There has never been a better time than right now to be a reader of African literature.
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.
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. 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 by Zakes Mda (University of Chicago Press)
Zakes Mda’s 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: 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.
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.
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 out there, and since Blackass was published last year in Nigeria and the UK (to rapturous reviews) people have been waiting in the US for Barrett’s first novel with a certain amount of piqued urgency. 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.
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.