For the third year, Africa Book Club presents its selection of the year’s best books about Africa, or written by African authors. This has been a truly remarkable year – with long awaited comebacks from several of Africa’s greats and exciting debuts.
Our 2012 list includes the top picks from our team of reviewers, that is, books they read and recommended as deserving to be on the list. We also scoured the continent (and, of course, the Internet) to find books about Africa or by African authors that generated the most buzz, received literary awards, or made the bestseller lists.
So let’s dive right into our recommendations for the Africa Book Club 2012 Books of the Year.
Biographies and Memoirs
In the House of the Interpreter (by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o)
Released in November by Pantheon Books, this is the second volume of Ngugi’s memoirs in the wake of his critically acclaimed Dreams in a Time of War.
In the House of the Interpreter richly and poignantly evokes the author’s life and times at boarding school–the first secondary educational institution in British-ruled Kenya–in the 1950s, against the backdrop of the tumultuous Mau Mau Uprising for independence and Kenyan sovereignty. It hauntingly describes the formative experiences of a young man who would become a world-class writer and, as a political dissident, a moral compass to us all.
Sometimes There is a Void (Zakes Mda)
Zakes Mda’s biography – Sometimes There is a Void – was released in the US in January, and is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. As far as biographies go, this is both riveting and daring. Mda goes totally against the grain of what many readers have come to expect from most biographical accounts. He lays his life bare for all to see – triumphs, warts and all. There is no embellishment here, and no attempt to whitewash or explain his past. Rather, what we get is an honest account of one man’s difficult and often rocky path to adulthood – a constant search to fill many voids.
There Was a Country (by Chinua Achebe)
After a long silence, Achebe returned to the literary scene with this long awaited memoir, released in October 2012 and published by Penguin Press HC. There Was a Country centers around the defining experience of Achebe’s life – the tragic Nigerian civil war, also known as the Biafran War, of 1967–1970. The conflict was infamous for its savage impact on the Biafran people, Chinua Achebe’s people, many of whom were starved to death after the Nigerian government blockaded their borders.
Achebe took the Biafran side in the conflict and in this memoir, he relates his experience of the war, both as he lived it and how he has come to understand it. This is a first-hand account, in which Achebe draws on his own observations and forty years of research.
As expected, the book drew plenty of debate in Nigeria, and even Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie jumped into the fray
Interventions: A Life in War and Peace (by Kofi Annan, Nader Mousavizadeh)
As United Nations Secretary-General from 1997 to 2006, Kofi Annan was at the center of some of the most tragic political events in modern times. In this memoir, published in September by Penguin Press, Annan reflects on some of these events – the horror of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the American-led invasions of the Iraq and Afghanistan, and the brutal conflicts of Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia to mention a few.
The first sub-Saharan African to hold the position of Secretary-General, Annan talks about his remarkable career at the center of global politics and shares his unique perspectives and impressions. In Interventions: A Life in War and Peace, Annan reflects on his record at the UN and candidly discusses the organization’s successes, challenges and missed opportunities under his leadership.
The worlds of politics and literature came together in 2012, notably in Ghana and South Africa where prominent politicians were either the subjects or authors of some of the most talked about books.
My First Coup D’Etat: And Other True Stories from the Lost Decades of Africa (by John Dramani Mahama)
In Ghana, the then Vice President (and now President), John Dramani Mahama released his memoir, My First Coup d’Etat about growing up in his homeland and living through the turbulent history of post-independent Ghana. The book was published in May 2012 by Bloomsbury Publishing.
Looking at Ghana’s impressive recent past, it is easy to forget that the country was not so long ago, mired in political instability. In My First Coup D’Etat, Dramani offers an instructive and honest look at Ghana’s troubled history, which in many respects is also the story of the African continent. His personal story is even more inspiring – the young boy who at seven witnessed his first coup d’Etat and saw his father imprisoned, grows up to be president of his country.
Eight Days in September, The Removal of Thabo Mbeki (by Frank Chikane)
On September 20, 2008, South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, took the unprecedented step of dismissing Thabo Mbeki, the country’s then president from his position as party chairman. The unprecedented move, which effectively ended Mbeki’s presidency, marked the climax of a bitter internal struggle that nearly plunged post-apartheid South Africa into chaos.
In Eight Days in September (published in March 2012 by Picador Africa), author Frank Chikane, who was Director-General in the Presidency at the time, describes the circumstances that led to this historical event. There are no holy cows and Chikane tells it like it is, exposing the flaws – and skullduggery – of the inner workings of the ANC. Chikane says those who could have helped him with the manuscript refused point blank to do so for fear of reprisals. As a result, he wrote strictly from his own memory of events.
Of Africa (by Wole Soyinka)
Wole Soyinka remains one of Africa’s foremost writers, thinkers and freedom fighters. His courage and outspokenness make him one of the continent’s most respected voices. In his latest book, Of Africa, published in November by Yale University Press, Soyinka reflects on the continent’s identity, its people, history and challenges.
He offers a wide ranging inquiry, asks tough questions about race, inter-ethnic and religious violence, and the viability of Africa’s current political borders. His is a voice of realism – recognizing Africa’s challenges but also seeing its great potential.
Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria (by Noo Saro-Wiwa)
Noo Saro-Wiwa is the daughter of the Nigerian environmental and political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. In this memoir, she presents a refreshing travelogue, as she revisits her homeland. Travelling from the mayhem of Lagos across Nigeria, she brings family history and the sometimes conflicted eye of an African raised away from the motherland to look at this vast, fascinating land.
Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland is an honest account of contemporary Nigeria – a view of Africa through the eyes of one of her own.
The Hungry Season, Feeding Southern Africa’s Cities (by Leonie Joubert)
Leonie Joubert has written a meticulously researched book on food security – and the lack thereof – among the urban poor, notes our reviewer Don Makatile. The cliché ‘do not judge a book by its cover’ certainly rings true for The Hungry Season: Feeding Southern Africa’s Cities, Joubert’s groundbreaking work. It looks like another tedious cook book but hides, between the covers, a gripping tale of how urbanization has not actually favoured the poor who leave their rural homes in search of the elusive gold in the big cities. What they bring into the cities is actually their poverty. While back home they could have tended to their crops in the fields, in the cities such work is frowned upon. People are chasing profits and quick gains.
They are food insecure, Joubert finds, as they are never sure where the next meal will come from. And even when they do lay their hands on the food, it is not of a decent nutritional standard to keep them healthy.
The Spider King’s Daughter (by Chibundu Onuzo)
Shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, Chibunu Onuzo’s The Spider King’s Daughter (published in March 2012 by Faber and Faber) is a modern-day Romeo and Juliet set against the backdrop of a changing Lagos, a city torn between tradition and modernity, corruption and truth, love and family loyalty.
The lonely seventeen-year-old Abike Johnson is the favourite child of her wealthy father. A world away from Abike’s mansion, in the city’s slums, lives a seventeen-year-old hawker struggling to make sense of the world. His family lost everything after his father’s death and now he runs after cars on the roadside selling ice cream to support his mother and sister. When Abike buys ice cream from the hawker one day, they strike up an unlikely and tentative romance, defying the prejudices of Nigerian society.
Daughters Who Walk This Path (by Yejide Kilanko)
Yejide Kilanko is, without doubt, one of the most exciting writing talents of 2012 and her debut novel, Daughters Who Walk This Path is a deserving choice among our books of the year in the African fiction category. For a first time novelist, Kilanko writes with a level of maturity, elegance, and power that belies her relative newness to the writing craft. And as our reviewer, Friederike Knabe observes, “Kilanko is already an accomplished story teller who gets into the heart and mind of her characters.”
Set in modern day Nigeria, Daughters Who Walk This Path tells the story of a young girl growing up in a society that remains largely patriarchal and where old traditions, good and bad, still abound. The book was published in April 2012 by Penguin Canada, and is due out in the US next month.
The Past Ahead (by Gilbert Gatore)
Translated by Marjolijn de Jager, The Past Ahead (released in October 2012) is a brilliantly written award winning book by Rwandan author Gilbert Gatore that tells the story of two overlapping destinies of survivors of the genocide.
Commenting on the book, Friederike Knable notes, The story is told in a way that never mentions the country nor the details of what happened to the individuals. Subtle, dreamlike at times it explores the deep emotional scars left on both victims and perpetrators. Part stream of consciousness, part story in a story, this is an extraordinary and powerful narrative of memory, loss and hope, that contains lessons far beyond the particular drama.”
Nothing Comes Close (by Tolulope Popoola)
Set mainly in the UK, this romantic story makes for a refreshing read – certainly a departure from other African stories that mostly center on the continent’s instabilities. Lola is a young, outspoken, confident and energetic woman. With her four friends – Funmi, Temmy, Titi, and Maureen – they make up a close circle of friends albeit with very different personalities. They are all educated young women, with good jobs but all struggling with their love relationships.
Published by Accomplish Press UK, Nothing Comes Close was released in September 2012.
On Black Sisters Street (by Chika Unigwe)
Winner of the 2012 Nigeria Prize for Literature, Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street is about four very different women, who have made their way from Africa to Brussels. They have come to claim for themselves the riches they believe Europe promises but when Sisi, the most enigmatic of the women, is murdered, their already fragile world is shattered. Drawn together by tragedy, the remaining three women – Joyce, a great beauty whose life has been destroyed by war; Ama, whose dark moods manifest a past injustice; Efe, whose efforts to earn her keep are motivated by a particular zeal – slowly begin to share their stories. They are stories of terror, of displacement, of love, and of a sinister man called Dele.
No Time Like the Present (by Nadine Gordimer)
Renowned author and Nobel Literature prize winner Nadine Gordimer returns with No Time Like the Present, released in March by Farrar, Straus Giroux.
Set in post-apartheid South African society, the story is about Steve and Jabulile, an interracial couple, who live in the suburbs with their daughter, Sindiswa and son Gary. Steve becomes a lecturer at a university; Jabulile trains to become a lawyer. In telling their story and the stories of their friends and families, Gordimer manages to capture the tortured, fragmented essence of a nation struggling to define itself post-apartheid.
Through the characters, she explores the challenges that the country faces – the continuing poverty, unemployment, AIDS scourge juxtaposed against the growing corruption, greed and xenophobia.
And that, dear readers, is our 2012 Africa Books of the Year list. And what a year it’s been! With new books from literary legends like Nadine Gordimer, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, and Wole Soyinka, there was plenty to savor. But there were many exciting new talents as well, which all made for another excellent year for African literature.
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. Do consider buying a book about Africa or written by an African author as a gift for yourself or your book-loving friends. And remember, you can buy most of these books right here on Africa Book Club.
Lastly, we are keen to know what you think. Did we miss some interesting books out there? Let us know in the comments section below.
Special thanks to our team of reviewers who contributed to this post – Julianah Ogunseiju, Dianah Ninsiima, Friederike Knabe, Oriyomi Adebare, Geoff Gyasi, and Don Makatile (www.makatilemedia.com).