Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
This is deservedly one of the most widely-read books in African literature. Okonkwo’s suicide at the end is conventionally interpreted as the outcome of the unhappy encounter between colonialism and a viable African culture. Few note the fact that Okonkwo has a very bad stammer, and that in a culture that prizes language and its multiple usages, his stammer is a great disability. Thus, when he beheads the district commissioner’s messenger close to the end, he does so against the background of his clan’s meeting at the ilo (or marketplace) when various clan leaders make speeches weighing the pros and cons of taking the battle to the white man. But what happens when we re-read the entire novel through a perspective of disability?
Wole Soyinka, Death and the King’s Horseman
This play by the Nigerian Nobel Laureate is one that I think satisfies many of the terms on tragedy laid out in Aristotle’s The Poetics. But the play has one element that eluded Aristotle in his account of tragedy, and that is that it has a highly elaborate soundscape of different kinds of drumming from the beginning to the end of the play. (Aristotle discounts music entirely as a significant element and focuses his attention exclusively on plot, which he describes as “the soul of tragedy”). The drumming in Soyinka’s play not only acts as an intricate modulation of the action, but, for those who understand African drum talk, a potential character in itself since it “speaks” in various ways to both augment and perhaps thwart the meanings unfolding in the foreground of the play.
Fiston Mwanza Mujila, Tram83
Sticking with the theme of music, Mujila’s novel is best read with some jazz, rhumba, hiphop, or afrobeats music playing low in the background. Mujila has said that he wrote the novel to jazz music, and there is evidence of musicality everywhere to be found, from the central place of the Tram83 club to the highly rhythmic prose that combines lyrical interludes with repeated refrains of “Have you got the time?” I am going to leave you to find out what this apparently innocuous question refers to.
Alain Mabanckou, Broken Glass
Mabanckou’s novel is distinctive for not having a single full stop in the entire novel either in the original French or in the English translation. It is set in a drinking bar called Credit Gone West in the capital of modern-day Congo Brazzaville and focuses on the eponymous protagonist’s strenuous attempts to write down the biographies of the bar and of all its regular attendees while much of the time himself drunk. Like Mujila’s novel, Broken Glass is a trenchant critique of the postcolonial nation-state but without the sense of bitterness that marked an earlier generation of such critiques from the likes of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ayi Kwei Armah, Wolle Soyinka, and Yambo Ouologuem, among others. But what amounts to a splitting of the sense of post-Independence malaise away from the description of conditions of material disaster and decrepitude that marked the novels of the late-60s and early-70s also means that the form of the African novel has been freed to do other things with the idea of critique.
Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions
This classic of feminist African literature is a must-read for anyone interested in seeing the intersection between late colonialism, patriarchy, female rebellion, and the nervous conditions of its title. What reads on first encounter as a coming-to-age novel really defines two distinct developmental arcs: one is that of the narrator Tambu, who escapes from the homestead and is desperate to get an education and thus enjoy all the benefits of colonial modernity, and the other is that of Nyasha, her widely-read cousin who has gazed at the existential abyss that is her Western education and instead sets up a series of running p battles against her father, the redoubtable headteacher and patriarch Babamukuru. The cousins live together under the tutelage of this tyrant, but that they are moving in opposite directions in their understanding of colonial modernity is one of the superb gifts of this insightful novel.
Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North
Mirroring plays a very important function in Salih’s novel, which is set partly in London of the 1920s and in a village in the Sudan in the 1950s. The mirroring takes place along different axes, among them mediated through the history of Western and Arabic literature, (The Arabian Nights, Othello, and Heart of Darkness are only three of the most recognizable ones), between Mustafa Sa’eed, the returnee from London and his unnamed interlocutor and the narrator of the novel, and between the different archetypal female principles of madonna and whore that both organize and displace the representation of women in the novel.
Ivan Vladislavic, Propaganda by Monuments
Vladislavic is one of those regrettably unsung African writers who nevertheless has an incredibly dedicated fan base. There is no one I know who has read Vladislavic that does not feel immediately converted. The title story of this short story collection is set in the early 1990s and is about an entrepreneurial denizen of Johannesburg who reads in the local newspapers that the Russians have decided to tear down all public monuments of Vladimir Illyich Lenin and so writes to their Ministry of External Relations asking them to send him one of the giant busts. His purpose is to place the huge cement bust they promise him in front of his new tavern, suitably named, V.I. Lenin Bar & Grill. The end of apartheid is made to speak to the end of communism in ways that are both thought-provoking and utterly hilarious.
J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians
This Coetzee novel is much-loved, and for good reason. But one of the things that I find really fascinating about Coetzee is how his characters (typically male), are almost always afflicted by second thoughts. That is to say that they are essentially self-revisionary men. They are obsessed with revising anything that enters their mind and are given to self-doubt at all times. Whether with the Magistrate (Waiting for the Barbarians), David Lurie (Disgrace), Paul Rayment (Slow Man), or any other of his characters, they always pause so they can think a second, or third, or fourth time before they act. That is if they act at all. Unlike Okonkwo, for example.
Toni Morrison, Beloved
This lyrical fictionalization of a most traumatic episode in the life of a slave woman who kills her daughter to rescue her from certain re-enslavement is one of the most thought-provoking novels of American and world literature. And it has a cast of highly memorable characters, including Sethe, the slave woman in question, and Baby Suggs, her mother-in-law, who preaches and asks out of the fullness of her big heart that the members of her ex-slave community learn to love each aspect of their bodies piecemeal and with great attention. But then she bears witness to Sethe cutting the throat of her “crawling-already?” two-year-old with a handsaw and unsuccessfully attempting to swing the heads of her three other children against the wall of the barn. Unable either to condemn or endorse her daughter-in-law’s terrible choice, Baby Suggs takes to her bed to contemplate colors. “Blue. That don’t hurt nobody. Yellow neither,” she says. Hauntingly beautiful.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
This rambling family saga is one of the most hilarious to have come from the pen of the Colombian Nobel Laureate. In its mixture of mythology (Greek, Biblical, other), fictionalized segments of real Colombian history (the 1000-day war; the Banana Plantation Massacre) and a generous dollop of purely fantastical elements (flying carpets, virgin sirens, a blind matriarch who “sees” everything by listening to the different tempos and rhythms of people in her household, a resurrecting and invisible gipsy), it is an extraordinarily good yarn, and a prime example of the genre of magical realism.
-Ato Quayson, African Studies Association President