(NOT) Five African novels to read before you die
University of Leeds professor Brendon Nicholls made a list of the “Five African Novels to Read Before You Die” yesterday, and it’s a fine list, if your best-case scenario is that literate first-world types manage to read a handful of creative works from Africa in their lifetime. And let’s be real, most Westerners are not even going to do that. So his list is fine, albeit extremely predictable: Achebe and Ngugi, of course, and let’s add Ayi Kwei Armah’s most canonical novel—because we need more than one West African male novelist from the 60’s—and, hmm, oh, shoot, we need some women, so, okay, Tsitsi Dangerembga, obviously, and Bessie Head, I guess. But not the really hard Bessie Head novel, let’s try the one that won’t confuse people. DONE.
I’m giving Nicholls some good-natured sass, here (sorry dude), because, as someone who studies, reads, and teaches contemporary African literature, I’m just very bored with this list, which is a fine list, but it’s a bit, I do’t know, “Five White Writers You Should Read Before You Die: Shakespeare, Milton, Dostoyevsky, Austen, Woolf.” Does the world need another suggestion that you read Things Fall Apart? It’s a great novel, but everybody knows that, or if they don’t, there’s no hope for them anyway. Therefore:
- Henceforth, by the authority vested in me by me, I BAN ALL LISTS OF “HERE’S SOME AFRICAN LITERATURE BOOKS TO READ” FROM SUGGESTING THAT YOU READ CHINUA ACHEBE’S THINGS FALL APART.
- Henceforth, it is implied.
- Violators will be tweeted at, grumpily.
- YOU ARE WARNED.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I want to scratch another itch that this list brought to life: why don’t people who work on contemporary African literature actually seem to read or work on contemporary African literature? The ones Nicholls listed are important novels, and you should read them, if you’re into that whole “being a better person by reading things” thing (though you should read Arrow of God instead of Things Fall Apart, and if you want “post-independence existentialist malaise,” maybe read Yambo Ouologuem’s Bound to Violence, and for Christ’s sake, read A Question of Power, not Maru. Oh, and read Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly Burning instead of Nervous Conditions). But four of these authors were born in the 1930’s, and although Tsitsi Dangarembga was born in the 1950’s, Nervous Conditions was published 28 years ago. This is canonical, important stuff. But it’s old.
It’s only relatively recently that “Contemporary African Literature” has come to mean a different set of writers than “African Literature.” This is because, before Chinua Achebe and the rest of the born-in-the-1930’s writers, “literature” was not one of the forms of creative expression that most of the continent practiced, for all sorts of historically obvious and intuitive reasons ot worth going into right now. In the 50’s and 60’s, this changed: a generation of writers, educated in missionary or colonial schools, began writing books that could be called “literature,” and thus, “African literature” was born. A few years later, literary critics realized that there was such a thing as African women writers, and so they re-discovered people like Bessie Head and also new writers like Tsitsi Dengerembga. This, basically, was African literature in the 1990’s: a core of West African male Anglophone novelists, plus Ngugi, plus some women, preferably from southern Africa, because we almost forgot about southern Africa. (and um, not Nadine Gordimer, though, because, you know).
Moving On. As we peer forward towards 2015, the literatures of the Africas are much more interesting than those five books and the canon-making principles they index. I say “literatures of the Africas” because that phrase is cumbersome and bulky and unfamiliar, and guess what, so is the thing it’s meant to gesture towards. The old canons have become a critical crutch: Nicholls’ list is a good place to start if you want to appreciate what has been going on for the last decade; anyone worth reading will probably have read at least most of these people, and if they haven’t, the people they have read probably will have. Those writers are really helpful for appreciating what African writers are doing right now, and there’s no getting away from that. They’re also great writers.
However. If you want to really understand what Gabriel García Márquez is doing, you should probably read William Faulkner, like García Márquez did. And Faulkner is not a bad writer; you should check him out. But Faulkner is not a prerequisite for García Márquez. By the same token, the born-in-the-1930’s generation is not a prerequisite for reading what has been written in the last decade, or even the last three decades. It helps, of course; the born-in-the-1930’s generation had a lot of things in common, and so did the things they wrote about. And this meant two things: first, for a long time, as long as those writers were at the center of the literature, “African literature” could seem (even for people who weren’t wildly racist and stupid) like a singular thing, a category whose center more or less held; second, it meant that all the writers who came after them tended to contend with their predecessors, measuring themselves by the example of those who came before. Achebe, et al, set the mold, which was what allowed everyone else to come along and try to break it.
For this reason, Nicholls’ list is a perfectly good place to start, as long as you don’t want to read anything written in the last three decades. If you do want to read things that were written in the last thirty years, however—maybe, for example, because you want to read things that were written in your lifetime, and you were born, say, in 1979, like me—you are in luck! I have a list for you.
My criteria: not Brendan Nicholls’ list. And Kenya is overrepresented, because it’s my list, make your own.
That’s it. This is just a fun little exercise—at best, an attempt at a counter-intuitive set of suggestions that might even help you find a book you like—and I’m not going to pretend that there’s any kind of canon-making ambition here. But I’m going to use his list as a platform for a different list, so let me track changes here:
1. Yvonne Owuor’s Dust (2014). Everything changed when she wrote this book. It’s glorious and great, and brave and beautiful, and as you’re reading it, flip back and re-read the prologue, which is the poetry that the rest of the book works to explicate. Also, remember that it’s the story of an artist holding a paintbrush like a stabbing knife. This book is doing work. (alternate: Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place, which is pretty much all of those things too).
2. Shailja Patel’s Migritude (2010). This book is as beautiful as its cover, and I’ve learned almost as much from her writing as I’ve learned from her example. So brave and strong that you almost don’t notice the melding of an acute artistic sensitivity with painful self-reflection. So worldly that you almost don’t notice how rooted she is. So political that you almost don’t notice that she writes about love, always. (alternate: Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, which is a lot more of those things than the “I’m not an Afropolitan” people seem willing to notice).
3. Alain Mabanckou’s Blue-White-Red (1998, 2013), African Psycho (2003/2007), Broken Glass (2005/2009), Memoirs of a Porcupine (2007/2011), Black Bazaar (2009/2102), Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty (2010/2013). Did you know that there is such a thing as African literature written in French? Neither did I! But Alain Mabanckou turns out to exist, and he’s a completely amazing and interesting and delightful writer, and as you can see from the dates above (original publications/translations), his English translators are slowly catching up with him. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because he’s funny and playful that he’s not deadly serious, and cruel. (alternate Francophone writer that is finally getting most of his stuff translated in the states: Abdourahman Waberi).
3.5. Oh, and what the heck, here’s a bunch of other novels written recently-ish by Africans, in French, that have been translated into English:
- Ken Bugul’s The Abandoned Baobab: The Autobiography of a Senegalese Woman (1982/1991)
- Gaston-Paul Effa’s All That Blue (1996/2007)
- Fatou Diome’s The Belly of the Atlantic (2003/2006)
- Gabriel Mwene Okoundji’s The Wounded Soul of a Black elephant & A Prayer to the Ancestors (2002,2008/2010)
- Léonora Miano’s Dark Heart of the Night (2005/2010)
- Edem Awumey’s Dirty Feet (2009/2011)
- Kossi Efoui’s The Shadow of Things to Come (2011/2013)
- Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile (2012/2014)
For most of these writers, this is the only book which has been translated in English, so for crying out loud, at least you could read that one book, you gauche provincial. (Alternate Europhone language whose African writers are finally getting translated into English: Portuguese. Look for names like Mia Couto, Pepetela, and Ondjaki.)
4. Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men (2006) and Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011). Variations on a theme. Haunting, lovely, and wonderfully perceptive about masculinity and power, and his prose is crystal sharp. (Alternate Libyan novels: Ahmed Fagih’s Maps of the Soul, which is 618 pages and comprises the first three books (Bread of the City, Sinful Pleasures and Naked Runs the Soul) of his twelve novel epic, already published in Arabic.) (alternate African literary language that I can’t even begin to: Arabic. SO MANY BOOKS IN ARABIC.) (also, the Maghreb, what about them…) (what about the islands, do those count) (Africa is big)
5. Africa39: New Writing from Africa south of the Sahara. These are not at all the only interesting writers under the age of 39, but it’s a damned good anthology and a damned good list of writers. Most anthologies are not nearly this full of interesting surprises, and the level of quality is a lot higher than I had even hoped. And it’s 39 writers, from all over the place south of the Sahara, which is a lot of people and places. If you’re going to make an impossible list, it’s a good backstop to keep everything from sliding out of control (alternate: all the other books ever written by African people (alternate alternate: literature in non-European languages, let me know what you find).