We had a chance to ask Ngugi wa Thiong’o, one of the greatest African writers living today, for a list of must-read novels from Africa, above and beyond the famous ones that everyone has at least heard of, even if they haven’t read them – say, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or Ngugi’s own Decolonising the Mind. This is what he gave us, over several glasses of lassi (for him) and tea (for me).
God’s Bits of Wood and Xala, Sembéne Ousmane
Published in 1960, Gods Bits of Woods is a major novel to come out from Francophone Africa. The son of a Wolof-speaking Senegalese fisherman, Sembéne was thrown out of the colonial school he attended for striking a French teacher, and soon found himself doing manual work in Dakar by day and attending the cinema by night. These youthful impressions completely reshaped his sensibility. Eventually he was drafted into the Free French Army and served in the Second World War, after which he returned to Dakar and became a part of the long railroad strike. This is the subject of God’s Bits of Wood, originally published in French as Les bouts de bois de Dieu.
I will also recommend his other novel, Xala, which is a smaller novel but had the advantage of being turned into a feature film – in fact even when his international fame as a filmmaker later eclipsed his other identities, Ousmane Sembéne (or, as the French say, Sembéne Ousmane), often called the “father of African Cinema”, continued to intimately engage with the narratives of post-colonial nationhood in his prose works, critiquing the new governments and their corrupt practices with his acute gaze. Published in 1973, Xala is a riveting account of a famous if slightly shady businessman being struck by impotence on the night of his third wedding, and his obsessive quest to get an antidote to that.
A Walk in the Night and Other Stories, Alex la Guma
Alex la Guma was a writer from South Africa. He is no longer there. All those years ago, I met him at Makerere in 1962, at the conference I have written about in Decolonising the Mind, and at the time he was mostly under house arrest because of his activism in South Africa. La Guma had brought with him a manuscript of short stories. From those stories, I remember A Walk in the Night most vividly. It’s a novella, or maybe a novelette, about Mikey Adonis, who has just been fired from his factory worker’s job for insolence to his white boss, and who spends the night literally walking through the ghetto in which he lives, interacting with the others who haunt that place at night. It’s a searing indictment of the Apartheid-era injustices in South Africa. I think, in 1966, la Guma was forced to leave South Africa, and spent the next two decades in exile.
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Ayi Kwei Armah
Armah was a Ghanaian writer who published Beautyful Ones in America in 1968, and later it was republished under the “Heinemann African Writers Series”. It’s about an unnamed Ghanaian who attempts to negotiate with post-independence nationhood, and the book also sheds light on conditions in West Africa in general. If I am not mistaken, the action is set over one year, and ends immediately after the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah, one of the great leaders of Ghana’s anti-colonial movement, who also became the first Prime Minister in 1957. Note the title; it’s not beautiful but beautyful.
Woman at Point Zero, Nawal El Sadaawi
My friend, the remarkable Egyptian writer-doctor, Nawal El Sadaawi, has written many acclaimed books in her life. So many. The one I want to put on this list is called Woman at Point Zero. This book, inspired by a true story, is about a death-row inmate at Egypt’s notorious Al Qanatir prison, Firdaus, whom a psychiatrist like El Saadawi comes to interview in connection with a research project. Firdaus is in prison for murdering her pimp and has refused to sign a document addressed to the President pleading for her life; it is as though she is not only unafraid of death but actively looking forward to it. The day before her execution, Firdaus recounts the story of her life to the researcher who has, by now, become obsessed by her. It is a simple narrative device, but a powerful book.
Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi
In recent years, I must mention Chimamanda Adichie. Her talent is enormous. Her novel, set in the times of the Biafran War, Half of a Yellow Sun, is remarkable. It is so very well done. I am looking forward to reading Americanah, her recent novel, so I can compare. I haven’t been able to keep up with the younger generation so much. I am sure they are bolder, more experimental, they have tried to “go out into the world”. The reason I cannot include the young Kenyan writer Binyawanga Wainaina in this list is because he has written a memoir (One Day I Will Write About This Place), a very interesting book, but it’s non-fiction! But definitely worth reading. He hasn’t written a novel yet. I hope he does!
Nairobi Heat, Mukoma wa Ngugi
And finally, for using the detective novel as a genre to explore real issues in Kenya and in the United States, I’d recommend my son Mukoma’s novels. The first, Nairobi Heat (2011), introduces African American detective Ishmael, who is called to solve a racially charged murder. African peace activist, the legendary Joshua Hakizimana – who saved hundreds of people from the Rwandan genocide – is teaching a course about “genocide and testimony” at the local university in an “extremely white town”. When a young woman is found murdered on his doorstep, local Police Detective Ishmael – an African-American in an “extremely white” town where the Ku Klux Klan still holds rallies – is called upon to solve it, a quest that will take him all the way to Nairobi. A sequel to Nairobi Heat was later published, titled Blackstar Nairobi (2013). A Professor of English at Cornell University, Mukoma’s use of detective fiction brings a refreshingly pacy approach in Kenyan literature. The book became a bestseller in Germany, in translation!
Devapriya Roy’s latest book is Indira, a graphic biography of Indira Gandhi, co-authored with artist Priya Kuriyan. She is currently writing a serial novel for The Telegraph, The Romantics of College Street, which is published every Sunday.