Africa: The top 20 must-read literary books of 2021

By Dami Ajayi
Posted on Monday, 27 December 2021 13:16, updated on Wednesday, 29 December 2021 16:15

Photo-call for the Booker Prize shortlisted fiction authors, in London
Booker Prize shortlisted fiction authors Patricia Lockwood, Richard Powers, Nadifa Mohamed, Damon Galgut, Maggie Shipstead and Anuk Arudpragasam pose with their books, during a photo-call in London, Britain, October 31, 2021. REUTERS/Tom Nicholson

As we head into the end of 2021, we have put together the top 20 books from across the continent this year to make the most of your off-screen time.

This year, the prestigious Booker prize, awarded to an outstanding book of fiction, and the Nobel Prize for Literature went south of the Sahara, to South African novelist Dalmon Galgut and Zanzibari novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, respectively.

These, of course, are remarkable top-tier literary accomplishments for the African continent, but they hardly pale out a productive year, rich in the variety of writing – published across the main literary genres of fiction, nonfiction and poetry – by authors of African descent living on the continent or stowed away in the diaspora.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but should serve both as a conversation starter and a decent guide for bibliophiles interested in collecting contemporary African writing.

1. The Junta of Happenstance by Tolu Oloruntoba

A finalist of the prestigious Governor General Literary Award in poetry category, this highly anticipated debut poetry collection by Oloruntoba, a Canada-based poet/medical doctor, crystallises language at its best, interrogating, with empathy and an acute eye, the intersections between private disquiet and historical injustices.

2. Unbury Our Dead with Song by Mukoma wa Ngugi

Mukoma wa Ngugi’s latest novel explores its narrator’s fascination with tizita, Ethiopian folk music synonymous with longing – and through his obsession with this genre of music and its accomplished practitioners, tells an affecting story of humanity, longing and the collective imagination.

3. The Promise by Dalmon Galgut

This well-deserved Booker Prize winner for South African novelist, Dalmon Galgut, previously shortlisted twice, was praised by the judges as “a strong, unambiguous commentary on the history of South Africa and of humanity itself that can best be summed up in the question: does true justice exist in this world?”

4. When the Sky is Ready The Stars Will Appear by EC Osondu

EC Osondu’s second novel, like his first, features a colourful dramatis personae and tracks the horrors of cross-continental migration with morbid fascination and staggering humour, always raising a redemptive torch at the resilience of the human spirit.

5. Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah

This year’s winner of the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature released his 10th novel, Afterlives, last year autumn, without much commercial fanfare, but with critical admiration nonetheless from accomplished Ethiopian-American novelist Maaza Mengiste, who praised the book as “…a compelling novel, one that gathers close all those who were meant to be forgotten, and refuses their erasure.”

6. Once, There Was a Star by Meshack Yobby

An urgent historical novel chronicling the life of protagonist Ismail Muse, a patriot, and his family, especially his young daughter, whom he abandons for the greater call of war.

It has been praised for its lush depiction of Somali landscapes and moving characters.

7. The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohammed

Told in lucid prose and at a languid pace, this moving and powerful debut novel, shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, fictionalised the tragic story of a Somali seaman framed in the 50s for a shopkeeper’s murder in Wales. It has been praised for its evocation of place, time and highlighting institutional racism.

8. Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth by Wole Soyinka

Indefatigable Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka’s third novel arrives several decades after his last, and strings along a cast of colourful characters with echoes of his earlier works.

Written in charged and delightful prose, this works as a modern satire chronicling the Nigerian state in full, warts and neurosis.

9. Lightseekers by Femi Kayode

Kayode’s compelling novel is as much a story about despair in oil-rich ecological wastelands of the Niger Delta, as it is a wary whodunnit with a memorable protagonist who must wade through the murk of post-military decadence to confront the horrors of a tragedy similar to the Aluu Four lynching.

10. Manifesto: On Never Giving Up by Bernardine Evaristo

Bernardine Evaristo’s latest book is part memoir and part manual on the craft of creative writing and mostly pays tribute to the Booker winning author’s resilience and illustrious trajectory as a consummate artist, from the stage to penning verse to writing several award-winning novels.

11. Your Crib, My Qibla by Saddiq Dzukogi

This astonishing transatlantic debut by the Nigerian poet, inspired by the loss of his infant daughter, comprises tender and riveting poems that celebrate sentience and illustrates grief exhaustively, through symbols, trivia and daily rituals.

12. Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir by Akwaeke Emezi

A memoir styled as a series of missives, Emezi’s fourth book in four consecutive years is both a testament to the industry and the conscious act of becoming, meticulously documented against the backdrop of mutable external circumstances.

13. The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber

Winner of the inaugural Graywolf Press African Prize for Fiction in manuscript form, this thrilling debut is a fantasy and coming of age novel obsessed with the sea in a manner reminiscent of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, but through the lens of Swahili imaginary and culture.

14. Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo

Chibundu Onuzo’s lean third novel follows its mixed race female protagonist through the literal and figurative journey of discovering her British-educated Ghanaian father in the aftermath of her mother’s death.

15. Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Azumah Nelson’s lyrical debut, a heterosexual black love tale of two artists in pre-Covid-19 London, has been praised for its accomplishment in formal technique, memorable characters and deep meditation on art forms and the black experience in our contemporary world.

16. The Sex Lives of African Women by Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah

The staggering accomplishment of the Ghanaian feminist activist and blogger is an anthology of intimate interviews of more than 30 women of Black and African descent across the African continent and its global diaspora, which finally appears in the definitive book form.

It is a book about that taboo subject, sex, etherised and exteriorised, once and for all, in a sensitive way that retains the agency of its diverse interlocutors.

17. The Fugitives by Jamal Mahjoub

British-Sudanese writer’s latest heart-warming novel tracks the resurgence of Kamanga Kings, a Khartoum jazz band of yesteryears, following a surprise invitation to perform in America delivered into the hands of the disaffected protagonist, son of the deceased original band leader, who must wade through both the internal landscapes of nostalgia as well as the staggering external landscapes of the Land of Liberty.

18. The Madhouse by TJ Benson

Benson, continuing in the phantasmagorical fashion of his debut award-winning short story collection, delivers this choral novel of sorts about a family of four, particularly the sibling children, against the backdrop of tumultuous 90s military era in middle-belt Nigeria.

19. An Island by Karen Jennings

Jennings’ Booker Prize long-listed novel, which follows a septuagenarian lighthouse keeper and sole occupant of an island off the coast of an unnamed African country, has been praised for its taut prose and for presaging the themes of solitude and displacement that the Covid-19 pandemic brought to all of humanity.

20. New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Book Set (Nane) edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani

The latest instalment of the annual box set by African Poetry Book Fund, generously edited by literary  stalwarts Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani, introduces 13 new poets, including rising stars like Ajibola Tolase, Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu and Lameese Badr, with fanfare. In a fashion similar to previous editions, a necessary intervention for African poetry.

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