The year 2023 has been a vibrant and exciting year for African fiction. Authors are tackling the complex challenges and opportunities of modern life on the continent and beyond. Themes such as migration, urbanisation, climate change, and gender inequality are being explored in challenging, exciting new ways.
Speculative fiction is gaining popularity, offering fresh perspectives on the continent. More women and LGBTQ+ writers are making their mark, shedding light on narratives that have been overlooked and are redefining African identity and experience.
We are seeing the expansion of the continent’s global reach, with African novels being translated into a multitude of languages and finding readers in countries across the world and stimulating a fresh appreciation for African storytelling traditions.
These five novels offer unique perspectives on African culture and society, representing a wide range of styles, from magical realism to historical fiction to contemporary coming-of-age stories.
Resilience in the face of violence
Nigerian writer Chika Unigwe explores migration and identity, often drawing from her own life as an immigrant, first in Belgium and then the US, and the rich literary traditions of Igbo women. Since clinching the 2012 Nigeria LNG Prize for Literature for her novel On Black Sisters’ Street, her work continues to resonate with readers globally, making her a major voice in the literature of the diaspora.
Unigwe’s latest novel, The Middle Daughter, set in Enugu, Nigeria, focuses on a family coming to terms with a tragic loss and the complex ways in which their coping mechanisms affect their lives. The story delves into the dynamics of Nigeria’s upper-middle-class world and the societal pressures related to marriage and social status. She also explores themes of grief, vulnerability, and the fragility of relationships.
It begins with news of the death of the family’s first daughter. Udodi had been studying in the US and passed away in an accident shortly before her return to Enugu. This triggers profound and seemingly insurmountable grief in the family. The opening line, “I fear the man who is my husband,” hints at underlying themes of abuse and sets a sinister tone for the story.
Nani, the middle child, finds herself subtly alienated by the family. Her name, meaning “scarcity”, contrasts with those of her sisters, which signify peace and abundance. It’s this otherness that leads Nani into exile for several years.
Through a journey marked by her numbness to the circumstances of those around her, her desire for visibility and her acts of rebellion, she becomes vulnerable to hardship and violence. The novel features multiple points of view, including that of Udodi, whose series of poems form a “chorus” that provides a cultural and mythological backdrop to the narrative.
Unigwe’s writing is compelling. The Middle Daughter is a profound exploration of family ties, loss, and the human experience.
Life in a time of terror
Ethiopian writer Mihret Sibhat moved to California when she was 17. Her debut novel, The History of a Difficult Child, is described by The Washington Post as “An endearing coming-of-age story … Sharp and witty … A wily and operatic novel … Propulsive.”
Sibhat tells the story of Selam Asmelash, a young girl caught in the civil war and ethnic division of 1980s Ethiopia. Selam is born with what her sister says is an unusually large head. Her father dismisses this concern, but her sister cryptically predicts, “You’ll see.”
Selam displays remarkable thoughtfulness beyond her years. She resolves not to walk until she’s ready and is sceptical about political rhetoric, even as a toddler, labelling the promises of “Comrade Chairman” over the radio as lies.
She’s not alone in resisting the regime’s propaganda. In a government shop, her grandmother holds up a bar of black soap: “He needs to tell us whether this is really soap or his shit in a package!” she says of the dictator in Addis Ababa.
Selam has many foes. One is a government official she names Rectangle-Head; there are also the villagers who target her family because of their Protestant faith, and a rebel army that commits unspeakable atrocities.
When she decides to ignore the murderous lives of adults, she sets her sights on becoming a star soccer striker, scoring goals for her dead family, the villagers, and even one for God, “the madman who created so much chaos while desperate to escape aloneness”.
Sibhat’s tragicomic novel is a moving evocation of life in a time of terror as seen through the eyes of an indomitable child.
Varied and wondrous tales
Swahili is spoken by millions in East Africa and has played a significant role in shaping the culture, identity and history of the region. It has a rich literary tradition that is brought to life in No Edges, the first collection of Swahili short stories in English translation.
In this much-needed collection, readers are introduced to eight writers from Tanzania and Kenya. The authors tell a variety of stories about sorcerers, Nairobi junkyards, long bus journeys across the country, a future without humans, and spaceships that thrust prisoners into the universe for eternity.
Subtitled Swahili is the future, the range of different, rhythmic voices offer their own “African futurist” visions of societies in turmoil on a crowded planet, and the possibilities of life in other universes. In The Guest by Kenyan writer Fatma Shafii, a young woman invites her lover to meet her impatient family, but is he real, or a figment of her imagination? In A Neighbour’s Pot by Tanzanian writer Lusajo Mwaikenda Israel, a girl trips on a pot shard and ends up in a village populated by flesh-eating witches who ride around on carts pulled by stinking hyenas.
Edited by Sarah Coolidge, it’s a wonderfully original collection that invites readers to sample the variety and depth of modern Swahili writing.
Those who came before never forget
Zimbabwean journalist and writer Farai Mudzingwa draws inspiration from music, our interior selves and alternative realities. In his experimental debut novel Avenues by Train, seven-year-old Jedza witnesses a tragic train accident that kills his childhood friend and he becomes convinced that his life is haunted.
In his mid-20s, now a destitute electrician, Jedza moves to Harare, hoping to escape small-town superstitions. But life in the sinister atmosphere of the Avenues offers no reprieve from the past. Instead, Jedza keeps seeing strange things such as shadowy pools of water rising under musasa trees. He is tormented by the loss of his sister, their early encounters with ancestral spirits, the shape-shifting power of the njuzu (a half-human, half-fish water spirit) and a vengeful ngozi (a feared and mysterious avenging spirit). To move forward, he must stop running away and confront the trauma of his past.
In an interview, Mudzingwa said, “This train is a juggernaut of extraction. Powering in and carrying out. Nothing natural is capable of standing in its way. It is at once a literal locomotive and also the recurring metaphor through which this coming-of-age story is told. Of the contesting forces, human, natural, and supernatural, that pull in different directions, and in their wake, lies their impact on individual lives.”
The perilous nature of borders
Fatin Abbas’ Ghost Season, an intricately woven debut novel, connects the lives of five people caught in the conflict along the Sudanese border. The story begins with the disturbing discovery of a charred corpse in Saraaya, a remote border town situated between northern and southern Sudan. For the five strangers living in an NGO compound, the find foreshadows trouble.
William, a South Sudanese translator, links the corpse to the sudden disappearance of Layla, a northern nomad and the compound’s cook, with whom he has fallen in love. Meanwhile, Dena, a Sudanese American filmmaker, grapples with a sense of disconnection from her unfamiliar homeland, while Alex, a white Midwestern aid worker, finds his plans upset by the looming threat of civil war. Linking the adults is Mustafa, a resourceful and endearing 12-year-old whose dream of escaping poverty sets off a chain of cataclysmic events.
In a region torn by conflict, William, Layla, Dena, Alex and Mustafa forge bonds that transcend blood and identity. Abbas skilfully interweaves the history of Sudan’s fragmentation into the lives of her protagonists, highlighting the porous and perilous nature of borders — whether national, ethnic, or religious — and the profound influence on those who cross them. Ghost Season is an enthralling and vivid debut, introducing Abbas as a compelling new voice in African fiction.
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