10 Great books by African authors in 2021

Emmanuel Esomnofu 12 July 2021

Here are 10 page turners that demonstrate the richness and diversity of African literature today

As reservoirs of knowledge, engaging with books is an entertaining and rewarding way to spend one's time. African authors have particularly wowed the world since Chinua Achebe's 1958 classic Things Fall Apart, as they're immersed in oral tradition and inventive writing.

Throbbing with unique storylines and characters, these titles transcend "the single story" as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once described the stereotypes surrounding African narratives in the West. Through them, we see the questions of today's Africa artfully presented, with empathy and deep thought.

David Diop—At Night All Blood is Black

A novel by a Senegalese-French academic and writer, this book won the International Booker Prize in 2021, described by the judges as “a story of warfare and love and madness.”

Inspired by his Senegalese grandfather’s participation in the First World War, Diop investigates the War through the narrator Alfa Ndiaye, whose best friend and comrade Mademba Diop is brutally killed in its first pages. Alfa madly ravages the forest, murdering opposition soldiers and collecting their amputated arms like trophies. His journey enlivens the slim novel which has garnered thousands of admirers including The New York Times, who called Diop “a great new African writer” in its review of the book. 

Akwaeke Emezi—Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir

Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir book cover

With Freshwater, their stunning debut novel, Nigerian-Tamil writer Akwaeke Emezi was introduced into the literary world as a bona fide talent. Telling stories of spirituality and the Nigerian Igbo people’s complex understanding of cosmology, Emezi’s writing, sensational and layered, fills the 240 pages of Dear Senthuran, a memoir that was named a “Most Anticipated Book of the Year” by Buzzfeed, Harper’s Bazaar, The Advocate, Lit Hub, Paperback Paris and Book Page.

TJ Benson—The Madhouse

The Madhouse cover

Since coming second in the Short Story Day Africa Prize, TJ Benson has established himself as one of the most exciting writers of his generation, offering speculative edge in a tradition of fluid, accessible storytelling. The Madhouse is set in 1990s Nigeria and follows a family of five: father Shariff, mother Sweat Pea, and their children—brothers Max and Andre, and Ladidi, their sister.

Underappreciated periods in Nigerian history (such as a 1996 epidemic which took close to 12,000 lives in Kano, the biggest city in Northern Nigeria) make up some parts of the book, as Benson expressively captures what it means to live in 1990s Nigeria. It’s a fine novel, stacked with beautiful sentences and unpredictable characters and Benson, like a master architect, has structured his house to perfection, carefully unravelling several layers as the reader advances into the book.

Kayo ChingonyiA Blood Condition

A Blood Condition - cover

The Zambian-born Kayo Chingonyi is who you’d describe as a poet’s poet. His stanzas pulsate with incredible thought and music, a fact highlighted after the release of his debut collection of poetry Kamukanda in 2017 which got Chingonyi a Dylan Thomas Prize among other prestigious honors.

Chingonyi’s second collection, A Blood Condition sees him returning to his Zambian roots, exquisitely rendering his voice to the HIV epidemic that ravaged parts of the east African country in past decades; also, both his parents died of HIV-related illnesses which prompted his move to the UK at the age of six. Described by Penguin Books as “moving, expansive and dazzling,” A Blood Condition is a must-add to your reading list.

Helen Oyeyemi—Peaces

The prolific British-Nigerian author Helen Oyeyemi is renowned for her unconventional novels, pushing the boundaries of fantasy and realism. Her seventh novel Peaces is implicitly different from her previous work, mostly taking place in a train that straddles the aforementioned worlds. Filled with eccentric characters, Oyeyemi makes and unmakes several parts of her plot, offering what The New York Times, in a review describes as “the lure of real connection and real resolution…every piece of the puzzle falls into place, but the picture is never made whole.”

Imbolo Mbue—How Beautiful We Were

How Beautiful We Were

A fictional African village named Kosawa has had their environment degraded by an American oil company. Pipelines have made the farmlands infertile, toxic water is drunk, and the company, in alliance with Kosawa’s dictator, have for long ignored the villagers who must now take matters into their own hands. The result is a book steeped in history, a neocolonialist arrangement that mirrors the state of many African countries today. “How Beautiful We Were will enthrall you, appall you, and show you what is possible when a few people stand up and say this is not right,” writes David Ebershoff in a blurb, calling it “a masterful novel by a spellbinding writer engaged with the most urgent questions of our day.”

Jamal Mahjoub—The Fugitives

The Fugitives book cover

In The Fugitives, British-Sudanese author Jamal Mahjoub’s latest novel, a legendary jazz band, the Kamanga Kings, are invited to perform in Washington DC. The problem? They’re long broken up, and a school teacher who resides in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, hatches a plan to get them to perform once more. This drives the plot of the novel which reveals itself as a road trip. “Set between Khartoum and the chaos of Donald Trump’s America, it is about friendship and the desire for home,” said publishers Canongate to Open Country Magazine. “Mahjoub brings to life a side of Sudan that is rarely seen: close intergenerational family relationships and a bohemian arts scene that has been suppressed by religious sanction.”

Romeo OriogunSacrament of Bodies

Sacrament of Bodies book cover

Romeo Oriogun is one of the brightest voices in African poetry. Since 2017, he’s written heart-wrenching poems which celebrate, among other things, queer existence. Though now based in the US, Oriogun’s home nation Nigeria is infamously homophobic with a legislation criminalising all homosexual activities (Oriogun is bisexual).

Sacrament of Bodies is Oriogun’s debut collection, following a pair of chapbooks (Burnt Men and The Origin of Butterflies) that endeared him to a generation of African poetry lovers. It’s a full book, meshing themes of erotic pleasure with spiritual nuance, calling on the African deities in rejection of colonialism and its single story. Lines like “I worship the day because it survived the night” embody the emotive power of Oriogun’s writing, which should make a perfect accompaniment for a beach day or a bus ride.

Safia Elhillo—Home is Not A Country

Young Adult stories are rarely given the respect they deserve. Forbes Africa’s “30 under 30” list awardee Safia Elhillo is mostly known for her poetry, and her debut novel retains the form somewhat, entirely written in verse. Home is Not A Country follows the life of Nima, a first-generation Muslim teenager whose life is caught in a listless longing for her African homeland (most likely Sudan) and grappling the new reality that is America. She’s sometimes called “terrorist” in school and those moments sink her into thoughts of her old life. Through Nima’s dreams, the Sudanese-American author Safia introduces elements of magical realism into her breathtaking debut novel.

Aminatta FornaThe Window Seat: Notes from a Life in Motion

Aminata Forna The Window Seat

Sierra Leonean-British author Aminatta Forna wrote four novels between 2006 and 2018, earning repute for her history-rich work. Her new collection of essays, The Window Seat, collects a number of new and previously unpublished essays exploring the landscapes of different cities, from Freetown to London. In this sense, journeying sticks as the book’s central theme, growing from Forna’s lifelong affair with the activity which offers many perspectives for a writer who, in turn, offers them to the reader.

Salman Rushdie, in a blurb, notes how the essays “[range] across continents and time, so broad in their themes and so deep in their perceptions, are essential reading, combining Aminatta Forna’s great gifts as a storyteller and her razor-sharp analytical skills.”

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