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25 new books by African writers you should read

There has never been a better time than now to be a reader of African literature, especially in the United States (historically, an underdeveloped nation…

There has never been a better time than now to be a reader of African literature, especially in the United States (historically, an underdeveloped nation in this regard).
 Of course, we’re still playing catch-up; many of these books have already been published in South Africa, Nigeria, or the UK, or in their original language. But that just means that old classics are becoming suddenly available, alongside emerging new voices. So if you’re looking for something to read, and you want it to have the word “African” attached to it, here are my top 25 suggestions for the first six months of the new year.
 All dates are for U.S. publications. Chain bookstores won’t carry most of these, so you might have to do something as laborious and difficult as click a link, or ask your local bookstore to place a special order. But the one thing you can’t do, any longer, is complain you have nothing to read. You have your orders; go forth and read.
 The Kindness of Enemies, by Leila Aboulela (Grove Atlantic)
The winner of the first Caine Prize for African writing in 2000, Leila Aboulela, is always briskly readable, but her intimate stories also have a depth and weight to them that stays with you long after you’ve put the book down. 
 And though there is no shortage of secular writers writing about religion, Aboulela is the rare reverse, a novelist whose deep Muslim faith animates her explorations of Islamic identity in the secular world.
 Each chapter of ‘The Kindness of Enemies’ begins in present-day Scotland, where a history professor must grapple with how to respond to a student of hers who, she has been told, has become “radicalized”, before moving back into the 1850s, where we get the story of her student’s ancestor, the Imam Shamil, whose 30-year campaign against the expanding Russian empire stands as one of the most ‘successful’ military jihads in history. 
 But as with all of Aboulela’s novels, her focus is essentially intimate, the story of small lives and loves. Against the backdrop of war and empire, Aboulela’s eye is on human stories about lost faith and lost children, some of which are sometimes found again.
 The Happy Marriage, by Tahar Ben Jelloun (Translated by André Naffis-Sahely  Melville House)
Tahar Ben Jelloun is the sort of writer who gets mentioned every year as a possible contender for the Nobel, though he’s probably too good to ever get it. France claims him and he lives in Paris, but the focus of his novels has always been Morocco.
 In ‘The Happy Marriage’, a painter tells the story of how his marriage collapsed as he is recovering from a stroke that he blames his wife for provoking. When his wife reads his account of these events, she gives her own side of the story.
February 2: The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Petina Gappah’s ‘The Book of Memory’ is the only Nabokovian meditation on living in memory – from the perspective of an albino inmate of a Zimbabwean women’s prison – that you need to read this year. The long-awaited first novel by the author of ‘An Elegy for Easterly’, this book is a marvel, fluttering from high to low with deceptive ease, and slipping in more words per page of untranslated Shona than any book this readable has any right to contain.
 But though ‘An Elegy for Easterly’ was widely praised for its dissection of contemporary Zimbabwean politics and society, and despite all of its wonderfully granular detail and quotidian attentiveness to the life of a maximum security death row inmate in Zimbabwe – no doubt informed by Gappah’s years as a lawyer – ‘The Book of Memory’ is ultimately much less interested in the particularities of Zimbabwe in the Mugabe era, or in the law, or even in race than in the story of how we float on the currents of time on the brightly colored wings of memory.
February 15: Rachael’s Blue, by Zakes Mda (University of Chicago Press)
I always feel bad that I haven’t read more of Zakes Mda’s work, but every time I read one of his books, it feels like he’s published another novel or two. His dozens of plays and novels were written in the decades of South Africa’s long, slow, painful transition from Apartheid but range across its even longer and more painful history, from early colonialism to the present, excavating histories and memory that never made it to the official records of truth and reconciliation.
 An astute critic once described him as living in a different country than J.M. Coetzee, and I like the comparison: Coetzee’s South Africa is a white landscape of metaphysics and philosophy, while Mda’s novels are hyper-local Dickensian panoramas, painted in blood-red. His 2012 memoir, ‘Sometimes There is a Void’, describes ho, after a long journey through a very eventful life, he finds himself teaching creative writing in Athens, Ohio. ‘Rachel’s Blue’ is his first novel set completely in the United States.
February 15: The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician, by Tendai Huchu (Ohio University Press)
February will be a good year for fiction from Zimbabwe: along with Petina Gappah’s long-awaited first novel, the second of Tendai Huchu’s two novels will finally be available in the US, and it will be well worth the wait.
 His first novel, ‘The Hairdresser of Harare’, was a black comedy of political manners, in the Zimbabwe of ZANU-PF and hyperinflation – and along with a sly treatment of sexuality that’s worth the price of admission alone – it put Huchu’s name on a lot of lists of writers to watch. 
 In ‘The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician’, he has moved outward to the community of expatriate Zimbabweans living in Edinburgh but waiting for the time to be right to return, triumphantly, home. As he put it in an interview, “most of the novels I read about diasporas are about folks on a sort of upward trajectory and I kind of wanted to go in the opposite direction.”
 His cast is mostly very highly educated people, living and working in low-wage jobs, while dreaming of home. He splits the story between three interlinked, but detached perspectives – between the maestro, the magistrate, and the mathematician- but out of it produces a single “book of illusions” as he puts it. “Though the narrators of all three novellas are reliable, they are still being lied to, he says.”

February 16: And After Many Days, by Jowhor Ile (Penguin Random House)
Everybody is very excited about this debut novel from a writer living in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Taiye Selasi, Uzodinma Iweala, A. Igoni Barrett, and Binyavanga Wainaina have all praised it to the heavens, and if Penguin doesn’t send me a review copy soon, I’m going to be as grumpy and petulant about it as a toddler deprived of his milk.
 I’ve been waiting for this novel since 2013, when Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie happened to mention, in an interview, that, “There’s a young man called Johwor Ile who is just finishing a novel, who I think is really spectacular. His novel, when it comes out, will be very good.” So I’m not going to read anything more about this novel until it’s in my hands, which damn well better be soon. (You hear me, Penguin?!)
Boubacar Boris Diop is one of the giants of Francophone African literature, and though he’s never been a very prolific writer, it’s taken some time for the Anglophone world to get around to translating him (thank you, Indiana University Press!). Until last year, ‘Murambi, The Book of Bones’ was his only novel in English. Now, hard on the heels of the translation of The Knight and His Shadow, we’re finally getting his most recent novel, ‘Kaveena: A portrait of a nation’s dissolution in coup d’etat’, a novel narrated by the chief of an unnamed country’s secret police, trapped in a bunker with the rotting body of the dictator.
I hope we get a translation of Doomi Golo, his novel in Wolof, soon. He translated it into French, himself, so I can’t see why we wouldn’t. By the way, if you are totally unfamiliar with literary Françafrique, his collection of essays, Africa Beyond the Mirror is a good place to start for getting a sense of the politics and terrain. He’s always opinionated, always passionate, and always worth reading.
 March 1: Blackass, by A. Igoni Barrett (Graywolf)
 Igoni Barrett’s ‘2013 Love is Power’, or something like that, is one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read, and since Blackass was published last year in Nigeria and the UK (to rapturous reviews), I’ve been waiting in the US for Barrett’s first novel with a certain amount of piqued urgency. Get it published already! 
 People like to compare Barrett’s books to modernist masterpieces. ‘Love is Power’ was ‘Lagos’ Dubliners’; ‘Blackass’ is Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” in Nigeria. But all of that is just a way of saying that this guy is really, really good.
 March 1: Fuchsia, by Mahtem Shiferraw (Nebraska University Press)
Each year, the African Poetry Book Fund (directed by Chris Abani and Kwame Dawes) publishes the first collection by the poet, who wins the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poetry. The winners for the previous two years were Clifton Gachagua’s ‘Madman at Kilifi’, and Ladan Osman’s ‘The Kitchen-Dwellers Testimony’. They are both sublime, so I have high hopes for this year’s edition, Ethiopian-American poet Mahtem Shiferraw’s collection ‘Fuchsia’, which “examines conceptions of the displaced, disassembled and nomadic self.” If you can’t wait, you can get her chapbook, ‘Behind Walls and Glass’, or you can read some of her poetry online: ‘Blood Disparities’, ‘She says they come at night…,’ ‘E is for Eden,’ ‘Something Sleeps in the Mud-Beds of the Nile,’ ‘Small Tragedies,’ and ‘Synesthesia.’ (I can’t wait).
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