Africa, not a single story
What to talk about when you talk about contemporary African literature
In 2009, the Nigerian novelist and non-fiction writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned the world of “the danger of a single story"—of whitewashing the cultural differences in Africa. Lounge gives you genre-bending stories from geographies across Africa—and its diaspora—as your expansive guide to contemporary classics, and lets you re-chart the literary cartographies of the continent, one book at a time.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Chigozie Obioma’s 2015 debut, The Fishermen, follows the fortunes and misfortunes of four brothers as a prophecy begins to break their familial bond. The same year also saw the English translation of the Congolese writer Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s addictive Tram 83. In this, the dizzying narrative unravels in a bar in an unknown Congolese mining town, where the poet-protagonist Lucien is seen staggering through a world of drinks, drugs and dreamers. Lastly, it’s the Ghanaian-American novelist Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing that for us is not just the African book of 2016, but also of the decade thus far. The story of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi—separated by the sinister forces of slavery—it details their different destinies across two continents and over two centuries.
In its new Afro-futuristic avatar, the genre is reaching for newer galaxies. One glance at Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor’s corpus—catering to children, young adults and adults alike—or the anthologies, AfroSF: Science Fiction By African Writers (2013) and Terra Incognita: New Short Speculative Stories From Africa (2015), will take you to parallel prose worlds. South African author Lauren Beukes’ Arthur C. Clarke award-winning Zoo City (2010), which reimagines Johannesburg, confirms this theory. Also look out for Cape Town-based artist-writer-musician-film-maker Nikhil Singh’s post-apocalyptic graphic novel, Taty Went West.
The Nigerian novelist Helon Habila opens his 2017 Guardian piece with the proclamation that “the Lagos novel has become a genre in itself", adding that “it is almost a rite of passage for Nigerian authors". Habila is reviewing and referring to Chibundu Onuzo’s second novel, Welcome To Lagos (2017), in which she paints the city of Lagos as a character, in colourful and unconventional tones. Her 2013 debut, The Spider King’s Daughter, also founds its home in sprawling mansions and slums in the city. Similarly, Every Day Is For The Thief (2014) and Looking for Transwonderland: Travels In Nigeria (2012) see Teju Cole—also a photographer and prolific essayist—and Noo Saro-Wiwa, respectively, translating their post-hiatus homecomings into moving works of travel writing and city-based cultural commentaries.
From Leye Adenle’s Easy Motion Tourist to Abdelilah Hamdouchi’s Whitefly, 2016 saw nefarious and noir activities in the African novel world. While the former’s fast-and-furious prose has prompted comparisons with “Tarantino landing in Lagos"—and possibilities of a sequel sooner than you may think—the latter has been promoted as the first Arabic detective novel in English. Translated by Jonathan Smolin, Whitefly is set on the beaches of Tangiers, Morocco, while Adenle’s Prix Marianne-winning book has been translated into French as Lagos Lady.
If Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013) is how you came to read contemporary immigrant itineraries from the continent—and stayed a little longer to be captivated by NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names and Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, published in the same year—then these books will carry you to other coordinates: Brian Chikwava transports you from Harare to Harare North (2009)—emigrating Zimbabweans’ term for London—in feverish fiction that is equal parts political and psychological thriller. And lo and Behold The Dreamers! It’s 2016’s much awaited read by Africa’s first million-dollar novelist, Imbolo Mbue—in which a Cameroonian couple encounters the evils and entrapments of the American Dream.
Meet Aminatta Forna, Binyavanga Wainaina and Yemisi Aribisala—Scottish-Sierra Leonean, Kenyan and Nigerian, respectively—who play with the ontology of the 21st century African memoir, and oscillate between the deeply personal and the distinctly political. Forna’s 2002 debut, The Devil That Danced On The Water—which considers her father’s execution as its departure point—charts the first 10 years of her life, and the last 10 years of her father’s. Wainaina—famously known for his satirical essay, “How To Write About Africa" (Granta)—has written a comic and unselfconscious coming-of-age story set in the east and south of Africa in One Day I Will Write About This Place (2011). Aribisala’s Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex And Nigerian Taste Buds (2016) is served as a “mouth-watering appraisal of the cultural politics and erotics of Nigerian cuisine".
The Nigerian-born Helen Oyeyemi—one of Granta’s best young British novelists of 2013—returned to the literary landscape with her collection of short stories, What Is Yours Is Not Yours, last year. Its utterly gorgeous editions aside, it also takes metaphorical and real locks and keys to thread the tales together—a trope which reminds us of South African writer Ivan Vladislavić’s Portrait With Keys: The City Of Johannesburg Unlocked (2006). Also a case of flâneur fiction, its playful prose is neither a novel nor a collection of short stories, and produces a planned map of the city, and a self-portrait of the author, in 138 snippets. Next, travelling to Entebbe, Uganda, Doreen Baingana’s Tropical Fish: Tales From Entebbe (2006) tells the stories of three sisters, Christine, Patti and Rosa—and touches on topics of religion and superstition, love, and AIDS. And finally, Africa39 (2014), which celebrates new writing from sub-Saharan Africa, is your curated guide to wide-ranging storytellers from the region.
Follow these three bookstagrammers for your e-fuel of #AfricanLiterature
For African literary festivals and flat-lays, @zaynabtyty
A senior associate at pulse.ng, Zaynab Quadri is a self-proclaimed “African lit lover" and knows her paperback priorities: In 2016, she took up the #54booksacrossAfricaChallenge—one for each country on the continent. You can also spot her snapshots from literary fests and book fairs in Nigeria.
For your calendar of African literature-related events, @afrikult
An independent publishing house, Afrikult is also a platform that discusses, discovers and celebrates African literature. Follow them for future editions of their London-based event: #WordsthatTravel.
For your one-stop social media shop on black women’s writing, @wellreadblackgirl
Glory Edim (@guidetoglo), the Brooklyn-based founder of #WellReadBlackGirl, has a staggering Insta-following of over 13,000. When she’s not too busy hosting book clubs—subscribe to her newsletter—she posts stunning shelfies, and passages from the African prose on her bedstand.