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In a continent as ethnically and culturally diverse as Africa, it comes as no surprise that the literature that has emerged from it be equally diverse and multifaceted. Dealing with a range of social and cultural issues, from women’s rights and feminism to post-war and post-colonial identity, here are some of Africa’s best contemporary writers.
One of the world’s most widely recognized and praised writers, Chinua Achebe wrote some of the most extraordinary works of the 20th century. His most famous novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), is a devastating depiction of the clash between traditional tribal values and the effects of colonial rule, as well as the tension between masculinity and femininity in highly patriarchal societies. Achebe is also a noted literary critic, particularly known for his passionate critique of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), in which he accuses the popular novel of rampant racism through its othering of the African continent and its people.
Born in Nigeria in 1977, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is part of a new generation of African writers taking the literary world by storm. Adichie’s works are primarily character-driven, interweaving the background of her native Nigeria and social and political events into the narrative. Her novel Purple Hibiscus (2003) is a bildungsroman, depicting the life experience of Kambili and her family during a military coup, while her latest work Americanah (2013) is an insightful portrayal of Nigerian immigrant life and race relations in America and the western world. Adichie’s works have been met with overwhelming praise and have been nominated for and won numerous awards, including the Orange Prize and Booker Prize.
Ayi Kwei Armah’s novels are known for their intense, powerful depictions of political devastation and social frustration in Armah’s native Ghana, told from the point of view of the individual. His works were greatly influenced by French existential philosophers, such as Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and as such hold themes of despair, disillusionment and irrationality. His most famous work, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) centers around an unnamed protagonist who attempts to understand his self and his country in the wake of post-independence.
One of Africa’s most influential women authors, Mariama Bâ is known for her powerful feminist texts, which address the issues of gender inequality in her native Senegal and wider Africa. Bâ herself experienced many of the prejudices facing women: she struggled for an education against her traditional grandparents, and was left to look after her nine children after divorcing a prominent politician. Her anger and frustration at the patriarchal structures which defined her life spill over into her literature: her novel So Long A Letter (1981) depicts, simultaneously, its protagonist’s strength and powerlessness within marriage and wider society.
Born in Somalia in 1945, Nuruddin Farah has written numerous plays, novels and short stories, all of which revolve around his experiences of his native country. The title of his first novel From a Crooked Rib (1970) stems from a Somalian proverb “God created woman from a crooked rib, and anyone who trieth to straighten it, breaketh it”, and is a commentary on the sufferings of women in Somalian society through the narrative of a young woman trapped in an unhappy marriage. His subsequent works feature similar social criticism, dealing with themes of war and post-colonial identity.
Born in Glasgow but raised in Sierra Leone, Aminatta Forna first drew attention for her memoir The Devil That Danced on Water (2003), an extraordinarily brave account of her family’s experiences living in war-torn Sierra Leone, and in particular her father’s tragic fate as a political dissident. Forna has gone on to write several novels, each of them critically acclaimed: her work The Memory of Love (2010) juxtaposes personal stories of love and loss within the wider context of the devastation of the Sierre Leone civil war, and was nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction.
One of the apartheid era’s most prolific writers, Nadine Gordimer’s works powerfully explore social, moral, and racial issues in a South Africa under apartheid rule. Despite winning a Nobel Prize in Literature for her prodigious skills in portraying a society interwoven with racial tensions, Gordimer’s most famous and controversial works were banned from South Africa for daring to speak out against the oppressive governmental structures of the time. Her novel Burger’s Daughter follows the struggles of a group of anti-apartheid activists, and was read in secret by Nelson Mandela during his time on Robben Island.
Originating from the Republic of Congo, Alain Mabanckou’s works are written primarily in French, and are well known for their biting wit, sharp satire and insightful social commentary into both Africa and African immigrants in France. His novels are strikingly character-focused, often featuring ensemble casts of figures, such as his book Broken Glass, which focuses on a former Congolese teacher and his interactions with the locals in the bar he frequents, or his novel Black Bazar, which details the experiences of various African immigrants in an Afro-Cuban bar in Paris.
Ben Okri’s childhood was divided between England and time in his native Nigeria. His young experience greatly informed his future writing: his first, highly acclaimed novels Flowers and Shadows (1980) and The Landscapes Within (1981) were reflections on the devastation of the Nigerian civil war which Okri himself observed firsthand. His later novels met with equal praise: The Famished Road (1991), which tells the story of Azaro, a spirit child, is a fascinating blend of realism and depictions of the spirit world, and won the Booker Prize.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o is one of Africa’s most important and influential postcolonial writers. He began his writing career with novels written in English, which nevertheless revolved around postcolonial themes of the individual and the community in Africa versus colonial powers and cultures. Wa Thiong’o was imprisoned without trial for over a year by the government for the staging of a politically controversial play; after his release, he committed to writing works only in his native Gikuyi and Swahili, citing language as a key tool for decolonizing the mindset and culture of African readers and writers.