African novels are testaments to how diverse, unique, and multifaceted the African continent is. They deal with varying concepts, struggles, resistance, and cultural issues. The vibrancy of older and contemporary African literature cannot be brushed aside. On one hand, you have novels that are a part of ongoing literary experimentations. On the other, you have novels that speak to the very essence of the continent, the blackness, and the stories that flow from it.
Ask the average Westerner what books from an African author they’ve read, and you can probably guess the answers. Things Fall Apart? Home Going? Petals of Blood? However, the scope of African literature is far wider than just these well-known classics.
In this list, I’ve included crime, historical, and speculative fiction books that you probably haven’t heard of. Here are 10 African novels you should check out today:
10. Tram 83 by Fiston Mujila
This award-winning debut from Fiston Mujila is the story of a bar fuelled by bad booze, kebabs, and great music. It follows a writer named Lucien whose old friend, Requiem, goes to the bar to get drunk. It’s the story of a nameless city (probably Lubumbashi) in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the negative effects of diamond and cobalt mining on the prosperity of the city.
The prose is vibrant. While the book takes the reader through a journey of what the streets of a poor country with many resources looks like, it doesn’t fail to supply a good amount of comedy. It’s a grim account of neo-colonialism in Francophone Africa and a gripping tale about how vice doesn’t leave the most righteous out.
Tram 83 won the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature on March 19, 2016, and it was on the longlist for the Man Booker International Prize that year. It was also awarded the Grand Prix of Literary Associations (Belles-Lettres Category) and the German International Literature Award.
9. The Translator by Leila Aboulela
The Translator follows the life of Sammar, a Sudanese widow, living in Scotland and working as an Arabic translator at a university in Aberdeen. It’s a debut novel that shows the struggle between love and faith.
Having abandoned the world, Sammar is in a state of constant grieving. Four years after her husband’s death, she only found comfort in the call to prayer, and Adhan reminds her that “only Allah is eternal.” It’s not until when Rae, a secular Middle Eastern Studies professor, comes into Sammar’s life that she begins to see life in a new light despite her raging doubt.
8. Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou
Mabanckou knew what he was doing when he wrote this book without periods or capital letters at the beginning of sentences or with unending run-on sentences. This book is unputdownable. There’s no way to stop reading Broken Glass.
The protagonist, Broken Glass, spends all his time in a bar, having drunk himself out of his job and wife. The bar owner tells the protagonist to write stories of the life of the bar patrons. and so he writes, rather unstoppably. One of the bar regulars wears pampers because of what was done to him in prison, another has flies following him around after an unfortunate diarrhea incident. But, as the story grows, we find commentaries on racism, colonialism, marriage, class, and poverty.
The high-powered writing is often clumsy, an indication of the unreliable narration of the drunk narrator. Overall, the pivots of this quirky book makes it an absolute page-turner.
7. My Sister The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
If you have an appetite for the dark, this is the book for you. In this Lagos-set debut, we witness the lives of two sisters as the extent to which love and family loyalty can make us revolt against our fundamental morality is tested. Korede, an anti-social nurse, receives a now-familiar request from her gorgeous sister Ayoola. Can she help cover up the murder of Ayoola’s boyfriend, the third victim of her violent rage?
Although this isn’t a crime thriller, it occupies the same dark places that crime thrillers go: family, love, and an unrepentant psychotic killer.
6. A General Theory Of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa
While in Europe at the age of seven, Ludo carried an umbrella to school no matter the weather. She’s agoraphobic. But when she finds herself alone on a continent, thrown in the middle of the chaos around Angola’s independence, she bricks herself into her flat and lives alone, except for the company of her dog.
This book follows the life of Ludo, a Portuguese settler in Angola who finds herself stuck in a country as she embarks on her own introspective journey.
5. Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
In the opening pages, the book quickly establishes itself as a gripping piece of literature. In a few pages, a man is hunted down by a mob; his woman is left with grief and the hard task of paying his debt. Such is the burden of a family curse that is to haunt future generations.
The novel is divided into six parts, each following the lives of those who have been affected by the curse Kintu Kinda laid on his family in 1750. It’s a reckoning on how the struggle to break free from a curse can force a reconciliation between the old and the modern world. It’s a retelling of Uganda’s history as we watch the long shadows of colonialism, Idi Amin, and Milton Obote cast upon a country with so much potential.
4. Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
“Hajiya Binta Zubairu was finally born at fifty-five when a dark-lipped rogue with short, spiky hair, like a field of minuscule anthills, scaled her fence and landed, boots and all, in the puddle that was her heart.”
That’s how the story of Binta, a 55-year-old widow, and Reza, a 25-year-old gang leader and weed dealer, begins. The novel follows the lives of two contrasting characters in Northern Nigeria. They both fall into an illicit relationship that tests the extent to which faith, family, society, and class conflict.
A book of majestic prose, it doesn’t hold back whatsoever, as characters are freed from their stereotypes. The use of language is impressive. It won the Nigerian Prize for Literature, a $100,000 prize.
3. We Need New Names by Noviolet Bulawayo
The novel starts off following a group of children in Zimbabwe: Darling, Stina, Chipo, Bastard, and Godknows, seemingly innocent children living in a not-so-innocent environment. The children, who live in a soul-crushing ghetto called Paradise, are faced with palpable horrors from which they find humor.
Each page is laced with some sort of pain and sorrow. It touches on a lot of “African topics” including AIDs, the Chinese taking over Africa, street kids, a 12-year-old kid raped by her grandfather, and foreign aids. From all this, our narrator, Darling, escapes to America with the hope of a better life, but the illusoriness of the American dream soon unfolds as the narrator tries to grapple with the reality of an imperfect world.
2. Rosewater (The Wormwood Trilogy) by Tade Thompson
Set in 2066 Nigeria, we meet Karo, a banker by day and a government agent by night. When an alien biodome crashes into the earth, the people of Rosewater rush to the biodome to get the healing powers it has been rumoured to have.
But Kaaro is a Sensitive, a psychic with abilities to read people’s minds and replay past events. As time goes on, many of Kaaro’s colleagues — the Sensitives — fall ill or die, and Kaaro is forced to investigate his memories as he seeks answers.
Rosewater is a mix of cyberpunk, telepathy, biopunk, alien-headspaces, spy fiction, and Lagos, Nigeria in its true form. You are in for a real treat with Rosewater.
1. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie
From the writer named the “21st-century daughter of Chinua Achebe,” by The Washington Post Book World, this is a novel that is at once haunting and evocative. It follows the lives of five main characters: Ugwu, Olanna, Richard, Odenigbo, and Kainene during the Biafran War (the Nigerian Civil War). The tumultuous history of the latter part of the 1960’s in Nigeria is laid bare, with shrapnel flying around and bodies littering once-lively streets.
Adichie weaves a story backgrounded by ethnic violence, social class, and the struggle for the ownership and control of crude oil. Adichie unravels the realities of war gradually as they affect the lives of individuals, their relationships, ethnic groups, and a nation as a whole.
Half of a Yellow Sun was ranked by The Guardian as the 10th best book since 2000. On November 5, 2019, BBC News listed Half of a Yellow Sun on its list of the 100 most influential novels. In November 2020, the book was voted the best book to have won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in its 25-year history.