10 African Heritage Books You Should Read

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.

the kindness of enemies leila aboulelaAvailable 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.

Tahar Ben Jelloun, The Happy MarriageAvailable 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.

the book of memory petina gappahFebruary 2: 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.

rachel's blue zakes mdaFebruary 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.

The Maestro, the Magistrate & the Mathematician Tendai HuchuFeb 15: The Maestro, the Magistrate & the Mathematician by Tendai Huchu (Ohio University Press)

February will be a good year 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.”

and after many days jowhor ileFebruary 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?!)

Kaveena by Boubacar Boris DiopFebruary 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.

blackass i igoni barrettMarch 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.

Fuchsia by Mahtem ShiferrawMarch 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).

the face cartography of the void chris abaniMarch 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.

the ligths of pointe-noire

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