Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at Harvard Day, May 2018.
Making a list of the best African writers is a delicate exercise. The majority of African cultures primarily maintained and still maintain an oral tradition for transmitting literature. That’s the case with the Epic of Sundiata, an epic poem in the Mandinka language that recounts the founding of the Mali empire in the 13th century. It’s still sung by the Griot storytellers of the 21st century.
Written African literature has existed since antiquity, however. Egyptian, Phoenician, or Carthaginian literature, protected by Muslim universities in the Middle Ages, are among the most ancient literature in the world. There’s also Kebra Nagast (ክብረ ነገሥት, “Glory of the Kings” in Geʽez), another epic narrative from the 14th century that combines Ethiopian folk tales with stories from the Bible, Talmud and Koran.
For everyone interested in writing and thought from Africa, we encourage you to read and discover five of the best African writers from recent history. We also recommend a good starting point for each of the authors.
1. Chinua Achebe
It’s impossible to talk about African literature without mentioning Chinua Achebe. His two best-known books, Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, have left a lasting mark on literature from the continent.
Achebe’s work is a long reflection on colonialism and its consequences for individuality and the identity of Africans who are torn between two worlds — traditional and Western society — that they can’t fully belong to. He is one of the most famous African writers, and many expected him to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature. Unfortunately, he didn’t receive the award before his death in 2013.
What To Read By Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart
Perhaps the best known African novel in the English-speaking world, Things Fall Apart tells the story of pre-colonial life in a village in southern Nigeria and the cultural shock that came with the arrival of the British at the end of the 19th century.
This novel is fascinating in many ways: in the glimpse he provides into a past and unrecognizable world and culture; in what he recounts and depicts; in the universalism of the remarks and the reflection on upheavals that communities can be confronted with. Achebe does all this without falling into the nostalgia of the past or blindly promoting the merits of progress.
2. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is only 42 years old, but she’s already recognized as one of the most significant African writers of her generation. Born and raised in Nigeria before studying in the United States, Adichie started her career to some acclaim with Purple Hibiscus. But it was her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, that cemented her reputation as a writer. She followed that with Americanah, which tackled issues of racism, feminism, and cultural uprooting with humor and self-derision. While best-known as a fiction writer, her short essay We Should All Be Feminists is also popular, and is distributed yearly to every high schooler in Sweden.
In 2017, Fortune magazine ranked Adichie as one of the 50 most influential people in the world.
What To Read By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun
Told from three perspectives, Half of a Yellow Sun is about the human impacts of the Biafran War (also known as the Nigerian Civil War). First is Ugwu, a 13-year-old boy who works as a houseboy for a professor of mathematics, Odenigbo. Second is Olanna, who is married to Odenigbo and estranged from her parents after they try to offer her as a bribe to advance their business interests. As war breaks out, Olanna and Odenigbo are forced to flee from their homes because they’re seen as socialists. Lastly is Olanna’s sister Kainene, who starts the novel involved in her parents’ business and even profits off of the war, but later becomes disillusioned by the violence and chooses to run a refugee camp in order to help others.
Like other novels mentioned here, much of the struggle in this book comes from the impossible position African countries were put in during the 20th century. Adichie was raised during the aftermath of the Biafran War, and said she felt the need to address the specter of historical violence in her writing.
3. Alain Mabanckou
Alain Mabanckou is a French-Congolese writer and a professor of French literature at the University of California. He became known in 1998 with his first novel, Bleu-Blanc-Rouge, for which he received the Grand prix littéraire d’Afrique noire — one of the major literary prizes for French-language literature in Africa.
Mabanckou’s novel Verre cassé (Broken Glass), which recounts the lives of the regulars in a bar in Brazzaville, made him a well-known name among the general public. But it’s mostly Mémoires de porc-épic (Memoirs of a Porcupine), longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and the winner of the 2006 Prix Renaudot, which gave him public exposure as a prominent contemporary African writer. He also published the exceptional essay Dictionnaire enjoué des cultures africaines (“Joyful Dictionary of African Cultures”) in collaboration with Djibouti novelist Abdourahman Waberi.
What To Read By Alain Mabanckou: Petit Piment (“Black Moses”)
With great simplicity, Alain Mabanckou recounts the life of a Congolese boy — Petit Piment, which literally means “Little Pepper” — through the 1960s and ’70s. It’s a life full of adventures that tells the story of Mabanckou’s Congo, as well as the upheavals of history. The book is short and quick to read, and it makes a marvelous introduction to the very particular universe of the author.
4. Ngugi wa Thiong’o
Ngugi wa Thiongʼo is a Kenyan author whose works are written in English and the Kikuyu language. He’s currently professor and director of the International Center for Writing and Translation at the University of California.
Ngugi is a prominent intellectual figure in East Africa. At the center of his work, you will find denunciations of colonialism, tensions between Black and white people, and communities torn between European and African cultural influence. From his very first novel, Weep Not, Child, Ngugi touches on these topics through the eyes of the insurgent Kikuyu rebelling against English authorities. But it’s A Grain of Wheat, published in 1967, that gained him international renown.
After decades writing novels in English, Ngugi’s 1986 essay Decolonising the Mind is a farewell to the language: “How was it possible that we, African writers, exercised such weakness in defending our own languages and such greed in claiming foreign languages, starting with those of our colonizers?” Now, Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes only in his native language, Kikuyu, to reach the audience he wants to address first and foremost.
What To Read By Ngugi wa Thiong’o: A Grain of Wheat
A Grain of Wheat is the novel that gained Ngugi international acclaim and a place among the most successful African writers of the 20th century. It tells a number of intertwined stories that take place during Kenya’s fight for independence. The main plot follows a seemingly calm and solitary young man as he and his home village prepare to celebrate Uhuru Day (Kenyan independence day). But in the background, former members of the resistance prepare to execute a traitor who had betrayed them during the fight.
5. Wole Soyinka
In a list of the best African writers it would be easy to mention any of the four who have won the Nobel Prize in Literature: Nadine Gordimer, Naguib Mahfouz, J.M. Coetzee, or Wole Soyinka from Nigeria. We’ve chosen Wole Soyinka to finish this list of the best African writers of recent history because in 1986, he was the very first African writer to receive this award.
Wole Soyinka is a prolific author who’s written novels, memoirs, short stories, essays, poetry, and numerous theatrical plays. The Nobel committee specifically called out the richness of Soyinka’s universe that “with a cultural and poetical perspective, models the drama of human existence.”
What To Read By Wole Soyinka: Death and the King’s Horseman
While Wole Soyinka has written in many media, he is first and foremost a playwright. And Death and the King’s Horseman is the most well-known, most studied, and most discussed play by Soyinka. Written in 1975, this anti-colonialist drama was inspired by real-life events when the king died during the colonization of Nigeria by the British Empire. According to Yoruba tradition, his dog, his horse, and his horseman were to accompany him in death. Drama ensues when a British officer who finds the practice barbaric intervenes.
This article was originally published on the French edition of Babbel Magazine.