THE holiday season is upon us, and we’ve put together a list of ten fiction books by African authors that you should be reading as you while away the hours:
We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo (Zimbabwe)
NoViolet Bulawayo’s stunning debut novel is a coming-of-age story of a young girl called Darling, first as a ten-year-old in Zimbabwe to her teenage years in Detroit, Michigan, or as the children call it, “Destroyedmichygen”. The novel is an extension of Bulawayo’s Caine-prize winning short story, “Hitting Budapest”, and has been received to critical acclaim. Her delightful prose lightens the narration, whose thematic content would otherwise be a bit too weighty.
But it is in unguarded moments that her writing really comes alive: For example, when describing snow falling outside the window, she writes: “How does something so big it shrouds everything come down just like that and you don’t even hear it coming?”
Lagoon – Nnedi Okorafor (Nigeria)
Described as a “swirling, writhing cross-section of life in Lagos,” Nnedi Okorafor’s latest novel has aliens landing in Nigeria for the first time ever, and then explores the upheaval that follows as the aliens try to be “agents of change” in chaotic Nigeria. Real-life Lagos is a place of deep contradictions, and Lagoon weaves in between those spaces, using science fiction as a springboard to interrogate the city’s possibilities: in one episode, the aliens decide to grant wishes to the local sea-life, with darkly hilarious results.
The book’s afterward reveals that it is partly a response to the South African film District 9 (2009), which was roundly condemned by Nigerians everywhere for its decidedly unflattering portrayal of Nigerians. As a result, Lagoon tends to have an ambitious, cinematic feel to it: Here’s to hoping someone adapts it into film soon.
Murder at Cape Three Points – Kwei Quartey (Ghana)
A wealthy, middle-aged married couple wash up dead on the Ghanaian coast, near an oil rig. Charles and Fiona Smith-Aidoo are a pillar in the community – and Charles, a director of corporate affairs at an oil company, had been decapitated in a way that suggests the killer wanted to send a message. Inspector Darko Dawson of the Accra police force is sent out to Cape Three Points to investigate.
As Dawson begins to poke around in the tightly-knit community, he starts to suspect that he is surrounded by good liars. Quartey’s richly descriptive prose makes much of the places described unnervingly familiar.
Hiding in Plain Sight – Nurrudin Farah (Somalia)
Nurrudin Farah is one of Africa’s most acclaimed novelists, a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. His latest work, Hiding in Plain Sight, explores what it means to be Somali in today’s day and age, interrogating the place of tradition and culture in the modern world. In the book, lead character Bella is struggling to pick up the pieces after her brother is killed in a jihadist bombing, and she is obliged to look after her niece and nephew.
In a cruel example of life imitating art, Farah’s own sister was killed in a terrorist attack in Afghanistan in January this year, just a few months before the book’s release.
Black Widow Society – Angela Makholwa (South Africa)
Makholwa’s latest novel is centred on a trio of successful businesswomen who, in between board meetings and sales targets, form a secret society that assassinates abusive husbands to liberate long-suffering wives. They operate undetected for 15 years, but a new threat from within now makes them risk exposure.
Full of everything that makes a great crime story – suspense, murder, seedy characters and jazzy settings – the grisly novel has been written with “great erudition and acumen, which makes it seem so authentic and hard not to believe,” says one reviewer, who then wonders: “the strangest thing is that [Makholwa] still has a husband?” (sic).
Dust – Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenya)
Perhaps this one shouldn’t be on a holiday reading list at all: If you’re looking for light, entertaining reading, you should just skip this one. It’s an astonishing, intense book set in Kenya and is full of trauma, questions and grief, that demands your full attention and commitment. But before you get too depressed, it’s worth it in the end, if only to question the things so often left unsaid.
In some places, the layered exposition and extensive back stories sometimes make it laborious reading, though Owuor’s incredibly original turns of phrases come to the rescue: A family portrait has the family arranged “as if facing a firing squad”, one of the characters, Ajany, is “more shadow than person, head slanted as if waiting for answers to ancient riddles.” Dust is difficult and haunting, but wholly unforgettable.
Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty – Alain Mabanckou (Republic of Congo)
A prolific writer, Alain Mabanckou’s latest offering Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty is drawn from his own childhood experiences; the book recounts the story of ten-year-old Michel living in Pointe Noire.
During Nazi-occupied France, Brazzaville was the symbolic capital of Free France between 1940 and 1943, and the ten-year-old’s grasp of history is ingenious: “General de Gaulle came to Brazzaville to announce that France was no longer in France, that the capital of France was no longer Paris, with the Eiffel Tower – Brazzaville was now the capital of free France. So the French all became Congolese like us.”
French-Congolese Mabanckou’s “sly authorial wit” such as this pervades the book, exposing the hypocrisies and contradictions of the adult world through the eyes of a very smart boy.
The Sculptors of Mapungubwe – Zakes Mda (South Africa)
Like the island of Atlantis, Mapungubwe is one of Africa’s most intriguing lost civilisations, an ancient settlement that was located between the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, just by the confluence of present day South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Mapungubwe has been made a national park and declared a Unesco heritage site; there’s a dedicated museum at the University of Pretoria and it has inspired an annual cultural festival in Limpopo province.
An ambitious ideological project, Zakes’ Mda’s novel attempts to recreate Mapungubwe at the height of its glory in the 13th century. True to the historical novel genre, it is laden with descriptions of family life and traditional culture, skillfully explored through the rivalries of two ambitious brothers, sculptors whose art is regarded as sacred in the kingdom.
Kintu – Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Uganda)
In folklore Kintu is the name of the man (or spirit) who fathered the Baganda people, and so the name will be familiar to many Ugandans. But Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s novel re-imagines the legendary figure as Kamu Kintu, a man in modern-day Kampala who is murdered in an act of mob justice, accused of stealing because he has new gadgets in his shack in Bwaise.
Throughout Kintu, Makumbi “manages to resist clichés and stereotypes in favor of realistic complexity”, says one reviewer. It took her nearly ten years to write the novel, and was rejected by publishers who told her it was “too African; it didn’t straddle both worlds… the the West and the Third World,” she said in an interview. But we’re glad she wrote it anyway.
Transit – Abdourahman Waberi (Djibouti)
Abdourahman Waberi is known for his stream-of-consciousness, non-linear plunges into his characters thoughts, and Transit is no different. Set in Djibouti, it appears to be a disconnected series of monologues, until they brilliantly collide in an unexpected flash.
Through the main character Bashir – an scruffy, adolescent ex-soldier who has nicknamed himself Binladen – we gain a glimpse into contemporary Djibouti, a country that hardly makes it into the news and so is rather ‘unknown’ to the outside world. Bashir’s scathing attacks on politicians and the ruling elite are “uncluttered by formal education” says this reviewer, and thus sincere in an entirely refreshing way.