For those looking from the global North, African literature is often marketed in a narrow way, comprising worthy stories of resistance, written in an uplifting and sober realist mode. Seen from the continent itself, this view has long been brushed aside by the effervescence and animation of ongoing literary experimentation and creativity. I approached literary academic colleagues from South Africa, Kenya and Uganda to choose – and share their thoughts on – one of their favourite books of African fiction. The resulting finger-on-the-pulse list offers a bookshelf that speaks to the vibrancy of both contemporary and older African literature. – Isabel Hofmeyr
Waiting by Goretti Kyomuhendo
Susan Kiguli, Makerere University
The 2007 novel is set in the time of the war to get rid of the dictator Idi Amin. The main character, the adolescent Alinda, and her family have to hide from fleeing soldiers. It is an atmosphere of great angst and fear tinged with hope for the arrival of the liberators, who are a merged force of Ugandan exiles and Tanzanian soldiers. This short novel ingeniously handles the matter of the Lendu woman, the Indians and the Tanzanian soldiers with a blend of suspicion and optimism for the unknown and mystique suggested by foreigners.
The narrative thinks through the gaps and anxiety created by war, where ordinary citizens do not know what to expect. It describes the violence, victims and loss that come with lying in the path of fleeing soldiers and pursuing liberators. The setting is a village near Lake Albert at the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This is a novel depicting a situation of post-independence internal and cross-border conflict. It is a worthy read particularly because it resonates with this time when the world is tense under the weight of a marauding pandemic.
I used to think war meant violent clashes between human beings, but since the arrival of the coronavirus I think it includes human beings confronting disease.
The Wormwood Trilogy by Tade Thompson
Nedine Moonsamy, University of Pretoria
Tade Thompson’s The Wormwood Trilogy (Rosewater, The Rosewater Insurrection, The Rosewater Redemption) has been widely acclaimed. It was recently nominated for the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Series. For African readers, it is a watershed moment, marking the arrival of an African science fiction trilogy that we so needed and deserve. Set in the near future, these novels capture the interaction between an invading alien population, the Homians, and the citizens of Nigeria.
All three books hit the sweet spot between exploring what science fiction means to us – who, as the characters often point out, have been historically subjected to alien invasions – and the pleasure of simply imbibing well-written and pacy genre fiction.
Teeming with alien life, Wormwood is an extra-terrestrial biodome that embeds itself in Nigerian soil. Its sprawling tentacles provide organic power and, contrary to what one might imagine, people flock to the surrounding community of Rosewood because Wormwood also performs ritualistic acts of healing on sick human bodies.
In contrast to greater Nigeria, where power outages are still frequent and homosexuality illegal, Rosewood has all the makings of an African techno-utopia. Yet at the heart of the trilogy is the niggling question about whether it is ever possible for humans and aliens to co-exist with symbiotic ease.
The novels make use of sharp-witted, hard-boiled detectives to probe further into alien motives; Thompson’s female characters, in particular, are a testament to his talent as they bristle with an unsentimental brand of Nigerian humour. Getting to know these characters makes reading the trilogy rewarding in itself, but Thompson’s world building is a force to be reckoned with. The interweaving of chaotic Nigerian streets, alongside organic extra-terrestrialism and imagined human technologies, is handled skilfully, allowing readers to delve into a seamless African biopunk universe that makes us marvel at the potential of what is to come.
A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa
Grace A Musila, University of the Witwatersrand
On the eve of Angola’s independence in 1975, Portuguese expatriate Ludovica Fernandes Mano goes into isolation in her penthouse apartment in the city of Luanda, out of fear of the post-independence future. She seals off her apartment with bricks, withdrawing into a new life with her dog and her garden on the terrace, which keeps her fed. Her only connection to the outside world – which soon descends to a 27-year civil war – is her radio.
Angolan novelist Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion is a riveting tapestry of history, detective fiction and poetic interludes, interwoven with poignant turns of phrase and absurdities delivered with a straight-faced candour. It is a perfect lockdown read, not because it is about isolation, but because Ludo’s self-isolation is filled with hilariously narrated encounters and adventures, including a trained messenger pigeon that keeps two young lovers in contact. Ludo uses small pieces of diamond to trap pigeons for food; but when her trap delivers a messenger pigeon with a note attached to its leg, Ludo decides to set it free so the lovers might receive their message – and with it, her swallowed diamonds.
Ludo spends her time writing out her reflections initially in notebooks, and later the walls of her apartment, using charcoal. We get to read excerpts of her poetic reflections; from whose philosophical musings the novel draws its title.
Her encounter with the messenger pigeon draws an intricate network of the world she has withdrawn from, into her sanctuary, eventually ending her 30-year isolation when a young burglar accidentally discovers her and forms a bond with the now elderly lady.
The novel is a patchwork of short, interconnected stories. They weave a web of connected lives which lend it an expansive and colourful range, through short, pacy, thriller-style chapters, interspersed with Ludo’s poetic reflections. This is a book you read when you want to be surprised, and to have your imagination stretched by startling turns of phrase, odd logic and lyrical philosophical observations about life.
Warm, occasionally absurd, humour renders the inevitable tropes of war-time – torture, executions and profiteering – bearable. Part of the novel’s charm lies in its eccentric characters, like the self-fashioned “collector of disappearances” who tracks disappearances of planes off air spaces, as well as more ordinary disappearances, such as the journalist who apparently vanished right before people’s eyes.
This 2015 novel is a stunning canvas of the historical devastation of the Angolan civil war and richly imagined textures of ordinary people’s everyday worlds told with great warmth and inventiveness.
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Sam Naidu, Rhodes University
At a time when the world is experiencing unprecedented restrictions to mobility, Freshwater offers a searing and illuminating narrative about various kinds of border-crossing and about being multiply-located. In this unusual, at times shocking, bildungsroman, Emezi’s protagonist, Ada, is the child of a Nigerian father and a Malaysian mother. From early childhood, and then increasingly as she approaches adulthood, it is clear that Ada exists in a liminal zone: between spirit and human worlds; between cultures and nations; and between sexualities and genders. In retrospect, the novel’s dedication, to
… those of us with one foot on the other side,
that is, to those who do not claim one single affiliation, but both or many, is economically apposite. This liminality is portrayed with astonishing vividness and through varying perspectives, often drawing on traditional Igbo mythology and cosmology to create imagery which is unsettling and challenging.
As an “African” novel, 2018’s Freshwater is innovative and irreverent in the way it marries African religious and cultural beliefs with “Western” geography, religious iconography and cultural symbols, ultimately defying literary categorisation, just as its protagonist repudiates predetermined categories of identity. (The novel is set in Nigeria and the US, and it deliberately presents Ada as a hybrid, transnational character.)
It also contains a rare combination of sensuous, brute physicality with the spiritual. By the end, it is clear that Ada cannot be claimed by her homeland or her diasporic home as she transcends even the human-spirit border to become something which is indefinable, “as liminal as is possible – spirit and human, both and neither”. This bold, contemporary novel captures the porousness of borders, which may prove disquieting for the reader, but also very liberating. In these times of lockdown, Freshwater transports the reader boldly to unexplored, uncanny territory.
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
Sarah Nuttall, University of the Witwatersrand
I recommend Namwali Serpell’s 2019 Zambian tour de force The Old Drift. This is a long book – all 563 pages of it – by a writer whose prose and outsize imagination will hold you spellbound throughout. It’s a postcolonial family saga across three families and three generations. It is also the story of the great Zambezi river, and its capaciousness, capriciousness and capacity for revenge in the face of human-centred attempts to control it.
Serpell unfolds her canvas along two trace-lines of Zambian modernity: the building of the Kariba Dam, the biggest man-made dam in the world at the time of its construction; and Edward Nkoloso’s Zambian National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy and his attempts to send the first Afronauts to the moon. The novel is grounded in precisely rendered historical events but also has a partially speculative sweep. Its final scenes take place in 2023, with a smart techno-twist. The story is narrated not just from a human perspective but from that of a mosquito swarm, a “bare ruinous choir, a chorus of gossipy mites”.
This is a book that asks for your time – and now you’ve got it. Read. And be riotously rewarded.
Hunger Eats a Man by Nkosinathi Sithole
Manosa Nthunya, University of Pretoria
It may as well be the case that at this very trying historical time, it may be difficult to appreciate the offerings of fiction. After all, on a daily basis, we are being asked to read and reread the world, asking ourselves if the catastrophe that has befallen us will pass. What comfort, then, can fiction offer when the very future is at stake? But read on we must – and we do – because it remains an activity that allows us to see how large the world is, despite seeming very small at the moment.
A book that could be worthy of consideration is Nkosinathi Sithole’s Hunger Eats a Man (2014), a novel that examines the devastating effects of poverty in the rural areas of South Africa.
Much of the literature that is being produced in contemporary South Africa has a bias towards the city, with often very little reflection on the experiences of people who live in rural communities.
In this award-winning novel, Sithole opens a world that is marked by deep adversities, exploitation and an increasing disillusionment with a nation still learning how to crawl. It is a book worth reading, and reflecting upon, as we start counting down the inevitable costs of this catastrophic moment.
Broken Glass, by Alain Mabanckou
Tom Odhiambo, University of Nairobi
Alain Mabanckou’s fiction may not be known in much of Anglophone Africa but translation is making it easily available. Mabanckou’s 2005 Broken Glass, set in a bar, Credit Gone West, is a good read for times likes these – easy enough for someone interested in light reading; deep enough for someone looking for a nuanced depiction of African modernity. For those who can no longer access their beloved pub, it will remind you of the sounds, smells, sights, that only a bar can produce, from the beginning to the end.
The tragic life of Broken Glass, the narrator, who appears “self-quarantined” in the bar, mirrors those of the different characters in the society, whose stories we hear in the many anecdotes he tells. The dark humour, satirical tone, endless allusions, and lack of conventional punctuation (sometimes making it tedious to follow the tale), all build up to a dystopic story. But, in the end, the bizarre story in Broken Glass should surely lead you to search for more of Mabanckou’s novels.
Life and Times of Michael K by JM Coetzee
Aretha Phiri, Rhodes University
The oldie on the list, from 1983. An award-winning novel by JM Coetzee, Life and Times of Michael K evokes a desperately depressing sense of subjective fragility and existential nothingness – concerns for which the author is well known.
Set during a period analogous to civil war, it’s a story about a seemingly insipid and largely enigmatic character whose journeys across and encounters with inhospitable landscapes and unwelcoming communities from the Western Cape province to the Karoo see him, at the novel’s end, gathering water from a well with “a teaspoon and a long roll of string”.
And yet Michael K’s vacuous itinerancy also suggests something pathetically hopeful about the existential journey and signals something ironically prescient about the will to endure. Michael K is a sobering read for these testing times.