It has been a great year for African writing, with Tanzanian Abdulrazak Gurnah winning the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature. South African Damon Galgut won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The promise, and exciting prose continued to germinate.
Here are my top five picks.
Chronicles of the land of the happiest people in the world, by Wole Soyinka
Wole Soyinka, the great Nigerian poet, playwright, activist and intellectual, has released his first novel in nearly 50 years. He laughed at CNN’s precise figure of 48. The title of his latest novel is inspired by a 2011 Gallup poll that ranked Nigerians at the top of its annual happiness index, prompting Soyinka to seek utopia in his homeland.
What he discovers is a dystopian world inhabited by charlatans posing as Christians; young, qualified professionals who are drawn to their homes to commit nefarious acts; others are reinventing themselves to survive the vicissitudes of politics. A radical satire of a country that Soyinka began writing over 60 years ago, it is an important addition to his work.
Beyond, by Abdulrazak Gurnah
In this multigenerational historical fiction of Tanganyika, in the shadow of the German occupation at the turn of the 20th century, the Nobel Prize for Literature presents the stories of individuals caught on both sides of the racial divide.
There are the inhabitants drawn to the service of the German Empire; still others are invested in the pursuit of love and their optimism that it can suture broken lives. By offering intimate portraits of his characters, highlighted by great historical periods, Gurnah affirms the place of indigenous stories in a whitewashed and limiting vision of the European colonization of Africa.
The house of rust, by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber
In an enchanting new story with a new voice, Bajaber turns a familiar narrative trope into an invigorating journey of discovery. The main protagonist goes in search of his fisherman father, lost at sea. Her journey takes place on a unique craft made of a skeleton, which transforms into other forms as she travels to the depths of the unknown .
Bajaber is the winner of the first prize for African fiction Graywolf Press, with an advance of $ 12,000. It’s easy to see why the panel, led by Nigerian author A Igoni Barrett, chose The house of rust.
Biubwa Amour Zahor: Mwanamke Mwanamapinduzi, by Zuhura Yunus
Tanzania could be in the news for producing East Africa’s first Nobel Laureate in Literature, but there are other compelling reasons that deserve attention, such as the groundbreaking biography of BBC journalist Zuhura Yunus.
Biubwa Amour Zahor: Mwanamke Mwanamapinduzi (Biubwa Amour Zahor: The Revolutionary Woman), written in Kiswahili, recovers from the Tanzanian archives a colorful character whose exploits in the revolution of the 1960s went largely unnoticed. Hopefully, this act of recovery will bring attention to other forgotten heroines and introduce them to a younger generation of readers.
Pioneers, rebels and a few villains: 150 years of journalism in East Africa, by Charles Onyango-Obbo
The adage that “journalism is the first draft of history” affirms the important work journalists do in shaping what people know about the past. Yet we rarely read the stories of these chroniclers of history. This is exactly what Charles Onyango-Obbo, the dean of East African, Ugandan-born, and working Pan-African journalism – his footprints are found everywhere from Nairobi to Johannesburg – seeks to redress.
The result: an engaging read that should enrich our understanding of the pioneering journalism in the region. Written in lively diction, the book is as entertaining as it is informative.