Chibundu Onuzo Recommends a Reading List of African Authors
The author of ‘Welcome to Lagos’ on the literary gems of Africa
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I left Lagos when I was fourteen. This year will make it thirteen years since I’ve been away. I’ve spent my whole adult life abroad and yet I’m still drawn to Nigeria. I watch Nigerian shows on YouTube, I listen to Nigerian music on my phone and I read books written by Nigerian authors. I don’t just stop at the borders of Nigeria when it comes to my tastes. I range across the whole continent of Africa and everywhere I look, exciting content is being produced both on and offline. It’s an exciting time to be a Nigerian writer. Although, I suppose, it has always been an exciting time to be a Nigerian writer.
My novel, Welcome to Lagos, is about a group of runaways, who escape to Lagos and band together to survive the city once they get there. Since my novel’s publication, I’ve often been asked how it feels to be part of a ‘new wave’ of African literature. There is no new wave. The waves have always been crashing steadily and regularly against the shore. Over the centuries, new and exciting writing has been created by Nigerians and in Africa. Just ask the abolitionist Olaudah Equiano or the pan-African thinker Edward Blyden. That you just arrived at the party doesn’t mean the party just started. If you look closely, just before you throw yourself into the dance, you’ll see how everyone else on the dance floor is sweating heavily. So here are some of my personal favourites on the African literature playlist.
When the Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head
I discovered Bessie Head late but as the proverb says, ‘Morning is when you wake up.’ A political refugee from apartheid South Africa shows up in a small village in Botswana. He comes to learn a new way of life in the agrarian community but he also shakes things up. This one of my favourite “a stranger comes to town” stories.
Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta
Before Eleanor Ferrante’s Neapolitan Series was Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come, a stand alone novel that I believe achieves in a few hundred pages what Ferrante took a thousand pages to do. Atta follows from childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood, the lives of two female friends, Sheri and Enitan. They are best friends, they’re rivals, and they are sisters. Their friendship plays out against the backdrop of political turmoil in Nigeria.
Changes: A Love Story by Ama Ata Aidoo
Esi Sekyi, a modern African woman with a successful career, divorces her husband and becomes a second wife to another man. The debate between who is a ‘modern’ African and who is a ‘traditional’ African continues till tomorrow. In this novel, Aidoo gives an excellent answer to the perennial question about African identity: it’s complicated, like every other identity.
So Long a Letter by Mariam Ba
I think of So Long a Letter and Changes as two novels that are in conversation with each other. In this novel, the tables are turned when the protagonist, Ramatoulaye, another ‘modern’ African woman discovers that her husband has taken a second wife. The novel is written as a series of letters to Ramatoulaye’s friend and the result is a slim novel that stays with you for a long time.
Creole by Jose Agualusa
Like many Anglophone readers, I’m behind on fiction translated into English but I do my best because I know how much I’m missing out on. Creole, first written in Portuguese, is one of those novels that is strange and new and exciting. In 1868, a Portuguese aristocrat sails from Lisbon to Angola and meets a decadent, slave-owning society. It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story and it’s just a very good novel.
A Stranger’s Pose by Emmanuel Iduma
This book isn’t out yet (the title is being published in the US in November), but judging from writer and curator, Emmanuel Iduma’s thoughtful essays about African art and culture, this is definitely one to watch. Iduma has travelled through several African countries and these essays are an exploration of his journeys.
Sweet Medicine by Panashe Chigumadzi
How to be a young woman in twenty first century Zimbabwe? What to do with your principles, when you’ve stuck to the rules of getting good grades and getting a degree, only to graduate and find you can’t get a decent job? Sweet Medicine a novel that speaks to our cultural moment now, no matter what part of the world you live in.
Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and Other Essays by Adewale Maja-Pearce
It is very brave to look at the murdered activist Ken Saro Wiwa through a lens that is critical. Yet this is what Maja-Pearce does in the title essay in this collection. Yes Saro Wiwa did much that was heroic in his life but he was also human. A writer’s allegiance is to their vision not to historical consensus.