Best of 2020: The top books by African writers

From fiction and non-fiction to essays and poetry, we bring you some of the continent’s most exciting reads from this year.

Akwaeke Emezi (left) and Alain Mabanckou (right) [File pictures by Greg Allen/Invision/AP Photo and Eric Gaillard/Reuters]

In a year that has lent itself to living in the internal world of books, African authors offered up a host of worlds to escape to.

Combining the keepers of the literary old guard and exciting new voices, the titles in our list featuring some of the best books by African writers published in 2020 excavate a forgotten history, reflect on life today and manoeuvre through an uncertain future.

The selection below is a mix of fiction and non-fiction, essays and poetry, all representing an exciting year in African literature.

Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth – 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 exceptional for many reasons.

The Nigerian Nobel laureate’s 524-page novel Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth tells the story of four earnest friends who formed a pact, promising to use their talents and hard work to make a meaningful change to their country, Nigeria.

Years later, their enthusiasm is tempered by the comforts and compromises of ageing and the lingering disappointments of post-independence Nigeria.

First available in Nigeria, the novel will be available globally next year.

The First Woman/A Girl Is A Body of Water – Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Who do you turn to when the adults will not answer your questions and your spirit leaves your body? In Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s second novel, you consult the village witch. Kirabo moves from an isolated village to a bustling Kampala to an elite boarding school as she tries to find answers while navigating her own rich internal life, and the uncertainty of Idi Amin’s dictatorship.

In her prize-winning debut Kintu, which established her as an author who has created for herself a distinctive position in the African and global literary landscape, Nansubuga Makumbi examined Uganda’s origin myth 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 bent on stripping them of it.

Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move – Nanjala Nyabola

Nanjala Nyabola
Nanjala Nyabola

The passport is perhaps one of the clearest markers of national power, its power on display in queues at borders around the world. The relative humility of an African passport is not only felt in the arduous and expensive visa processes its carriers endure, but in the perceptions African tourists weather when we finally do cross the border.

Humanitarian advocate and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola crosses into foreign nations with humour and insight. In Travelling While Black, an essay collection inspired by a life on the move, Nyabola reflects on a world that seems to prefer that she had stayed put in Nairobi, but also one that embraces her and teaches us all about belonging as she stands out.

It is in the joy of not being noticed, however, that Nyabola subverts the dusty guidebook’s perceptions of travelling Africa and travelling while African.

Afterland – Lauren Beukes

South African science-fiction writer Lauren Beukes could not have predicted that her book about life after a pandemic would land in the middle of a pandemic – that was literary luck.

Afterland is a world without men after a plague has killed them all. It is also the story of a mother and son, trying to make their way across a decaying America while pursued by the Department of Men and a relentless sister. In her fifth novel, Beukes stares unflinchingly at the world as it is, and then turns it upside down and inside out.

As Stephen King wrote: “How can you not fall in love with a book where the P.P.E.-wearing scientists tasked with discovering a vaccine are called plague-o-nauts?”

The Death of Vivek Oji – Akwaeke Emezi

Akwaeke Emezi [File: Greg Allen/Invision/AP Photo]

Dead on the first page, one could assume where the story of Vivek Oji will go.

But, as those left behind often find, it is only after their loved one dies that they learn how little they knew the person they claimed to 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 acclaimed Freshwater and Pet – The Death of Vivek Oji has been described as a murder mystery, a family drama, a book that makes the invisible seen.

That is Emezi’s gift, to inhabit worlds and genres and bend them to their will and bring home truths for the real world.

Transcendent Kingdom – Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi shot to literary stardom when her debut novel, Homegoing, was acquired in a six-figure deal and became an instant best-seller. Critics have described Transcendent Kingdom as proof that Homegoing was not a one-hit-wonder.

Transcendent Kingdom is the story of a grieving Ghanaian family in the American deep south. It is in the parallels between science and spirituality, of addiction and success, stoicism and vulnerability that Gyasi’s characters navigate the ideological idea and physical terrain of America as outsiders, and as insiders in the transposed world, they have created in Alabama. At the heart of this book is a relationship between a mother and daughter, simultaneously distant and suffocatingly close, not unlike the relationship between immigrants and home.

The Death of Comrade President – Alain Mabanckou

Alain Mabanckou [File: Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo]

Alain Mabanckou, twice an International Booker Prize finalist, excels in the absurd and surreal, with titles such as 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 Comrade President, translated by Helen Stevenson, the child protagonist Michel cannot remain untouched by the world that is hilariously, poignantly and violently unravelling around him following the death of a dictator in a Communist Congo in 1977.

The assassination, and the ensuing chaos, raise questions about power and decolonisation from the home to the government building.

The Akashic Noir Series – Accra, Addis Ababa, Johannesburg and Nairobi Noir

With not an acacia tree or Serengeti sunset in sight, the Noir anthologies are a glimpse into the high-rises of slums of Africa’s biggest cities.

This year saw four new books in the Akashic Noir series set in African metropolises: Accra Noir edited by Nana-Ama Danquah, Nairobi Noir edited by Peter Kimani, Joburg Noir edited by Niq Mhlongo and Addis Ababa Noir, edited by the Booker Prize-shortlisted Maaza Mengiste.

Each anthology repositions the noir genre within urban Africa, both geographically and culturally, dealing with issues ranging from history and myth to inequality and displacement. The short story anthologies include established authors like Ngūgī wa Thiong’o and introduces readers to Africa’s new voices such as Ayesha Harruna Attah. From east to west, north to south, these are the stories that reflect an urban reality of the continent today.

No Roses From My Mouth – Stella Nyanzi

Ugandan academic Stella Nyanzi and activists protest against the way that government distributes the relief food and the lockdown situation to control the spread of
Stella Nyanzi [File: Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters]

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni will not appreciate these poems. It was after all under his rule that the academic and gender activist Stella Nyanzi was imprisoned for criticising the long-serving ruler.

Divided into three sections – In Prison, On Feminism and About Uganda, No Roses From My Mouth is an anthology of anger and frustration, but also of resilience.

After her release in February this year, Nyanzi did not cower, standing up to the state again as she runs for Parliament.

Stranger Faces – Namwali Serpell

Namwali Serpell will not confine herself 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 earned her a raft of awards, including the Arthur C Clarke Award and the Windham-Campbell Prize.

An English professor at Harvard University, Serpell’s academic writing preceded her fiction and perhaps helps her newfound fans understand how Serpell so deftly handled the sprawling, multigenerational epic she created in her fiction.

The Zambian writer’s latest book of essays Stranger Faces asks the audiences to read the human face as a language, as a source of identity and understanding, and examine our own responses to faces we do not immediately recognise.

Six Years With Al Qaeda: The Stephen McGown Story – Tudor Caradoc-Davies

Stephen McGown [File: Themba Hadebe/AP Photo]

Without sounding glib, Stephen McGown describes the beginning of his ordeal as taking the wrong turn. While on a motorcycle tour in Mali, South African McGown was kidnapped by al-Qaeda fighters in Timbuktu in 2011.

In his memoir, Six Years With Al Qaeda: The Stephen McGown Story, McGown recalls life in the desert, detailing how his captors moved around, their paranoia – but also their far-reaching connections and disciplined organisation.

As author Tudor Caradoc-Davies marvels at how McGown managed to maintain his sanity, what is perhaps most fascinating is the mental chess-game McGown played, with himself as a pawn until his freedom in 2017.

Bonus recommendations:

At Night All Blood Is Black – David Diop (First published in French in 2018; 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. First published in France, the English translation by Anna Moschovakis At Night All Blood is Black, was published earlier this year.

The book, through Alfa, asks a central question that may have rung in the minds of African soldiers in the trenches: Who is the enemy? Is it the German across no man’s land with their sights on global domination, or the French soldier who fights next to me, already controlling my world? In bloodied fields, Alfa plays the savage and exposes the hypocrisy of the violence of war and racism.

The Perfect Nine – Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Gikuyu version published in 2018 in Kenya; English version published in 2020

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o [File: Antony Njuguna/Reuters]

A perennial favourite but never a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s literary output is not affected by the bookies or critics.

Instead, he continues to be a prolific writer even as his position as one of the Godfathers of African literature was firmly secured long ago.

Now at 81, Ngūgī is trying his hand at a new genre, the epic.

The Perfect Nine is the origin story of Kenya’s Gikuyu people, weaving together myth and history. Retold from a feminist perspective, Ngugi tells the story of the elders’ quest to find perfect partners for their 10 daughters.

Ngugi’s fascination with language is endless and his latest has been described as relying on Homeric and oral tradition, drawing African mythology into the cannon still dominated by Greek and European histories.

Source: Al Jazeera