With the Indo-Africa summit having just concluded, we the bookish hope most fervently that African writers will be invited to India far more often, and literary ties will be strengthened between our worlds. Here are six recent books from Africa (caveat: all are written in English) to understand the continent a little better.
One Day I Will Write About This Place, Binyavanga Wainaina
Nominated one of the hundred most influential people by Time magazine this year, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, winner of the Caine Prize in 2002 and founding editor of the literary magazine Kwani?, is undoubtedly one of the coolest intellectuals today and possesses the zaniest voice to emerge in African writing in the last decade. Wainaina’s breakout essay How To Write About Africa (published in Granta in 2006) made a sharp case against the stereotypes that invariably accompany Western writing about Africa.
His wonderful memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place about his childhood and youth – Kenya where he grew up, South Africa where he went to college, and later on his travels through other parts of east Africa that went on to make him a “pan-Africanist” as he calls himself (and not an “Afropolitan”) is a must-read for its perfect rendition of atmosphere, its felicity, and finally, to an Indian reader, the deep sense of kinship it evokes.
It could be dubbed the Kenyan version of the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and is filled with a vividness of imagery that is matched only by its sparkling prose. Later, we’d know it as a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Gay Man, after he came out in a moving essay published on the internet, I am a homosexual, mum – what he called the “lost” chapter of his memoir.
In a Strange Room, Damon Galgut
South African writer Damon Galgut has often been compared to his senior countryman, JM Coetzee. Indeed, Galgut employs the sort of economy and precision that mark Coetzee’s work, but his material is completely original. In a Strange Room is divided into three accounts of travel (Greece and Lesotho; Tanzania; India), where the narrator, “Damon”, is accompanied by different people whose characters and intents shadow his inner journeys. While the text is authored in the third person, every so often it slips into the first person; this experimental turn lifts the book from merely great to sublime.
Baking Cakes in Kigali, Gaile Parkin
Angel Tungaraza has moved from her native Tanzania to the post-genocide Rwanda, with her professor-husband and five grandchildren – her son and daughter are both “late” – and she has turned her talent at baking into a day job (as “a professional somebody”). Birthdays, anniversaries, christenings, weddings – Angel has just the idea for the occasion, as well as all the ideas that might help her friends and neighbours manage their lives a little better. A charming feel-good novel that perhaps talks about every single trouble that has plagued Africa – from poverty to AIDS, mindless tribal wars, the politics of aid-giving, intelligence games and even female circumcision – but with remarkable grace, humour and Angel’s trademark colourful icing.
And Home Was Karikoo, MG Vassanji
One of Canada’s best-known novelists and a nuclear physicist by training, the writer MG Vassanji’s books have, time and again, taken him to the world of the Indian disapora in – and once of – East Africa, always the melting pot of Africa, Asia and Arabia. His latest book And Home Was Karikoo: Memoir of an Indian African is a haunting account of not only his childhood years in Dar es Salaam but is entwined with the narrative of his travels to these parts now; a reflection on the history of the places and the continent at large, the book is, ultimately, a deeply moving tribute to an ever-shifting constant: the idea of home.
We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo
Nominated for the Booker in 2013, Zimbabwe-born NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel We Need New Namesis a searing account of the life and times of Darling, a young girl growing up in a shanty town called Paradise, where “NGO people” arrive with a lorry filled with useless provisions once every month and a Chinese factory named “Shanghai” seems to be a land of opportunities, in a country where violence simmers just beneath the daily currents of life and threatens to burst into spectacular flames.
Later on, Darling goes to the US and lives on illegally even after her visa expires, providing a rare , disconcerting, glimpse of the underbelly of America whose voice is seldom heard. Winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing (among other honours), Bulawayo’s prose is poetic enough to startle, yet restrained enough to tell of audacious erasures.
And when they asked us where we were from, we exchanged glances and smiled with the shyness of child brides. They said, Africa? We nodded yes. What part of Africa? We smiled. Is it that part where vultures wait for famished children to die? We smiled. Where the life expectancy is thirty-five years? We smiled. Is it there where dissidents shove AK-47s between women’s legs? We smiled… Is it where the old president rigged the election and people were tortured and killed and a whole bunch of them put in prison and all, there where they are dying of cholera – oh my god, yes, we’ve seen your country; it’s been on the news.
We Need New Names is a book that navigates sorrows so intimately that you will shut it every now and then and put it away; it is a book that works with such sensitivity that it will leave you hungering for more.
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A deeply moving and supremely readable novel by the writer who is, without a doubt, the brightest star in the firmament (insert suitable quote about the gorgeous African firmament). Ifemelu and Obinze are childhood sweethearts. Their love story is set against the backdrop of Nigeria, changing rapidly in the last few decades, and as they navigate immigration, education, success, failures, race and longings across three continents.
The narrative is cleverly broken by blog entries written by Ifemelu on her wildly popular blog with the unique title: Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. Ngozi Adichie uses the blog to offer a fresh and urgent commentary on race relations in America. From language to hair care (Ifemelu refers to a website named HappilyKinkyNappy.com to figure out the best ways to deal with her hair), the blog often makes the personal, political and the political, personal, and superbly complements the narrative arcs that traverse the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze, over the years, moving from different cities in the US and the UK, to the changing globalizing landscapes of contemporary Lagos.
If there is only one book you will read from the list, then I will recommend this one.
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