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Spotlight on African Authors

The fallout from President Trump’s alleged comments on African nations has continued in full force, with South Africa and Ghana adding themselves to the list of countries that have called US diplomats to meet with their governments.

For further context read Trump Questions Taking Immigrants From 'Shithole Countries'

Rather than be dragged down by vulgar language and small-minded views we should take the opportunity to instead celebrate African culture and self-expression, and for myself, that means diving into the literature of great African authors, many of whom have been at the forefront of literary discussion and acclaim in recent years.

Of course, it would be a mistake for me to represent Africa as a single homogenous unit. With over 50 countries, there is a wealth of diverse cultures, languages and ethnicities to be found within each country, let alone the continent of Africa as a whole. The idea that this vast and complex space can be summed up in a single word, any single word at that, is plainly ridiculous. Instead this list hopes to look at the representations of life across these various countries, with all their struggles and hardships but also their exuberance, and vibrancy.

For this list we will put the spotlight on 8 novels by African authors, from across the continent. To reach as far as possible we are choosing works from 8 different countries. This of course still only covers a tiny fraction of the incredible and exciting literature being produced at the moment (to say nothing of the great nonfiction, poetry, and short story writing being published). Please do comment your own favourites and recommendations below this article.

THE HAPPY MARRIAGE

Tahar Ben Jelloun, frequently called ‘Morocco’s greatest living author,’ emerged from a troubled time in Morocco’s past. Having participated in student rebellions against the police force Ben Jelloun was interned in a military camp in 1966. During his five year stay there he delved into the work of James Joyce, and wrote poetry. In 1985 his first novel The Sand Child received widespread attention. Although Arabic is his first language he writes exclusively in French. His recent novel The Happy Marriage follows a couples relationship told from each perspective. The husband, a painter from Casablanca has had a stroke, while at the height of his career, and is now coming to grip with the collapse of life as he knew it, convinced that his marriage is the reason for his downfall. His wife offers her point of view, just at the moment in history when legal reform will change her rights forever. It’s a reflection on perspective and judgement told with accomplished narrative flair.

Click here to read an interview with Ben Jelloun on his semi-autobiographical novel About My Mother

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The Meursault Investigation

The Meursault Investigation sees Algerian author Kamel Daoud give a fascinating retelling of Albert Camus’ The Outsider. Daoud takes his inspiration from the nameless “Arab” who is killed by Meursault in Camus’ classic absurdist novel. Daoud’s novel follows the brother of this victim, as he attempts to bring his brother out of obscurity. He gives him a name, and a voice to describe the events that lead to his violent death. Daoud felt compelled to write this story because of the centrality of The Outsider to his identity as an Algerian Francophone writer. It merits its place as a complement to its famous predecessor, while also being an important reflection on the effect of colonialism in Algeria, and the sidelining of cultures by their oppressors. When being interviewed by the Los Angeles Review of Books, Daoud remarked: "Ever since the Middle Ages, the white man has the habit of naming Africa and Asia's mountains and insects, all the while denying the names of the human beings they encounter. By removing their names, they render banal murder and crimes. By claiming your own name, you are also making a claim of your humanity and thus the right to justice."

The Queue

A long-standing vocal critic of government oppression in Egypt, Basma Abdel Aziz has written several works of non-fiction before 2016 when she wrote her debut novel The Queue, a work of dystopian surrealist fiction. With deep connections with Orwell’s 1984 and Kafka’s The Trial, The Queue imagines an Egypt where the result of a failed uprising known as the ‘Disgraceful Events’ has led to the creation of a centralized authority called ‘the Gate.’ Permission to carry out the most basic of daily duties must be gotten from the Gate. However, the Gate never opens. The citizens with resounding believability have faith that it surely must open soon and so they queue… Aziz’s darkly comic and uncomfortably sinister novel was the winner of the English PEN Translation Award and led Aziz to be named one of Foreign Policy's Global Thinkers.

Click here to read Aaron Bady’s review of The Queue.

Stay With Me

Nigerian authors have been taking the world by storm, so much so that it’s almost impossible to choose a single author and novel to spotlight here. There are established classics such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, to the fevered anticipation of the release of Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel Freshwater in February of this year. There are authors who seem to have permeated across world culture, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and there are others who are breaking ground in their specific areas, like Nnedi Okorafor’s incredible work in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction. For this list, we’ve chosen a work that received astounding acclaim in the past year. In 2015 Ayobami Adebayo was named as one of the bright stars of Nigerian literature by the Financial Times. In 2017, her debut novel Stay With Me was a favourite for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and was widely acclaimed as among the best novels of the year. It follows Yejide and her husband Akin as they desperately hope for a child, but their love is tested when Akin’s relatives insist on him taking a second wife.

Click here for an interview with Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, the founder of Cassava Republic, the publisher at the centre of Nigerian literature. 

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Black Moses

Both the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo have a vibrant scene of Francophone literature. From the former Fiston Mwanza Mujila has received enormous acclaim for his debut novel Tram 83, while from the latter we have seen Franco-Congolese author Alain Mabanckou reach astronomical heights. Already awarded the Prix de l’Académie for lifetime achievement by the Académie Française in 2012, he has been hailed as the Samuel Beckett of Africa and his work is recognised as masterpieces of dark comedy, absurdism, and magical realism. His novels are invariably found on the list of finalists for the Man Booker International Prize, and his most recent novel Black Moses is no exception. Set in the era of the Marxist-Leninist revolution of 1970s, an era made famous in Congolese literature by Emmanuel Dongola’s collection of short stories Jazz and Palm Wine, which you can read more about here. Mabanckou follows a young orphan Moses as he falls in with a gang of thieves and prostitutes. As he yearns to do good in the middle of injustice, Moses wonders if he could really be the Robin Hood of the Congo. This larger-than-life picaresque story balances comedy with grief as only Mabanckou can.

Wizard of the Crow

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is the obvious choice for representing Kenya on this list. There are not many years when this author is not seen as a possible candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature. His first novels were written in English, including his highly acclaimed 1967 novel A Grain of Wheat, centred on the state of emergency in Kenya's struggle for independence and a village’s preparation for Kenya's independence day celebration. However Thiong’o subsequently decided to primarily write in Gikuyu, the language of the Kikuyu people of Kenya. His most recent novel, Wizard of the Crow was released in 2004, his first novel in more than 20 years. It is set in the Free Republic of Aburiria, a fictional African nation, and follows the battle for the souls of the Aburirian people as the autocratic leader, simply named the Ruler, is set against a young man who has taken on the mantle of a magician. This novel draws heavily on the oral tradition of African storytelling, while blending searing humour with captivating magical realism.

Kintu

Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi won the Kwani? Manuscript Project in 2013 for her novel Kintu, then titled The Kintu Saga. It was published in 2014 by the Kenyan-based Kwani Trust. Despite the acclaim that has been building around Makumbi’s work, we are only now being treated to a translation of this mesmerizing and sweeping work. Opening in the slums of Kampala with a man’s brutal murder at the hands of the mob, the novel then dives back in time to 1750 where Kintu Kidda is setting out to pledge allegiance to the new leader of the Buganda kingdom. This journey results in a curse on his family that will last generations. Divided into six sections, Makumbi ambitious interweaves historical fiction, myth and folklore, and family sagas, as she explores the attempt to reconcile tradition with modernity. It’s a deeply textured and breath-taking novel and one which delves into Ganda tradition to create a story that will resonate the world over.

Click here to read Marcia Lynx Qualey’s in depth review of Kintu.

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Black Diamond

When it comes to South African authors, it’s impossible not to mention J M Coetzee. He has certainly merited his place as the forerunner of South African literature, however there are a great number of other prolific authors who can also be highlighted. Zakes Mda grew up surrounded by the struggles of Apartheid, his encounters with law enforcement and officials would later inspire him to write. He has written a vast array of novels, you can read more about his writing in general in this article:

Zakes Mda: A Novelist of the New South Africa

For this list we’re going to take a look at his novel Black Diamond. This is his most openly critical novel as he takes a satirical look at the corruption and cronyism that followed the end of Apartheid. In this novel he follows Don Mateza, a private security guard who has not cached in his anti-Apartheid guerrilla status to achieve Black Diamond status. This is much to the displeasure of his girlfriend Tumi, who is even more put out when Don is assigned to protect Kristen Uys, a white magistrate set on eliminating prostitution. Mda deftly plays on and subverts the many South African stereotypes, in this humorous but sharply observant novel.

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Editorial content writer at Bookwitty. Lives up to her name by having a housemate called Watson, but is still working on the violin-playing and crime-solving.

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