Recently, the New York Times ran an article about the rise in popularity of books penned by African authors: “New Wave of African Writers With an Internationalist Bent.” I was not surprised, given that I’ve been absorbing the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, among others, for the past few months. Now, whenever I pop into my neighborhood Powell’s Books, I find more and more books written about Africa by more and more contemporary African writers. Where ever to begin? You can’t judge these books by their covers, because as one reader points out, the covers look remarkably similar. If you’re looking to take the plunge into Africa’s contemporary fiction (and I highly suggest you do), here are a selection of my current favorites:
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
From her first novel to her most recent, language has played a crucial role, but nowhere is it more decisive than in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. Written with the backdrop of a newly independent 1960s Nigeria, the Biafran War is seen through the eyes of Olanna, a Nigerian woman; Ugwu, a houseboy; and Richard, an Englishman. Two wealthy sisters, who had the privilege of an education in England, return to a nation on the cusp of revolution and choose two different paths. Kainene moves to Port Harcourt to take over their father’s business, while Olanna moves to Nsukku, a university town, to teach and live with her “revolutionary lover,” Odenigbo. Southeastern Nigeria secedes in 1967, a response to ethnic, cultural, economic and religious tensions. A largely Igbo nationality forms the new nation of Biafra, officially the Republic of Biafra. Ugwu, Kainene, Richard, Olanna and Odenigbo are thrown into the crossfire of war, where speaking the wrong language—in this case, Igbo—can get you killed.
A riveting novel that should be at the top of everyone’s “to read” list.
The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Thing Around Your Neck is the perfect precursor to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s most recent novel, Americanah. While the novel approaches issues of identity, immigration, and relationships through the eyes of one female protagonist, The Thing Around Your Neck is a collection of short stories attacking similar issues with varying narrators and perspectives. It’s as though The Thing Around Your Neck, a dozen stories originally published in a dozen different magazines and journals, was the litmus test for Americanah. Each story is charged, electric. Adichie’s talent for prose is evident in the first line of each piece; take, for instance, the first line of “Imitation”: “Nkem is staring at the bulging, slanted eyes of the Benin mask on the living room mantel as she learns about her husband’s girlfriend.”
Just like that, when your eyes are following the main character’s, taking in the mask on the mantel, Adichie offers a swift punch to the stomach with “her husband’s girlfriend.” This is one of a handful of stories mentioning the phenomenon of husbands taking girlfriends—apparently common in Nigeria, and societally acceptable. Not one to take societal norms or constructs at face value, as evident throughout her four works of fiction (and her newly released e-book We Should All Be Feminists), Adichie attacks this issue of marital infidelity from two sides—that of the wife or girlfriend. In “Imitation,” it’s the perspective of the Nigerian housewife living in the United States while her husband resides in Lagos. The female protagonist in “Jumping Monkey Hill” reflects on her father’s former girlfriend, “Yellow Woman,” and what she herself should do when propositioned to be the girlfriend of a “Big Man;” grappling with all this whilst attending a writing workshop led by a lecherous old man. In both Americanah and The Thing Around Your Neck, Adichie’s female characters are encouraged by female friends to take up with a “Big Man,” to ignore the sexual attacks from relatives and friends, to beg their cheating husbands to take them back, to try harder to keep their marriage intact. However, those scenarios never end neatly. Adichie’s feminist agenda is shrouded in intense, heartbreaking stories.
Adichie’s characters search the complexities of relationships and question their context in society, while grappling with identity as they move or transition from one society and culture to the next. These are huge issues, which Adichie conveys in deep, reflective prose, partnered with intriguing plots. The Thing Around Your Neck is a thing of beauty, evidence of an incredibly talented writer.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
NoViolet Bulawayo is the latest in a string of contemporary African authors to be published on American shores, and it is hard not to compare her to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (whose four works of fiction straddle two continents, containing narrators navigating new countries and shifting societies). Like Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah, Bulawayo’s narrator in We Need New Names takes readers from a childhood in Africa to adolescence and adulthood in the United States. But I would be remiss to lump the two works and authors together so easily, given that Bulawayo’s native Zimbabwe is four thousand miles from Adichie’s home country of Nigeria. Africa is not a country, and the experiences of all African nations are not one in the same. With this in mind, the similarities between We Need New Names and Americanah end with the aforementioned resemblance in plot.
If anything, NoViolet Bulawayo’s fiction debut is actually more similar—in terms of language—to Arundhati Roy’s fiction debut, The God of Small Things, published in 1997. Bulawayo plays with language to a lesser degree than Roy, but the childlike playfulness of Bulawayo’s narrator, Darling, comes through in the author’s prose. Most remarkable is the tightly controlled present-tense voice, starting out as a young, naïve girl’s perspective, and morphing into a young woman, removed from her family and friends in a foreign land. It’s difficult to convey change in consciousness and maturity that comes with age—let alone maintaining present tense throughout—but Bulawayo nails it. We Need New Names secures her a place among the likes of Adichie, Roy, and Lahiri, whilst setting herself thousands of miles apart.
Open City by Teju Cole
“…a sure hand is needed to make the writer’s careful stitching look like a thread merely being followed for its own sake.” The New Yorker
That blurb on the inside of Open City summed up the book for me. As I read Teju Cole’s novel I felt like I were following a thread, which, once pulled, shifted the fabric and continued to run throughout the textile until it arrived at another thread and followed that. This is no small feat. The New Yorker is right that it takes a sure hand to ensure this close first-person narrative feels deliberate, rather than flighty or unfocused. Cole’s novel feels so close, so intimate, that it reads like a diary–but one that is much more fully-formed in its ideas. A lesser writer would be a bore to read, but Cole’s seemingly tangential prose is a joy. I found myself flying through the pages, pulled along through the main character’s thoughts as though they were my own.
(If you’ve already devoured Open City, try reading Cole’s most recent publication, Every Day is for the Thief.)
Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe
Okey Ndibe joins the ranks of fellow contemporary Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in a novel that chronicles the hardship of moving to America, where expectations of newfound social and economic opportunities are dashed. While Adichie’s Americanah follows the arc of her character’s life, ending with a triumphant return to Nigeria, Ndibe’s novel portrays Ike in financial ruin that pushes him to drastic, illegal measures he hopes will result in economic success. Ndibe’s portrayal of Ike’s life is gritty and realistic, even though the plot is far-fetched. Foreign Gods Inc. takes a long look at the status of American society through the eyes of an outsider, desperate to be on the in, and the sacrifices he’ll make to get there.
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimananda Ngozi Adichie’s first novel is refreshingly complex, chronicling the lives of Kambili and Jaja, sister and brother in Nigeria who grow up with an air of privilege. Their father is a wealthy and respected businessman who donates to churches, and schools, while providing his children with a life of luxury. Kambili and Jaja attend the best schools, adhere to rigorous schedules, and focus wholly on their studies, with no time for chores like cooking or cleaning. They are, by all accounts, sheltered. Through Kambili’s arrestingly aware account of the world around her and those that inhabit it, we see how others view her (shyness mistaken for snobbery), her father (as a gracious, deeply religious man), and their life (endless access to soft drinks–a luxury to most–and things like televisions and stereos that lie unused in their sprawling, gated house). Adichie relies on the first-person accounts of Kambili to portray both the political and domestic situations in Nigeria–how government crackdowns on dissidents affect the community, how a deeply religious man seen by others as generous justifies brutally beating his family. Even through the perspective of a fifteen year-old girl, who some might see as simplistic or immature, Adichie conveys deeply complex issues of family, politics, wealth and privilege. A riveting, heartbreaking book about love, family, and religion.
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Also check out Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s most recent novel, Americanah and the adaptation of her TED talk (yes, that one in that Beyonce song) into a new e-book, We Should All Be Feminists.