Best of 2020: The top books by African writers | Arts and Culture News
In a year of living in the inner world of books, African authors offered a variety of worlds to escape to.
Featuring some of the best books by African writers of 2020, connecting the keepers of the literary old guard with exciting new voices, the titles on our list unearth a forgotten story, reflect life today, and maneuver through an uncertain future.
The following selection is a mix of fiction and non-fiction, essays and poetry, all of which represent an exciting year in African literature.
Chronicles of the happiest people in the world – Wole Soyinka
Wole Soyinka [File: Themba Hadebe/AP Photo]For the first time in nearly half a century, Wole Soyinka published a book in a year that turned out to be extraordinary for many reasons.
The 524-page novel Chronicles of the Happiest People of the World by the Nigerian Nobel Prize winner tells the story of four serious friends who have made a pact and promise to use their talent and hard work to bring about meaningful change in their country, Nigeria.
Years later, their enthusiasm is tempered by the comforts and tradeoffs of aging and Nigeria’s ongoing post-independence disappointments.
The novel is available for the first time in Nigeria and will be available worldwide next year.
The first woman / girl is a body of water – Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Who do you turn to when the adults don’t answer your questions and your mind leaves your body? In Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s second novel, you consult the village witch. Kirabo moves from a remote village to bustling Kampala to an elite boarding school to find answers as she navigates her own rich inner life and the insecurity of Idi Amin’s dictatorship.
In her award-winning debut Kintu, which she established as the author who has carved out a distinctive position in the African and global literary landscape, Nansubuga Makumbi explored Uganda’s myth of origin in a thoroughly modern way. With The First Woman, also published under the title A Girl Is A Body of Water, Nansubuga Makumbi explores the power of women in a society that seeks to dissuade them.
Traveling in Black: Essays Inspired by a Life in Motion – Nanjala Nyabola
The passport is perhaps one of the clearest indicators of national power, its power being displayed in queues at the world’s borders. The relative humility of an African passport is evident not only in the arduous and expensive visa processes its carriers go through, but also in the perception that African tourists will overcome the weather when we finally cross the border.
Humanitarian lawyer and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola enters foreign nations with humor and insight. In Traveling While Black, a collection of essays inspired by a life in motion, Nyabola reflects on a world that seems to prefer to stay in Nairobi, but also one that hugs it and teaches us all about belonging when it does notices.
However, it is a pleasure not to be noticed that Nyabola undermines the dusty guide’s perception of traveling Africa and traveling African.
Afterland – Lauren Beukes
South African science fiction writer Lauren Beukes could not have predicted that her book about life after a pandemic would end up in the middle of a pandemic – that was literary luck.
Afterland is a world without men after a plague kills them all. It’s also the story of a mother and son trying to find their way through a decaying America while being pursued by the Department of Men and a relentless sister. In her fifth novel, Beukes stares steadfastly at the world as it is and then turns it upside down and upside down.
As Stephen King wrote, “How can you not fall in love with a book that calls the PSA-wearing scientists charged with discovering a vaccine Pest-o-Nauts?”
The Death of a Black Vivek – Akwaeke Emezi
Akwaeke Emezi [File: Greg Allen/Invision/AP Photo]On the first page one could assume where the story of Vivek Oji will lead.
But as those who stayed behind often find out, it is only after the death of their loved one that they learn how little they knew the person they supposedly love and know.
In a small Nigerian town, the death of a misunderstood young man forces his family to question their own lives.
Akwaeke Emezi’s third novel – after the celebrated Freshwater and Pet – The Death of Vivek Oji has been described as a crime thriller, a family drama, a book that makes the invisible visible.
This is Emezi’s gift of inhabiting worlds and genres and bending them to their will and bringing home truths for the real world.
Transcendent Kingdom – Yaa Gyasi
Yaa Gyasi achieved literary fame when her debut novel, Homegoing, reached the six-figure range and immediately became a bestseller. Critics have described Transcendent Kingdom as evidence that homegoing wasn’t a one-hit wonder.
Transcendent Kingdom is the story of a grieving Ghanaian family in the deep south of America. In the parallels between science and spirituality, addiction and success, stoicism and vulnerability, Gyasi’s characters control the ideological idea and the physical terrain of America as outsiders and insiders in the transposed world they created in Alabama. At the heart of this book is a mother-daughter relationship that is both distant and suffocatingly close, much like the relationship between immigrants and home.
The death of the Comrade President – Alain Mabanckou
Alain Mabanckou [File: Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo]Alain Mabanckou, twice finalist of the International Booker Prize, is characterized by absurd and surreal titles like Black Moses and African Psycho. Perhaps Mabanckou, who was born in Congo-Brazzaville, is simply a keen observer of an absurd world.
In The Death of the Comrade President, translated by Helen Stevenson, the protagonist of the child Michel cannot remain untouched by the world that, after the death of a dictator in a communist Congo in 1977, melts around him in a comical, poignant and violent way.
The assassination and the resulting chaos raise questions about power and decolonization from home to government buildings.
The Akashic Noir series – Accra, Addis Ababa, Johannesburg and Nairobi Noir
With no acacia tree or Serengeti sunset in sight, the noir anthologies offer a glimpse into the skyscrapers of the slums in Africa’s largest cities.
This year four new books in the Akashic Noir series were published in African metropolises: Accra Noir, edited by Nana-Ama Danquah, Nairobi Noir, edited by Peter Kimani, Joburg Noir, edited by Niq Mhlongo and Addis Abeba Noir, edited by the Booker Prize shortlist Maaza Mengiste.
Each anthology repositions the noir genre in urban Africa, both geographically and culturally, addressing topics ranging from history and myth to inequality and displacement. The short story anthologies include established authors such as Ngūgī wa Thiong’o and introduce readers to the new voices of Africa such as Ayesha Harruna Attah. From east to west, from north to south, these are the stories that reflect the urban reality of today’s continent.
No roses out of my mouth – Stella Nyanzi
Stella Nyanzi [File: Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters]Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni will not appreciate these poems. Eventually, under his rule, academic and gender activist Stella Nyanzi was jailed for criticizing the longtime ruler.
Divided into three sections: In Prison, On Feminism and About Uganda, No Roses From My Mouth is a collection of anger and frustration, but also of resilience.
After her release in February of this year, Nyanzi did not crouch and ran again against the state when she ran for parliament.
Strange Faces – The Virgin Serpell
Namwali Serpell will not limit itself to a single genre, not even in a single book. Serpell’s 2019 fiction debut, The Old Drift, is a tapestry of historical fiction, magical realism, satire, and science fiction and has earned her a number of awards including the Arthur C Clarke Award and the Windham-Campbell Prize.
As an English professor at Harvard University, Serpell’s academic writing preceded her fiction and may help her newfound fans understand how skillfully Serpell handled the sprawling, multi-generational epic she had created in her fiction.
The latest essay book by Zambian writer Stranger Faces challenges audiences to read the human face as a language, a source of identity and understanding, and to examine our own reactions to faces that we do not immediately recognize.
Six Years with Al Qaeda: The Stephen McGown Story – Tudor Caradoc-Davies
Stephen McGown [File: Themba Hadebe/AP Photo]Stephen McGown describes the beginning of his ordeal as wrong. During a motorcycle tour in Mali, the South African McGown was kidnapped by Al-Qaeda fighters in Timbuktu in 2011.
In his essay, “Six Years with Al-Qaeda: The Stephen McGown Story,” McGown recalls life in the desert and describes how his abductors moved, their paranoia – but also their far-reaching connections and disciplined organization.
While writer Tudor Caradoc-Davies wonders how McGown managed to maintain his sanity, perhaps most fascinating is the mental chess game McGown played with himself as a farmer until he was freed in 2017.
All blood is black at night – David Diop (First published in 2018 in French; translation published in English in 2020)
More than two million Africans fought in World War I, and yet their stories have gone unnoticed for nearly a century.
David Diop imagines the lives of Alfa and Mademba, two Senegalese soldiers fighting for France. The English translation of Anna Moschovaki’s At Night All Blood is Black was first published in France and was released earlier this year.
The book asks a key question about Alfa that African soldiers in the trenches may have thought of: Who is the enemy? Is it the German in no man’s land who has global rule in his sights, or the French soldier who fights next to me and already controls my world? In the bloody fields, Alfa plays the savage and exposes the hypocrisy of violence, war and racism.
The Perfect Nine – Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Gikuyu version, published 2018 in Kenya; English version, published 2020
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o [File: Antony Njuguna/Reuters]Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s literary work is a long-runner, but never a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is not influenced by either the bookmakers or the critics.
Instead, he continues to be a prolific writer, even though his position as one of the godfathers of African literature was long established.
Now at the age of 81, Ngūgī is trying a new genre, the epic.
The Perfect Nine is the genesis of the Gikuyu in Kenya, which combines myth and history. Retold from a feminist point of view, Ngugi tells the story of the elders’ search for perfect partners for their 10 daughters.
Ngugi’s fascination with language is endless, and his most recent is based on Homeric and oral traditions that incorporate African mythology into the cannon that is still dominated by Greek and European history.