In her 2009 TED talk "The Danger of a Single Story," Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recalls the moment "when I discovered African books." Stumbling into writers "like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye" forever changed her understanding of literature, and the kind of stories she herself began to write – stories filled not with Americans and Europeans like those she grew up reading, but those populated with the kinds of people and places she knew intimately from her own life.
Despite being home to 54 countries, over 2,000 languages, and a billion people, Adichie notes that Africa is often reduced to a single idea about a single place through repeated tales that have become, in the larger cultural consciousness, a "single story of catastrophe." Thankfully, however, more and more readers are, like Adichie, discovering African books and the wondrous variety within vibrant literary communities from Lagos to Cape Town, from Cairo to Harare.
More and more writers, too, are finding opportunities to tell the stories of their own countries from their own perspectives, challenging that single story and offering up dozens of richer alternatives. As a result, readers around the world are eagerly traveling to countries from Burkina Faso to Libya to Zanzibar one page at a time, getting an intimate locals perspective not only on back streets and inside quotidian households, but also on grand historic events, subtleties of language and translation, and the varying shades of humor and wit that vary from culture to culture.
If you’re ready to travel to Africa not as a frequent flyer but a page turner, check out these must-read African books from Algeria to Zambia.
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Tomboy by Nina Bouraoui
"I hear the sea advancing, the sound of freighters leaving Africa. I belong to the sand, the sea, and the wind. I am in Algeria. France is far away, behind the huge and dangerous waves. It is invisible and imagined." So begins Tomboy, a semi-autobiographical tale of 1970s Algeria written a fragmented modernist style that reflects the rhythm of the surf against the Algiers coast, the country's fractured political landscape at the time, and the protagonist's own uncertainties about language, nationality, and identity.
Transparent City by Ondjaki
Considered one of the best books in translation of 2019, Ondjaki's Transparent City is set in the Angolan city of Luanda, where a man named Odonato searches for his missing son. Following Odonato through the city, the reader encounters a magical realist urban landscape where buildings breathe, muxima music fills the hallways, and the past is just out of reach.
When the Plums Are Ripe by Patrice Nganang
In When the Plums Are Ripe, Nganang blends the grand scale of the historical novel with lyrical African oral tradition, asserting the Cameroonian perspective on how France dragged its colony into World War II, with consequences not just in the capital of Yaounde, the village of Édéa, or at the battle sites of Kufra and Murzur, but throughout North Africa.
Limbe to Lagos: Nonfiction From Cameroon to Nigeria by Emmanuel Iduma, Dami Ajayi and Dzekashu MacViban
If the heart of African literature is making space for Africans to tell their own stories, then Iduma, Ajayi, and MacViban's anthology of creative nonfiction by a variety of writers is right at the center of the canon. The collected works form a delightful conversation between two countries that have been tangled up in one another for decades, and break through "artificial constructs like borders on the African continent."
Republic of Congo
The Lights of Pointe-Noire by Alain Mabancko
A finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, Mabancko's memoir of returning to the contemporary Republic of Congo after twenty years in Paris is an exploration of how places (as well as people) can change, the power of memory, and what it means to be from somewhere, all rooted in the cinemas, churches, and winding streets of Pointe-Noire.
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Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz
Travel can be a form of time travel, and so can literature – a curious truth embodied by Midaq Alley, a vivid foray into the back streets of 1940s Cairo written a generation later by Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz in 1966.
As Trevor Le Gassick – who translated the novel out of Arabic – notes in the introduction, Midaq Alley "provides glimpses of unusual intimacy into Egypt in a period of fast transition" though he warns that "both the locale and the events of this novel should certainly not be viewed within the narrow framework of time."
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
There are many stories overlooked in the history books, including that of Ethiopia's women soldiers who fought on behalf of the exiled Emperor Haile Selassie against Mussolini's troops in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War.
Mengiste brings that conflict, and the bravery of arbegnoch resistance fighters, to life through her protagonist Hirut, a maid who is swept up in this 1935 prelude to World War II. It's a stunning novel that made the long list for the 2020 Man Booker Prize – the first time a writer from Ethiopia has been nominated.
Unbury Our Dead With Song by Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ
Though wa Ngũgĩ's novel about four musicians who play tizita (Ethiopian blues music) won't be out until May of 2021, it promises to be well worth pre-ordering. Unbury Our Dead With Song moves between an underground venue in Nairobi, Kenya and the musicians homes back in Ethiopia, and digs deep into this distinctly African musical genre.
La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono
One of the reasons African literature is only just now reaching a wider audience is the challenge of translation – whether out of endemic languages like Swahili or colonial tongues like Portuguese and German. Thankfully more and more literature is being thoughtfully brought into translation, like Trifonia Melibea Obono's La Bastarda, which has the distinction of being the first work by an Equatorial Guinean woman to make the leap to English.
La Bastarda is also distinguished by thoughtful attention to the tensions that can exist between traditional cultures like that of Equatorial Guinea's Fang people and the contemporary queer community as heroine Okomo is drawn into a underground scene of sexual revolution in this compelling bildungsroman.
The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah
This is the tale of two women in pre-colonial Salaga, Ghana, where the slave trade is alive and well – unfortunately for Aminah, who soon finds herself in bondage, while her counterpart Wurche finds herself navigating the patriarchal web of 19th century politics. Attah's novel rejects widely-accepted oversimplifications of African history and cultural hegemony, giving complexities of faith, language, and power their due.
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The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Silá
Ostensibly the story of a teenager named Ndani as she navigates life under colonial rule in Guinea Bissau, there's more to The Ultimate Tragedy than meets the eye. The first Guinea Bissauan novel to be translated into English doesn't lose the intricacies of language crucial to the original Portuguese. Instead, it maintains the tension of Silá's prose, which is punctuated with the local creole and a storytelling style that stems from long-standing oral tradition.
One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina
Hailed by Publishers Weekly as "A Kenyan Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," Wainaina's One Day I Will Write About This Place is a rich stream of consciousness made more absorbing by the author's attention to the way we think across language, slipping between English, Kiswahili, and others.
The Dragonfly Sea by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
Owuor pulls at the threads tying contemporary Kenya to foreign interests from China to Turkey in this bildungsroman about Ayaana, a young girl on Paté Island in the Indian Ocean – "the Lamu Archipelago’s largest and sullenest island." When a man from Nanjing arrives, a chain of events is set in motion that sends Ayaana far from home, into bewildering adventures.
Chaka by Thomas Mofolo
The lesser-known kingdom of Lesotho, surrounded by South Africa, is best known for its stunning national park, waterfalls, and alpine adventures, and as home to the the Basotho people. Mofolo's classic of historical fiction brings the Zulu king Chaka's legacy to life. First written in 1910 in the Sesotho language, it's since been translated by Daniel P. Kunene, and offers an action-packed, if fictionalized, account of Chaka's rule from 1816 to 1828.
She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore
Moore gives the magical realism treatment to Liberia's founding in a novel that weaves the stories of a young West African woman in exile named Gbessa, a former slave escaped from America named June Dey, and Norman Aragon, who's lineage is the story of colonialism itself. The three are drawn out of the diaspora into the center of a nascent nation, convening in what will one day be the capital of Monrovia.
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Whitefly by Abdelilah Hamdouchi
Fans of the detective genre will immediately be pulled into Hamdouchi's Whitefly, as a murder mystery unfolds in Tangier as Detective Laafrit (meaning crafty) works to solve a case involving several bodies washing up from the Malabata shore. The novel is hailed as one of the first Arabic noir novels, and its twists and turns immerse the reader in hard-boiled Morocco.
A River Called Time by Mia Couto
Another work by a Man Booker prize nominee, Couto's family saga takes place against the backdrop of the civil war that overtook Mozambique from 1977-1992, as a young man named Mariano attempts to unite his family as they convene for his grandfather's funeral. The family debates how to step into the future, even as they are haunted by their own insistent ancestors, in a compelling dive into Mozambican identity and outlook.
Writing Namibian: Literature in Translation edited by Sarala Krishnamurthy & Helen Vale
It's always a challenge to pick one text alone as representative of a whole country's literature – unless, of course, that volume is Krishnamurthy and Vale's well-curated, broad overview of writers from Namibia. The pieces included in this anthology range from Oshiwambo orature, narratives in German, Ju'hoansi and Otjiherero and Afrikaans, writing by female Namibian authors, plays, poetry, sociology, academic criticism, and more.
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The African Trilogy by Chinua Achebe
No list of African literature would be complete without Chinua Achebe, one of the best known writers from the continent long before the current blossoming of the Nigerian literary community. This trilogy is some of his best work, each of the three novels a meditation on power – or what Adichie describes in her TED talk as nkali, an Igbo "noun that loosely translates to 'to be greater than another.'"
Looking for Transwonderland by Noo Saro-Wiwa
Saro-Wiwa captures the bewildering experience of being between countries and cultures in Looking for Transwonderland, a memoir that brings the reader along from "the exuberant chaos of Lagos" to the "calm beauty of the eastern mountains," from the networks of Nigerian public transportation to far off the beaten path. The author makes for a humorous, witty tour guide and puts the reader in the passenger seat next to her, seeing parts of the country not every visitors has the opportunity to experience.
And After Many Days by Jowhor Ile
The inciting event of the novel is the disappearance of seventeen-year-old Paul Utu, but its clear the characters are searching for more than a young man. A mystery rooted in myth, a personal story that doesn't shy away from the political, and the story of a community in transition, Jowhor Ile's And After Many Days captures the town of Port Harcourt, Nigeria in 1995 and far further back in time.
The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna
An assortment of characters who span generations and very different backgrounds collide in the buzzy capital of Freetown, each with secrets to keep and haunted by the long, painful civil war that lasted from 1991–2002. An intimate, humanizing look at the manners and identities of Sierra Leoneans, the novel muses about what holds us together even while grappling with the forces, and choices, that can rend at a community or country.
An Imperfect Blessing by Nadia Davids
A Muslim family of color living in the Cape Town suburbs navigates the tremendous changes their country is experiencing – in particular, the family's young daughter Alia, who is going through major transformations of her own. Moving from Walmer Estate deeper into the capital, from mosques to dive bars, home to history-making moments, Davids' novel grounds the expansive qualities of the national and adolescent in the specificity of geography.
Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavic
What better way to get an close-focus tour of 1980s and '90s Johannesburg than following protagonist Neville Lister as he embarks on an art project that involves photographing and interviewing the residents of three randomly-selected houses? Though Lister's work doesn't go according to plan and he travels from South Africa to London and back over the course of a decade – and the end of apartheid – Vladislavic maps not only places, but his characters' public and private selves.
Thirteen Months of Sunrise by Rania Mamoun
This series of short stories, translated from Mamoun's original Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, captures a kaleidoscope of the Sudanese experience, from the quotidian routines of ordinary citizens to heroic rescues to a writer-cum-flaneur pacing the back streets of Khartoum in hopes of stumbling across a story.
Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah
As tourists drift into 1970s Zanzibar, a dreamy young author named Salim struggles with his place in both his family and the larger world. Gravel Heart follows Salim as he moves from his home country to London in an attempt to grapple with a flawed relationship with his own father, and his country's own confusion after the end of British colonization.
Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi
A multi-generational epic that reaches far back into Ugandan history to the 18th century Buganda Kingdom and boomerangs back to present-day Kampala, Kintu was an instant hit in both Uganda and Kenya. It continues to rack up accolades like the Windham-Campbell Prize and was named one of Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2017.
As Aaron Bady notes in his introduction, "Makumbi [did] for Ugandans something like what China Achebe novels did for Nigerians in the 1960s." She creates a world "saturated with Ugandan words and places and names" and treats Ugandan's pre-colonial history as worthy of celebration and literary attention, exploring the country in was thrilling to locals and those outside Africa alike.
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
Serpell's novel starts close to the place most associated with Zambia – the banks of the Zambezi River on its way to spill over Victoria Falls. There, at an Edwardian colonial settlement, a fateful decision sets in motion a century of conflict between three Zambian families from all walks of life. Far from the typical multi-generational epic in the British tradition, however, Serpell's novel is a genre-bending spectacular that defies expectations.
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This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Long-listed for the 2020 Man Booker Prize, Tsitsi Dangarembga demonstrates why she is one of Zimbabwe's most beloved and visible authors in This Mournable Body. The protagonist is one fans will recognize from one of Tsitsi Dangarembga's previous novels – a young woman named Tambudzai, who is living in a Harare youth hostel that's seen better days before accepting a job in her hometown in the country's burgeoning ecotourism industry. Grappling with the obstacles faced by young people, and women in particular, Tambudzai's homecoming is far from seamless, but rife with potent observations on human nature and, of course, Zimbabwe itself.
Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Petina Gappah
If Dangarembga tackles Zimbabwe's present, Gappah turns to the country's past in an inversion of colonial Heart of Darkness narratives. Out of Darkness imagines the stories of the Africans who ensured Dr. Livingstone's body would return to England after he died of malaria in what is now Chipundu, Zambia.
Illuminated by empathy and resiliency, Gappah charts his characters course across "more than one thousand and five hundred miles, from the interior to the western coast, from Chitambo to Muanamuzungu, from Chisalamala to Kumbakumba, from Lambalamfipa to Tabora, until...we reached Bagamoyo, that place of sorrow."
A Stranger’s Pose by Emmanuel Iduma and Abraham Oghobase
Far from treating Africa as a homogenous "other," Iduma and Oghobase's collection of prose and photographs spans over a dozen cities s across the continent, forming a unique travelogue of markets, highways, and towns. As Teju Cole notes in the foreword, A Stranger's Pose is "the atlas of a borderless world..." and the "quintessence of many journeys" in which "immense distance is folded, like a rope, into patience sentences and images [that] glow with the radioactivity of communal memory."
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