the Mirror is a good place to start for getting a sense of the politics and terrain; he’s always opinionated, always passionate, and always worth reading.
March 1: Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett (Graywolf)
Igoni Barrett’s 2013 Love Is Power, or Something Like That is one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read, and since Blackass was published last year in Nigeria and the UK (to rapturous reviews) I’ve been waiting in the US for Barrett’s first novel with a certain amount of piqued urgency. Get it published already! People like to compare Barrett’s books to modernist masterpieces—Love is Power was Lagos’ Dubliners; Blackass is Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” in Nigeria—but all of that is just a way of saying that this guy is really, really good. For example, “The Worst Thing That Happened.” And here’s a nice essay in which he describes how he came to be a writer; and here’s another one.
From Publishers Weekly’s review of Blackass:
On the morning of a long-awaited job interview, Furo Wariboko, a black Nigerian, wakes to find that he’s white. Rushing out of the house to avoid being seen, Furo ends up trekking across Lagos’s traffic-choked sprawl, sans phone, money, or an explanation for why he looks white and sounds Nigerian. But as he soon discovers, being an oyibo, or light-skinned person, comes with significant perks… For Americans unfamiliar with Nigeria, Lagos functions as another character in the book, a fascinating and chaotic megacity populated by people trying to move up in the world—some honestly, some less so. It’s no coincidence that Furo’s new job is selling self-help books. All this would be plenty, but Barrett, initially in the book as a bystander from whom Furo cadges a drink, becomes more central, as he too begins to undergo a transformation.
March 1: Fuchsia by Mahtem Shiferraw (Nebraska University Press)
Each year, the African Poetry Book Fund (directed by Chris Abani and Kwame Dawes) publishes the first collection by the poet who wins the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poetry. The winners for the previous two years were Clifton Gachagua’s Madman at Kilifi and Ladan Osman’s The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony; they are both sublime, so I have high hopes for this year’s edition, Ethiopian-American poet Mahtem Shiferraw’s collection Fuchsia which “examines conceptions of the displaced, disassembled, and nomadic self.” If you can’t wait, you can get her chapbook now, Behind Walls & Glass, or you can read some of her poetry online: “Blood Disparities,” “She says they come at night…,” “E is for Eden,” “Something Sleeps in the Mud-Beds of the Nile,” “Small Tragedies,” “Synesthesia.” (I can’t wait).
March 1: The Face: Cartography of the Void by Chris Abani (Restless Books)
Part of a wonderfully eccentric series from Restless Books, Chris Abani’s exploration of his own face is a kind of mini-memoir, unpacking the histories, stories, and genealogies contained (and fetishized) inside this window to the soul. It’s a quick and easy read, a minor work by a major writer, though it will give you a good sense of why you should continue on and sample his poetry—Sanctificum, for example, is magnificent.
March 1: The Lights of Pointe-Noire by Alain Mabanckou (Translated by Helen Stevenson · New Press)
Recently elected a visiting professor at the Collège de France, it has only taken a decade of residence in the United States for Americans to figure out who Alain Mabanckou is—French being one of the most difficult and obscure African languages—but the word is finally starting to spread. His novels are swampy drunken carnivals of language and violence, and they’re as funny as they are dead serious; if he wasn’t getting so respectable and respected, I’d describe him as African literature’s enfant terrible. Following up from Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty, the first volume of his memoir, The Lights of Pointe Noire is an account of Mabanckou’s return to his hometown, after decades abroad. From the opening:
For a long time I let people think my mother was still alive. I’m going to make a big effort, now, to set the record straight, to try to distance myself from this lie, which has only served to postpone my mourning. My face still bears the scars of her loss. I’m good at covering them over with a coat of fake good humor, but suddenly they’ll show through, my laughter breaks off and she’s back in my thoughts again, the woman I never saw age, never saw die, who, in my most troubled dreams, turns her back on me, so I won’t see her tears. Wherever I find myself in the world, it takes just the cry of a cat alone at night, or the barking of dogs on heat, and I’ll turn my face to the stars…
March 8: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi (Penguin Random House)
A short story collection from Helen Oyeyemi is an event. No one does the uncanny like she does, or the grisly spookiness of childhood. Get it; read it; tell your friends.
March 15: Baho! by Roland Rugero (Translated by Chris Schaefer · Phoneme Media)
Only a year or two old, Phoneme Media is already doing an amazing job of finding authors and works from parts of Africa we don’t normally get to hear from. Last year they brought out Inongo-vi-Makomè’s Natives—translated from his Equatorial Guinean Spanish—and this year they’re bringing out the first Burundian novel translated into English. The excerpts I’ve seen are promising, as is this description:
When Nyamugari, an adolescent mute, attempts to ask a young woman in rural Burundi for directions to an appropriate place to relieve himself, his gestures are mistaken as premeditation for rape. To the young woman’s community, his fleeing confirms his guilt, setting off a chain reaction of pursuit, mob justice, and Nyamugari’s attempts at explanation.
(Also watch for Obi’s Nightmare, a graphic novel about a dictator forced to live the horror of being one of his own subjects…).
March 15: Whitefly by Abdelilah Hamdouchi (Translated by Jonathan Smolin · AUCP).
Described as the first Arabic detective novel translated into English, it had me at “spiraling conspiracy of international sabotage on the beaches of Tangiers.” You can read an excerpt here.
April 1: 100 Days by Juliane Okot Bitek (University of Alberta Press)
For 100 days, Juliane Okot Bitek recorded the lingering nightmare of the Rwandan genocide in a poem—each poem recalling the senseless loss of life and of innocence. Okot Bitek draws on her own family’s experience of displacement under the regime of Idi Amin, pulling in fragments of the poetic traditions she encounters along the way: the Ugandan Acholi oral tradition of her father, the poet Okot p’Bitek; Anglican hymns; the rhythms and sounds of slave songs from the Americas; and the beat of spoken word and hip-hop.
April 1: Collected Poems by Gabriel Okara (Nebraska University Press)
Along with publishing a first book by an emerging new African poet each year, the Africa Book Fund has also committed to publishing a collected edition of “a major living African poet” each year, and this year it is Gabriel Okara, the only person who could ever be called both “the elder statesman of Nigerian literature and the first Modernist poet of Anglophone Africa.” Those who know, know who he is; who no know, go know.
April 12: Water: New Short Story Fiction from Africa: An Anthology from Short Story Day Africa (Edited by Karina Szczurek and Nick Mulgrew · New Internationalist)
This is the third year these good folks in South Africa have collected and published previously unpublished short fiction on a theme, and each year their vision gets broader (and they already have a fantastic track record of discovering hitherto unknown writers). In an interview I did with Rachel last year, she described SSDA’s evolution:
We’d always intended the project to develop organically, though how we thought that would happen turned out to be very different to the end result. I guess we didn’t expect the response to the project that it got. I think, when it started, writers on the continent were looking for somewhere to publish their work, work that didn’t necessarily have appeal to a Western publishing industry that pretty much wanted to tell the same stories the media was telling about Africa. Social media was just a couple of years old and it was either get published in the West, or you were pretty much voiceless. In the first year, we just published an extended circle of writers we knew and writers they knew on a website I’d thrown together. We were email based then. The second year we were inundated with requests from writers to send us their stories, and we started the Facebook page. By the third year, writers beyond Southern Africa were asking to be included, so we changed the name, made a new Facebook page and opened it up to any African writer.
April 15: Tales of the Metric System by Imraan Coovadia (Ohio University Press)
There are so many amazing writers coming out of South Africa, and Imraan Coovadia is one of the most daring; his Green-Eyed Thieves is a wicked and weird riff on the crime novel, and from what I’ve heard, Tales of the Metric System will be equally memorable. Since I haven’t read it, and since what I’ve read makes the novel sound very difficult to paraphrase, I’ll hand the mic over to Jeanne-Marie Jackson, who reviewed the novel in an essay for n+1, on “The Novel of Ideas”:
A number of critics have made stock comparisons between Coovadia and the English novelist David Mitchell and the Nigerian Adichie because Tales of the Metric System hops around a lot in time and space. But that’s getting it the wrong way round. The book isn’t about how the world network defines our new reality: it displays Coovadia’s lingering investment in mapping a single nation. He does this across ten different plots divided into sections headed by references variously to their period or setting (“School Time”, “Soviet Embassy”), to a significant object (“The Pass”, “Vuvuzela”), or to a central event (“Truth and Reconciliation”). These sections, each of which appears only once, are arranged in nonchronological order and cover timeframes from 1970, when the metric system was introduced in South Africa, to 1999, which saw the close of the postapartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to 2010, the year of the World Cup.
April 12: The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga (Two Dollar Radio Press)
This is a novel about AIDS and drugs: set in the period in which the South African government refused to acknowledge the AIDS crisis, it’s the story of a group of young men who sold anti-retroviral medication to those who couldn’t access the medication. As Ntshanga described in an interview with his publisher, Columbus, Ohio’s own Two Dollar Radio:
The ARV crisis of the early 2000’s was one of the more defining historical moments of my generation—followed, now, by the student protests of 2015—and personally, since the project was intended to also educate me about empathy through the process of writing it, it was important for me to find a socio-historical parallel for Lindanathi’s narrative; something that included other people and rooted him within his society. From memory, I remember that time feeling like a post-liberation interregnum, a deadlock that spread a feeling of general malaise as the country became reacquainted again with absolute state power—and its new national identity began to disintegrate.
April 19: New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set: Tatu (Akashic Books)
Have I mentioned how much I appreciate what the folks at the Africa Poetry Book Series are doing? In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, they release a box-set of chapbooks each year—one more than last year, each year—which means they’ll have put out 24 chapbooks in only their first three years of existence (seven the first year, eight the second year, and this year, nine). Here’s to 60 more chapbooks in the next five years. In the meantime, buy the first three sets and be the coolest kid on your block.
This year, the chapbooks are:
In Praise of Our Absent Father by D.M. Aderibigbe
The Painter of Water by Gbenga Adesina
The Color of James Brown’s Scream by Kayombo Chingonyi
Asmarani by Safia Elhillo
Survival Kit by Chielozona Eze
Paper Dolls by Lydia Nyachiro Kasese
Dagoretti Corner by Ngwatilo Mawiyoo
The Leaving by Hope Wabuke
April 26: Ladivine by Marie NDiaye (Penguin Random House)
Marie NDiaye once told an interviewer that while she would have been glad to claim a dual heritage if she had one—if her Senegalese father hadn’t left her native France when she was very young—Africa was essentially a mystery to her. “African origins don’t mean very much,” she said, “except for the fact that I can’t hide it because of my surname and the color of my skin.” Yet this has never meant that she is not an African writer, but that the reasons for that inevitable, inescapable classification—by libraries, critics, scholars—was something best understood at the level of the mystery itself. And this is where her work lives, in the uncanny half-dreamed viscera of an officially colorblind France, a society where being haunted by green women or turning into a brown dog is as reasonable as having African ancestry.
May 3: Born On A Tuesday by Elnathan John (Grove Atlantic)
The rare Nigerian novel set in the (largely Islamic) north of the country, Born on a Tuesday is Elnathan John’s debut as a novelist… though he’s already had a storied career as journalist, blogger, tweeter, short story writer, and all-around infuriator (don’t ask him if he’s one of Chimamanda’s boys). Pa Ikhide’s review is a good place to start.
May 3: The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette · Melville House)
I rely on M. Lynx Qualey to tell me what Arab literature in English to read, and she has told me to read this one. As another reader describes:
This Egyptian novel is set in an almost present-day Egypt, slightly more dystopian than reality. After a failed uprising, a sinister authority, the Gate, rises to power. The main character was shot during the uprising and is waiting for official permission to have a bullet removed; the novel is, intriguingly, structured using his medical records. My main fear about books from the Middle East is that they’ll be similar to The Kite Runner in tone, mood or style (because it’s a proven genre that sells in the Anglo world, not because all ME writing is actually like that, but this one is published by Melville House and is described as “evocative of George Orwell’s dystopias, of Kafkaesque surrealism, and of the dark satire of Sonallah Ibrahim’s ‘The Committee,” by the translator in a review at Madr Masr so it’s pretty certain to be way better than that.
May 10: The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers by Fouad Laroui (Deep Vellum)
Last year, Deep Vellum published Tram 83 and it’s been a runaway freight-train of a hit; this year, they’re publishing the English language debut of one of Morocco’s most prominent contemporary writers, with an introduction by Laila Lalami: “Laroui uses surrealism, laugh-out-loud humor, and profound compassion across a variety of literary styles to highlight the absurdity of the human condition, exploring the realities of life in a world where everything is foreign.”
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Penguin Random House)
This book is going to be big. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s glowing praise takes up the entire back cover, and the publicity for this book is going to be mayhem.
From Coates’s blurb:
Gyasi’s characters are so fully realized, so elegantly carved—very often I found myself longing to hear more. Craft is essential given the task Gyasi sets for herself—drawing not just a lineage of two sisters, but two related peoples. Gyasi is deeply concerned with the sin of selling humans on Africans, not Europeans. But she does not scold. She does not excuse. And she does not romanticize. The black Americans she follows are not overly virtuous victims. Sin comes in all forms, from selling people to abandoning children. I think I needed to read a book like this to remember what is possible. I think I needed to remember what happens when you pair a gifted literary mind to an epic task. Homegoing is an inspiration.
Aaron Bady is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Texas, teaching African literature. He is an editor at The New Inquiry.