Africa Book Club presents its selection of 2011’s best books about Africa, or written by African authors – the second year that we are compiling such a list. This year’s selection reflects the best of African storytelling across genres. The best books, in our opinion, are those that entertain, make us think, bring new perspectives to bear, provoke debate, and even lead us to question our own beliefs and assumptions. Our top selections managed to do just that.
So how did we choose the 23 books on the list? To compile our 2011 Books of the Year list, we asked our reviewers to select the books that impressed them the most. We also looked across the continent and elsewhere in the world for African authors and books about Africa that won literary awards, made the bestseller lists, generated buzz, and got our readers talking.
Lists like this almost always run the risk of leaving out excellent books and authors, for no reason other than because the compilers did not know about them. No doubt, this list is neither comprehensive nor objective.
As we celebrate yet another year of African literary success, let’s remember to support the hundreds of authors and publishers across the continent, who are doing their bit to keep African literature alive. So as you plan your holiday gift giving, consider buying a book about Africa or written by an African author.
Below are the Africa Book Club 2011 Books of the Year, presented in no particular ranking.
Biographies and Memoirs
Nelson Mandela – By Himself: The Authorized Book of Quotations
Released in July 2011 by Pan Macmillan/PQ Blackwell, Nelson Mandela – By Himself is a compilation of some of Mandela’s most memorable quotations, drawn from his speeches, writings and private conversations over the years.
Despite having retired from politics over a decade ago, Mandela’s brand is as strong as ever, and not surprisingly, the book is one of our top picks of the year. Nelson Mandela – By Himself provides a first-hand peek into the mind of a man, admired and respected by millions around the world.
One Day I Will Write About This Place (by Binyavanga Wainaina)
A long-time advocate and promoter of African writing, Binyavanga Wainaina, won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story Discovering Home. His debut novel, One Day I Will Write About This Place is an interesting, honest, and immensely readable short memoir. The book documents Binyavanga Wainaina’s life from childhood through to how he eventually became an author, going on to win the Caine Prize. The memoir gives us a window not only into the Wainaina’s life, but into the Kenya he grew up in.
The Jack Bank – A Memoir of a South African Childhood (by Glen Retief)
Aside from the revolutions in North Africa and the ouster of ex-President Ggabgo in Cote d’Ivoire, few issues have generated as much debate on the continent during 2011 as the topic of gay rights. Against this backdrop, Glen Retief’s The Jack Bank – A Memoir of a South African Childhood, is notable for its courage and honesty. Retief writes about growing up as a young white South African during the final years of Apartheid, and realizing that he was unlike other boys. And while his story is at its core a memoir, what makes it even more interesting are the insights into South Africa’s gay community, and the revealing portrayal of how thousands of white South Africans were conscripted to serve the Apartheid system.
How The West Was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly–and the Stark Choices Ahead (by Dambisa Moyo)
After making waves back in 2007 with her last book, Dead Aid, New York Times bestselling author, Dambisa Moyo was back in the spotlight in January 2011, this time with her latest book,How the West Was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly — and the Stark Choices Ahead.
Moyo provides a bold and detailed analysis of the West’s decline, and how the balance of economic power has gradually shifted away from America and Europe to emerging markets. She argues that America is not just in economic decline, but on course to become the biggest welfare state in the history of the West, and that what ails the country most is short-sighted policy making. She sets out a path for how America and other Western economies might regain their competitiveness.
Defeating Dictators (by George N. Ayittey)
Not known to mince his words when speaking about Africa’s plight, George Ayittey points his guns squarely on Africa’s dictators in his latest book. In Defeating Dictators, released on November 8, 2011, and published by Palgrave McMillan, Ayittey analyses the root causes of dictatorship on the continent and sets out proposals to, “help oppressed people elsewhere in the world battling dictators and struggling to bring democratic change to their countries peacefully – without violence, without firing a shot, and without Western help or intervention.
Dancing in the Glory of Monsters (by Jason Stearns)
Published in March 2011 by Public Affairs, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters takes a detailed look at the wars that have plagued the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1996. The author, Jason Stearns, has worked in the Congo for over ten years, first as a humanitarian worker, and later as a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group. Along the way, he has met an impressive number of people – from generals to jungle warriors, foremost and behind-the-scene politicians to simple victims – which allows him to speak about the war from a geopolitical perspective and a “real”, more human point of view.
In Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, Stearns masterfully explores a complicated, much forgotten conflict that has had formidable repercussions on the entire equilibrium of the African continent. In light of the tensions unfolding after the recent Congolese presidential election, the book is definitely a must-read.
The Memory of Love (by Aminatta Forna)
Deservingly selected as overall winner of the 2011 Commonwealth Best Book Prize, Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love tackles the difficult subject of war and its damaging psychological impact.
Forna’s latest book, published in January 2011 by Bloomsbury, is set in Sierra Leone, a country that has just emerged from a decade of civil war. It is a moving portrayal of love and hope and the undying human spirit.
Patchwork (by Ellen Banda-Aaku)
Banda-Aaku’s Patchwork, which won the 2010 Penguin Prize for African Writing, was published by Penguin in June 2011. The book, Banda’s first for an adult audience, is set in her native Zambia, and centers around the life of Pumpkin, who we first meet as a nine year old growing up with her mother, Totela in Tudu Court, an apartment complex in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka.
Pumpkin’s father is a rich businessman, whose political ambitions are threatened by his womanizing ways, when one of his girlfriends reveals a dark secret.
Little Liberia – An African Odyssey in New York (by Jonny Steinberg)
Steinberg’s latest book, released in January 2011 and published by Jonathan Cape, centers around Park Hill Avenue in New York City, where almost everyone is Liberian. Most people know one another; if not by name, then by face. And yet neighbours do not ask one another what they did in Liberia, for the question is considered an accusation. In this story, about a Liberian community divided by a conflict that links back to the war in their home country, Steinberg takes up the tale of a fractured African nation and its Diaspora to remarkable effect.
As our reviewer Don Makatile observes, “this is a serious piece of writing that took Steinberg all of two years – yet he manages to deliver it to the reader like it was a light work of fiction. It is an easy read, highly enjoyable.”
Mr. Fox (by Helen Oyeyemi)
Selected by the New York Times and Amazon.com among their top fiction titles of the year, Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox was published in June 2011 by Picador, and centers around Mr. St. John Fox, as the main character, his wife Daphne and his muse, Mary. Fox, a writer, cannot help killing off the heroines of his stories. Things take an unexpected turn when Mary challenges Mr. Fox to join her in stories of their own devising; and in different times and places, the two of them seek each other, find each other, thwart each other, and try to stay together, even when the roles they inhabit seem to forbid it. Meanwhile, Daphne becomes convinced that her husband is having an affair, and finds her way into Mary and Mr. Fox’s game.
Open City (by Teju Cole)
Another New York Times selection for 2011 Notable Books of the Year, Teju Cole’s Open City, released in January 2011 by Random House, is about a young man’s reflections on his life and the world around him. Julius, the man at the center of this story, is a young Nigerian doctor doing his residency in New York. He has recently broken up with his girl friend, and to fill the void, he wanders aimlessly along the streets of New York. His walks give him the opportunity to reflect on his relationships, his past, his present.
Using up what is left of his vacation time, Julius leaves New York, heading out to Europe, and then on to Nigeria, before returning to New York. Throughout his travels, he encounters many people, and makes new friends.
Half-Blood Blues (by Esi Edugyan)
Born in Canada to Ghanaian immigrant parents, Esi Edugyan was a 2011 Man Booker Prize finalist and won the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s biggest literary prize, beating a formidable shortlist that included Michael Ondaatje. Her award winning book, Half-Blood Blues is narrated by Sid Griffiths, an African-American jazz musician, who travels to Germany in 1952 to attend the premiere of a documentary about Hieronymus Falk, a black trumpet player and jazz legend, forbidden to play by the Nazis. Arrested by the Nazis, Falk is never heard from again. Griffiths finds himself confronting the memories, mixed emotions and trauma of being a black musician in Hitler’s Germany.
Memoirs of a Porcupine (by Alain Mabanckou)
Alain Mabanckou’s Memoirs of a Porcupine was originally written in French back in 2006 and only translated into English this year. The English translation, published in May 2011 by Serpent’s Tail, is a hilarious novel depicting Mabanckou at his best.
Mabanckou brilliantly wraps the vibrant rhythm of the African oral tradition in a corrosive and sarcastic style. His pulsating, hard-headed writing – the book does not count a single full stop – mixed with a plot worthy of the best crime fiction, results in a true “beat” that leaves its reader breathless and dazzled.
“Mabanckou writes with an originality that makes you smell Africa in almost every line,” observes Hadrien Diez, who reviewed Memoirs of a Porcupine for the Africa Book Club.
The Civilized World (by Susi Wyss)
As a child, Susi Wyss spent three years in Africa living in the Ivory Coast with her parents. Years later, she returned to the continent as a health worker, visiting and working in more than a dozen African countries over a 16 year period. Now back in the US, Wyss has written a book whose portrayal of Africa is a culmination of her experiences.
What comes across in The Civilized World, is a thoughtful portrayal of Africa, where the characters, African and non-African, each have a perspective on Africa to share and a story to tell about their world. Her book is in many respects a call to look beyond traditional portrayals of the continent.
Blackbird (by Jude Dibia)
Published by Jalaa Writers’ Collective a Nigerian author-owned publishing group, Blackbird takes a look at Nigerian society, drawing out its contradictions.
Nduesoh, who is obsessed with her ugliness, succeeds in gaining the attention of Edward, a rich white man, who becomes her husband. However, she is only respected as Mrs Wood, not as an African. On the other hand, Maya, the beautiful one, gets married to Omoniyi, a poor Yoruba man with prospects (that life kills). Maya is literarily the crayfish bent by her hapless condition. However, in spite of their class, colour and race, they all meet on the plane of love, lust, self-protection, revenge, jealousy and betrayal.
What the Day Owes the Night (by Yasmina Khadra)
In What the Day Owes the Night, Yasmina Khadra has written a majestic novel about Algeria, and his is an amazing story that highlights the terrible rift between lovers, family and friends that are loyal to the same country. Younes, the narrator, is, despite his conflicting character, both interesting and likeable. Notwithstanding, many readers will find themselves by turn frustrated at some of the poor decisions he makes.
Anatomy of a Disappearance (by Hisham Matar)
In Hisham Matar’s Anatomy of a Disappearance (published by The Dial Press in August 2011), we meet Nuri, a young boy who has lost his mother. It seems that nothing will fill the emptiness that her strange death leaves behind in the Cairo apartment he shares with his father. Until they meet Mona, sitting in her yellow swimsuit by the pool of the Magda Marina hotel. As soon as Nuri sees her, the rest of the world vanishes. But it is Nuri’s father with whom Mona falls in love and whom she eventually marries. And their happiness consumes Nuri to the point where he wishes his father would disappear.
However, when his father, long a dissident in exile from his homeland, is taken under mysterious circumstances, the world that Nuri and his stepmother share is shattered by events beyond their control, they begin to realize how little they knew about the man they both loved.
Oil on Water (by Helon Habila)
Published in May 2011 by W. W. Norton & Company, Helon Habila’s new novel, Oil on Water, writes our reviewer, Friederike Knabe, “is a confidently crafted and absorbing, in parts totally gripping, chronicle of human ambitions, tragedies and failures, but also of love, friendship and perseverance of the human spirit.”
Evoking the rich and beautiful yet fragile environment of the Delta, that is slowly being devastated by the greed for oil and money, Habila perceptively guides his different narrative strands into a poignant story that is profoundly personal even where he raises broader political and societal concerns
Happiness is a Four Letter Word (Cynthia Jele)
South African author, Cynthia Jele’s, Happiness is a Four-Letter Word won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Africa region in the “Best First Book” category.
Her book is a story celebrating female friendships. The four main characters – Nandi, Zaza, Tumi and Princess – are friends living in today’s Johannesburg. Like any other metropolis, the pace of life is fast and the social expectations high. But the four friends have each other.
Dust Devils (Roger Smith)
For true fans of crime fiction, Roger Smith needs no introduction. And if you read his last book, Wake Up Dead, writes Don Makatile, “you’d most likely have been sufficiently moved to await his next book.”
Dust Devils, released in September 2011 by Serpent’s Tail, indeed, contends for space with the other offerings for the best book of 2011. Smith serves a tale of blood and more as political heavyweights in the KwaZulu/Natal province fight a turf war. The lead character Inja Moses Mazibuko is as blood-thirsty as the pages of a book can allow.
Short Story Collections
The Granta Book of the African Short Story (edited by Helon Habila)
Collected and introduced by award winning Nigerian author, Helon Habila, this new anthology, released in November 2011, is an outstanding and wide-ranging rich smorgasbord of stories by twenty six writers from nineteen countries all across Africa. The stories are written in English or translated from French, Portuguese or Arabic. Contributing authors include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Patrick Nganang, and Binyavanga Wainaina.
African Pens 2011
African Pens 2011: New Writing from Southern Africa is an anthology of 22 short stories picked by the inimitable JM Coetzee, a nobel literature prize winner, and author of the 1999 Man Booker prize winning novel, Disgrace.
The collection published by Jacana Media, brings together the winning stories and finalists from the 2011 PEN/Studzinski Literary Awards, which were announced in May 2011.
African Delights (by Siphiwo Mahala)
Anthologies like African Delights remind us that the short story form is far from dead. Siphiwo Mahala, who says he’s been writing in this form since his two short stories were published in the Rhodes University journal Aerial in 2001, is no doubt an emerging master at this craft. Mahala has a knack for weaving an idea into a number of tributaries feeding from one another. In this four part collection of stories, published in September 2011 by Jacana Media, Mahala takes us across time and space in modern day South Africa.
And that ladies and gentlemen is our 2011 Africa Books of the Year list. Do let us know what you think, and, if you know of a book that should have made the cut, tell us in the comment section below.
Special thanks to our team of reviewers who contributed to this post – Dianah Ninsiima, Friederike Knabe, Oriyomi Adebare, Sarah Norman, Hadrien Diez, Don Makatile, and Alan Mwesiga.