We often think of Africa as a single entity but it is of course a continent of widely varied countries with different histories and different present day realities. This month we have an opportunity to explore some of those differences. Here are just a few suggestions but there are dozens and dozens of books in this category to choose from.
Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart (#1) – Things Fall Apart tells two intertwining stories, both centering on Okonkwo, a “strong man” of an Ibo village in Nigeria. The first, a powerful fable of the immemorial conflict between the individual and society, traces Okonkwo’s fall from grace with the tribal world. The second, as modern as the first is ancient, concerns the clash of cultures and the destruction of Okonkwo’s world with the arrival of aggressive European missionaries. These perfectly harmonized twin dramas are informed by an awareness capable of encompassing at once the life of nature, human history, and the mysterious compulsions of the soul.; No Longer at Ease (The African Trilogy #2) -The story of a man whose foreign education has separated him from his African roots and made him parts of a ruling elite whose corruption he finds repugnant. More than thirty years after it was first written, this novel remains a brilliant statement on the challenges still facing African society.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah – Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.
Alan Paton – Cry, the Beloved Country – Cry, the Beloved Country, the most famous and important novel in South Africa’s history, was an immediate worldwide bestseller in 1948. Alan Paton’s impassioned novel about a black man’s country under white man’s law is a work of searing beauty.
Abraham Verghese – Cutting for Stone – Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born of a secret union between a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon. Orphaned by their mother’s death and their father’s disappearance, bound together by a preternatural connection and a shared fascination with medicine, the twins come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution.
Nelson Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom – The famously taciturn South African president reveals much of himself in Long Walk to Freedom. A good deal of this autobiography was written secretly while Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years on Robben Island by South Africa’s apartheid regime. Among the book’s interesting revelations is Mandela’s ambivalence toward his lifetime of devotion to public works. It cost him two marriages and kept him distant from a family life he might otherwise have cherished. Long Walk to Freedom also discloses a strong and generous spirit that refused to be broken under the most trying circumstances–a spirit in which just about everybody can find something to admire.
Sofi Atta – Everything Good Will Come – It is 1971, and Nigeria is under military rule – though the politics of the state matter less than those of her home to Enitan Taiwo, an eleven-year-old girl tired of waiting for school to start. Will her mother, who has become deeply religious since the death of Enitan’s brother, allow her friendship with the new girl next door Sheri Bakare? This novel charts the fate of these two Nigerian girls, one who is prepared to manipulate the traditional system and one who attempts to defy it.”
Mazza Mengiste – Beneath the Lion’s Gaze – This story opens in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1974, on the eve of a revolution, Yonas kneels in his mother’s prayer room, pleading to his god for an end to the violence that has wracked his family and country. His father, Hailu, a prominent doctor, has been ordered to report to jail after helping a victim of state-sanctioned torture die. And Dawit, Hailu’s youngest son, has joined an underground resistance movement – a choice that will lead to more upheaval and bloodshed across a ravaged Ethiopia.” Beneath the Lion’s Gaze tells a gripping story of family, of the bonds of love and friendship set in a time and place that has not been explored in fiction before. It is a story about the lengths human beings will go in pursuit of freedom and the human price of a national revolution.
Elnathan John – Born on a Tuesday – From two-time Caine Prize finalist Elnathan John, a dynamic young voice from Nigeria, Born on a Tuesday is a stirring, starkly rendered first novel about a young boy struggling to find his place in a society that is fracturing along religious and political lines.
Benjamin Ajak – They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan – A stunning literary survival story of three young Sudanese boys, two brothers and a cousin—hailed by the Los Angeles Times as a “moving, beautifully written account, by turns warm and tender.” Between 1987 and 1989, Alepho, Benjamin, and Benson, like tens of thousands of young boys, took flight from the massacres of Sudan’s civil war. They became known as the Lost Boys. With little more than the clothes on their backs, sometimes not even that, they streamed out over Sudan in search of refuge. Their journey led them first to Ethiopia and then, driven back into Sudan, toward Kenya. They walked nearly one thousand miles, sustained only by the sheer will to live.
Alexandra Fuller – Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight – In Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller remembers her African childhood with visceral authenticity. Though it is a diary of an unruly life in an often inhospitable place, it is suffused with Fuller’s endearing ability to find laughter, even when there is little to celebrate. Fuller’s debut is unsentimental and unflinching but always captivating. In wry and sometimes hilarious prose, she stares down disaster and looks back with rage and love at the life of an extraordinary family in an extraordinary time.
Doris Lessing – The Grass is Singing – Set in Southern Rhodesia under white rule, Doris Lessing’s first novel is at once a riveting chronicle of human disintegration, a beautifully understated social critique, and a brilliant depiction of the quiet horror of one woman’s struggle against a ruthless fate. Mary Turner is a self-confident, independent young woman who becomes the depressed, frustrated wife of an ineffectual, unsuccessful farmer. Little by little the ennui of years on the farm works its slow poison. Mary’s despair progresses until the fateful arrival of Moses, an enigmatic, virile black servant. Locked in anguish, Mary and Moses—master and slave—are trapped in a web of mounting attraction and repulsion, until their psychic tension explodes with devastating consequences.
Wilbur Smith – When the Lion Feeds – He began life at his twin brother’s side, soon running wild on his father’s ranch on the edge of Africa. But violence, desire, and fate sent Sean Courtney into exile–where he would fight and love his way to extraordinary success and heartbreaking failure…In a place called The Ridge of White Waters, Sean made a life-long friendship, mined a fortune of gold, and met his own demons. Then an act of cunning betrayal struck–and ignited a new adventure to a new frontier.From facing the murderous charge of a towering bull elephant to watching men die unspeakable deaths, Sean fought new enemies, forged new allies–and dreamed of establishing a family on a farm of his own. But in Wilbur Smith’s When the Lion Feeds, the young man who had lived by his courage, sweat, and blood was about to discover that the past still had its claws in him.
Tracy Kidder – Strength in What Remains – the story of one man’s inspiring American journey and of the ordinary people who helped him, providing brilliant testament to the power of second chances. Deo arrives in the United States from Burundi in search of a new life. Having survived a civil war and genocide, he lands at JFK airport with two hundred dollars, no English, and no contacts. He ekes out a precarious existence delivering groceries, living in Central Park, and learning English by reading dictionaries in bookstores. Then Deo begins to meet the strangers who will change his life, pointing him eventually in the direction of Columbia University, medical school, and a life devoted to healing. Kidder breaks new ground in telling this unforgettable story as he travels with Deo back over a turbulent life and shows us what it means to be fully human.