2016’s Acclaimed And Popular Books By African Writers

Long before 2016 knocked on our doors, we received news of million dollar deals for Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreams and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. These announcements perhaps created expectations too high for the debut novels to satisfy. While we have seen popular titles by African writers published by the dominant Western publishers in the recent past, million dollar advances were a first. 2016 however, like 2015 before it, continued to prove that the publication of multiple highly acclaimed books by African writers in the same year is now normal business.

It may be too early to tell, but so far, Behold the Dreamers and Homegoing are yet to match the hype that preceded their publication. Published on March 15 and June 7, 2016 in the United States respectively, the two books are yet to win important literary prizes. To be fair, they are making several Best of 2016 books lists, as expected. I personally enjoyed >Behold the Dreamers so much that I consider it my best title, of all the books published in 2016 that I have read. I will be rooting for it to win as many literary prizes as possible and wish it for everyone’s reading in the New Year. It has already been longlisted for the PEN Open Book Award.

Gyasi’s Homegoing broaches the historical stain of slavery excavating centuries’ old memories of the continental involvement in the enterprise. For a debut novel, the theme is ambitious but some critics think that the twenty six year old Ghanaian American writer rises to the occasion. It is listed on almost every end of year book list, including the New York Times Notable Books and Oprah’s 10 Favourite Books, among others. It is also the NPR Debut Novel of the Year, and Gyasi is one of the 5 under 35 authors, nominated by the award winning American author and journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates.

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Away from the dominance of African literature by Western publishers, 2016 was arguably the year for independent African publishers. Although published in October 2015, Panashe Chigumadzi’s Sweet Medicine (Blackbird Books) majorly circulated outside South Africa in 2016. The story of an insecure rural-bred ‘small house’ to a prominent politician has so far won the K. Sello Duiker Memorial literary award and been shortlisted for the Nielson Booksellers’ choice award among others. The novel has also catapulted its author, onto several lists of influence.

Staying with new African publishers, the Ugandan writer, journalist and editor Nyana Kakoma upgraded her blog, Sooo Many Stories into a publishing house with Peter Kagayi’s poetry collection, The Headline That Morning and other poems. The print version of the collection came with an audio CD, given Kagayi’s repute in Kampala and Nairobi as a performance poet. While the book easily emerges as the biggest literary news story in the country, with the website ArtMatters.Info describing Kagayi as Uganda’s leading poet, it has not circulated as much beyond the borders of the East African republic.

2016 however, like 2015 before it, continued to prove that the publication of multiple highly acclaimed books by African writers in the same year is now normal business.

Outside Uganda, Juliane Okot Bitek’s 100 Days has enjoyed better circulation. Bitek wrote the poems in commemoration of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide, in a collaborative project with the Kenyan artist Wangeci Mutu. Mutu posted photographs for 100 days, and Bitek wrote a poem for each day. 100 Days’ trans-nationalism goes beyond the nationalities of its inspirations. The collection is published by the Canada-based The University of Alberta Press. Bitek, of Ugandan origin and based in Canada, is daughter to the pioneer poet famed for the song school of poetry. 100 Days has been celebrated, going by the reviews and listings.

Staying with Ugandan writers living in the diaspora, South Africa’s Modjaji Books published Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kaggwa’s memoir, Flame and Song. Raised in the 1960s and 70s era, Kabali-Kagwa indulges in a careful nostalgia as she revisits the days when the foundation for post-colonial Uganda was forming. Her tone is unflinching when it comes to describing the horror of growing up during Idi Amin’s regime before her family left for exile in Ethiopia and Kenya. Although she does not point fingers, when it comes to the contemporary state of disrepair of national facilities, like Mulago hospital, the guilty will nevertheless need to excuse their consciences as they encounter the personal tragedies that the author’s family face. It is making waves on some end of year lists.

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The memoir front has shown up in 2016 with a vengeance. A third title in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s series of autobiographies, Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening, was published on October 4, 2016. The book chronicles Ngugi’s days as a university student. It captures the personal history of the end of colonial rule in East Africa. He writes that he ‘entered Makerere University College in July 1959, [as a] subject of a British Crown colony, and left in March 1964, [a] citizen of an independent African state.’ While Kabali-Kaggwa experiences the 1960s Uganda as a child, Ngugi does, as a dreamy budding playwright, novelist and journalist.

In the same bracket of established novelists who published memoirs this year is the Nigerian-American writer, Okey Ndibe. With two novels on his bibliography (Arrows of Rain and Foreign Gods Inc.), Ndibe’s Never Look an American in the Eye: A memoir of Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts, and the Making of a Nigerian American came out on October 11, 2016. The book wears Ndibe’s signature humour all over its pages as he takes us through his observation of the United States as an immigrant.

Helon Habila’s Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria was published on December 5, 2016. Habila is another established Nigerian novelist of three titles (Measuring Time, Waiting for an Angel, and Oil on Water), who turned to nonfiction this year. Chibok Girls is a journalistic account of the fault lines of the Boko Haram insurgency in northern Nigeria, taking the reader beyond the meaningless statistics of news headlines.

The 2016 Nigerian creative nonfiction scene wasn’t only for the established novelists to occupy. Yemisi Aribisala on October 10, 2016 added her own Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds to the stock of the year. Aribisala is a renowned literary and food critic and her collection of essays was highly anticipated. It has already been named one of the Channels Book Club top 20 Nigerian books of the year and is shortlisted for the Andre Simon Food and Drink Book Awards.

Cassava Republic Press’ 2016 nonfiction releases go beyond food writing. They started with the boundary shaping anthology, Safe House: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction. Featuring award-winning contributors from all over the continent, among them Bongani Kona, Beatrice Lamwaka and Elnathan John. The Ellah Wakatama Allfrey edited book cements creative nonfiction’s claim on 2016. This year also marked Cassava Republic Press’ launch into the United Kingdom, after a decade of publishing African writers from its Abuja base. On its impressive launch titles list was the novella, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika. The author’s sophomore book explores the sexuality, among other things, of a cosmopolitan immigrant in her seventies. The book is a favourite for various best of the year lists and has also been shortlisted for the Goldsmith prize.

Via Cassava Republic Press’ crime imprint, Cassava Crime, Leye Adenle’s Easy Motion Tourist, was published in the first half of the year. The detective novel pays homage to Lagos and has been praised for its tight plot. It would be joined later by Hawa Jande Golakai’s The Lazarus Effect, originally published in South Africa by Kwela Books, and Toni Kan’s The Carnivorous City, both of which came out in the second half of the year.

Staying with London-based publishers, Penguin Books released Yewande Omotoso’s sophomore novel, The Woman Next Door in May, 2016. It was received by decent acclaim. The novel follows a friendship and ‘hate-ship’ between two old women, in a post-apartheid South Africa. The novel’s two main characters are black and white, following up on Yewande’s interest in the simultaneity of blackness and whiteness in South Africa, a theme that formed the core of her acclaimed debut novel, Bom Boy.

Also, from the London-based Faber & Faber, Petina Gappah’s short story collection, Rotten Row came into the world. It follows her 2015 novel, The Book of Memory, and engages more deeply with the questions of law and justice. The interconnected stories deal with human beings who find themselves in contact with the criminal justice system and ask fundamental questions as to what justice, even means.

While some titles on the list are authored by writers in their twenties, we also have titles by writers in their seventies. The negative inter-generational competition among African writers can take a rest, finally

Across the Atlantic, in the United States, a small independent press unveiled to English-speaking audiences, gems from Francophone Africa. Roland Rugero’s Baho! appeared in English translation, courtesy of Phoneme Media. The novella, set in rural Burundi is touted as the country’s first novel to be translated into English. Like Gappah’s Rotten Row, it deals with the delicate issue of justice, questioning the logic and illogic of mob justice, with a dumb-mute main character on the run, from a mob baying for his blood, due to a misunderstanding of his gestures. The novella is a powerful exposure of the injustice that the differently abled suffer.

Phoneme Media didn’t stop at Baho! As the year came to a close, they released Richard Ali Mutu’s Mr. Fix-It. Ali Mutu, who lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the more known contemporary writers from French-speaking Africa having made it to the Africa39 list, which was heavily dominated by English-speaking writers. Mr. Fix-It was first published in Lingala as Ebamba, Kinshasa Makambo, and has now been translated into English. It is a testament to the wonders of translation and should give more faith to those who heed Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s clarion call for support to writers who work in African indigenous languages.

2016 has undoubtedly widened our view of contemporary African literary production, at various levels, from the form to the language of African literature. The list of outstanding books of the year presented here includes fiction, long form journalism, memoir, and poetry. We have a few titles that have been published in translation, including one that was originally published in an African indigenous language. Equally important is the fact that continent-based publishers are increasing their production and have offered a share of titles to our list. Where the products of the Western publishing industrial complex stand, the African published titles stand beside them.

While some titles on the list are authored by writers in their twenties, we also have titles by writers in their seventies. The negative inter-generational competition among African writers can take a rest, finally. As much as we have literary fiction titles, we also have genre fiction titles representing. The war between genre and literary fiction can also disappear. Where we have narratives based on the continent, we also have immigrant ones. The parochial anti-immigrant train hopefully got stuck on its way. We have as many diaspora based writers as home based ones. The divide among African writers according to where they are based should not find its bearings again. We have as many male writers as female ones. May the patriarchy and its male supremacy gospels continue to fall. We hope that our reading in 2017 will become more linguistically diverse. It is time to stop talking about a bright future, because we already have lights for the present in African literature.

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