This year was full of spectacular fiction, spine-tingling poetry and hard-hitting non-fiction from Africa. Here is some of the best.
Freshwater – by Akwaeke Emezi
There are certain books which sit on your skin, weigh on your psyche, and meddle with your mind in a haunting and arresting way. Freshwater is one of them.
The story centres on Ada, a young woman carrying within her an ogbanje, a spirit with multiple heads. Unlike other spirit children, Ada does not die young and so we witness the coming alive of these forces within her, triggered by her move to America, sexual assault, marriage and more. The multitude of identities and voices take over, sometimes collectively, other times as individuals, creating a nervous energy as we wait to see what next.
Possessed or grappling with mental illness? The work of the supernatural or simply the mind? Multiple spirits or multiple identities?
This is the type of book that you’ll find yourself thinking about long after that last page has been turned, the kind that will creep into your mind months later as you walk down the street.
Beyond the Rice Fields – by Naivo
Considered the first novel from Madagascar to be translated into English, Beyond the Rice Fields forms part of the rich collection of literature from countries that have not been commonly seen in the global literary space.
In the tradition of writers like Chinua Achebe and Buchi Emecheta, the novel tells the story of how, through the arrival of outside forces determined to have their way, things fall apart. At the centre is the love story of the young slave Tsito and his master’s daughter Fara. This unfolds against the backdrop of the arrival of foreign missionaries and industrialists to Madagascar.
This is not therefore just a sweeping tale of romance. In every element of tenderness and sentimentality are threaded in continuous reminders of the horrors brought upon the island by external and internal forces as it sits on the brink of catastrophe.
This is a challenging yet necessary read.
Silence is My Mother Tongue – by Sulaiman Addonia
Prior to reading this book, I reflected upon its title. It left me feeling stifled yet incredibly curious. On reading it, I found that there is really only one word to describe it: exquisite.
Set in a refugee camp in East Africa, it follows the story of Saba, a young girl who grows into a woman in this space, this temporary home, this permanent residence. She has spent years protecting her mute older brother Hagos. Their bond is perhaps the only tangible, permanent aspect of both their lives, which have been spent living between two worlds. As a chain of dramatic events unfold, the reader is drawn further and further into the lives of these characters. No matter how tired one as one reads this, one-more-page syndrome begins to hit.
The prose is poetic. Some sentences read like a punch in the stomach – “It was a skill Saba had failed to inherit. The invisibility that a woman ought to inhabit” – while others are softer, more gentle. It is a timely read.
Elsewhere Home – by Leila Aboulela
Literary legend Leila Aboulela is back with another masterpiece, this time bringing us a selection of thirteen short stories. The loss of a homeland, the search for belonging, and the carrying of conflicting hybrid identities has been a theme in many of Aboulela’s books. These themes continue to be present in Elsewhere Homealongside the less spoken about but equally complex aspects of being an immigrant or coming from an immigrant family.
The realities of being in an inter-racial relationship form part of a number of stories including “Souvenirs” and “Something Borrowed, Something New”, which feature white British characters expressing racist and stereotypical views about the their Sudanese partners. One story that stands out, particularly considering the current discussion around some African countries demanding the return of artefacts stolen during colonialism, is “The Museum”. In this story, protagonist Shadia observes these collections as she thinks: “Nothing was of her. Here was Europe’s version, the clichés about Africa: old and cold.”