7 great novels by African women writers

“In the stories we tell ourselves, we tell ourselves,” said Michael Martone rightly. We also read ourselves in the books we read, or at least in those books that we cherish. For this reason, one of my 2014 resolutions was to return to a favourite pastime, namely reading fiction. For some years my reading life has been dominated by non-fiction, which I’ve enjoyed, but reading novels can be a spiritual or at least a therapeutic act, opening valves of memory – lived and yet to be lived.

Below are short reviews of seven novels that I’ve recently re/read and which have indeed been both spiritual and therapeutic reads. There are others that I could have included, the choice is entirely unsystematic.

Americanah1 7 great novels by African women writers1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Even before reading Americanah, there were two things prone to make me love it. Firstly, that it is written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and I am yet to read (or listen to or watch) anything of hers that I haven’t loved. Secondly, well, Americanah’s main protagonist, Ifemelu, is a Nigerian woman and blogger who writes about race, gender, “Nigerpolitanism” and stuff like that: you can bet your bottom dollar I was going to love this book. However, what bewitched me even more than meeting a fictional colleague, was the passionate, vivid and feminist (I’d say) love story between Ifemelu and her love, Obinzeh, transcending both time and geographical spaces. In fact, Ifemelu’s being such an opinionated blogger (wink) meant that I was unable to read the novel in the detached way I tend to read novels. Instead, I kept finding myself stopping to consider whether I related to her blogging experiences. Looking through my notes in the book I came across this highlight, “If they asked what she did, she would say vaguely, ‘I write a lifestyle blog,’ because saying ‘I write an anonymous blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black’ would make them uncomfortable.” I highlighted this sentence because it reminded me of how I used to say that I blog about women’s rights rather than feminism to not make people uncomfortable. Those were the kinds of “interruptions”, if welcome ones, that I experienced reading Americanah

 7 great novels by African women writers 2. Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta – I read Everything Good Will Come first in 2008 and didn’t love it. Obviously, something was incredibly wrong with me at the time (and by that I mean that the book must have introduced truths that I wasn’t yet willing to shake hands with) because having recently reread it for my book club, this is one of my favourite novels ever. Atta’s protagonist, Enitan, is an unapologetically feminist and proudly Nigerian character. However, she is not ideological, she does not intend to be any of these things, she simply loves herself and questions the ways her society denies women self fulfilment. In fact at one point, having been “accused” of being a feminist, Enitan wonders: “Was I? If a woman sneezed in my country, someone would call her a feminist. I’d never looked up the word before, but was there one word to describe how I felt from one day to the next? And should there be?” If Ifemelu in Americanah shares my passion for blogging the African zeitgeist, Enitan is my soul sister. Her coming of age story in Nigeria, Lagos to be precise, often felt like reading my own thoughts. I followed her fictional world often through an all too familiar lens, equally heartbreaking as funny.


sula one sheet 7 great novels by African women writers3. Sula by Toni Morrisson - Sticking to becoming a feminist, it was not until my early twenties that I started to think of myself as a feminist. To thank, or blame, depending on how you look at it, was a university professor (a white, male one, coincidentally) whose course, Gender Representations in Media, I was taking. His lectures on feminism left me eternally transformed. That sensation – a deep knowing that I was unlikely to ever settle agreeably into the gender roles that society encouraged – was one I’d felt years before when as a teenager I read Sula, only then I didn’t have the word ‘feminist’ readily available. Rereading it now has brought three insights: 1) That there is an essence at our core, our unique observation on humanity, that never changes. We simply (hopefully) become more aware of it with time. I say this because despite that it had been twenty years since I read Sula, much of it had stuck with me. Not just the story line and characters but their very memories, it felt almost like reading an old diary; 2) that to live life fully, especially as a woman, as I wrote in my last post, requires to not fear judgement. Sula’s fearlessness is coupled with her insight. But her life also serves as a warning, of what may happen when the heterosexual, patriarchal order is defied and a woman goes from sex object to sex subject, and; 3) that Toni Morrison is everything. E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G.

GMG 7 great novels by African women writers4. Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi – ahh, AHH, WOW. Here is a book with beautiful, jazzy sentences that jump at all your senses. Selasi is a wordsmith but don’t let her craftiness mask the other hat she wears, namely that of a teacher. The hidden, confused demands that people nevertheless reveal and rationalise in relationship are difficult to capture but Selasi’s lyrical sentences -however short, and they often are – manage to do just that. Through the lives of The Sai family (Kweku, Fola, Olu, Kehinde, Taiwo, and Sade) we explore relationships, even the ugliness, especially the ugliness actually, but yet their stories carefully reveal that love is efficacious at smoothing out even the most unforgivable memories. This is not an easy process for the Sais, and it isn’t for the reader either. I found myself needing to pause: to listen to the pauses. As one of the characters says, “Between the way things were and when everything changed, a moment within which one notices nothing, about which one remembers all. Which is the point.”


imana 7 great novels by African women writers

5. The Shadow of Imana by Veronique Tadjo – “Rwanda is inside me, in you, in all of us,” Tadjo writes in The Shadow of Imana, referring by “Rwanda” to the ghastly pogrom whose aftermath she writes about. This quote summarises aptly the delicate search for universal humanness that seems to anchor Tadjo’s story forward. Through recounting stories of people, “ordinary” human beings who are farmers, project managers, teachers and lawyers, but also simultaneously war victims or war criminals, her writing hatches onto something profoundly true, namely that we all are capable of more than we know, both good and bad. Nothing reveals this binding trait of humanness more than the way mundanity exists alongside the atrocity of war. To live, and be determined to live despite having the odds against you, is both a mark of struggle and of victory. The Shadow of Imana is not fiction – unfortunately I might add – but I’ve included it nevertheless as it’s a creative non-fiction or as Tadjo herself says (pdf) about her decision to go to Rwanda to write the book, “We felt it was important to reflect on what had really happened. So we accepted to go there, with the only condition being that we should respond as writers – not like the many journalists or historians who dealt with the genocide, but in our capacity as pure writers.”

 7 great novels by African women writers6. The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna – Let me start by confessing that I found The Memory of Love somewhat laborious to read. It was a slow, dream-like read, ushered not so much by the events and characters as by the language in it. However, the language is jerkingly lucid, and the novel is an odyssey of discovery of a country – Sierra Leone – in post-independence giddiness juxtaposed with post-war dystopia. The Memory of Love is, amongst other things, a story that arouses reflections on African independence, conflict and most of all the borders, both of nations as of love. I read it tempted to attempt to find similarities in all these terminologically diverse yet emotionally related spaces. What similarities exist between the fragmentation of our hearts as of our maps? However, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that trying to place love in any theoretical frame can only result in imperfect conclusions. The ‘memory of love’ and the ‘politics of love’ might both be terrains of unity but they are not, necessarily, places or reconciliation.


68.Noviolet Bulawayo We Need New Names 7 great novels by African women writers7. We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo – Admittedly, I’ve only just started reading We Need New Names. I am a promiscuous reader and We Need New Names is only one of the many books I’m now dating. I mean reading. So I have not got to the part of the book where the quote I want to end this blogpost with is located. However, it was posted on the pan-African Tumblr, Dynamic Africa, and coincidentally my mum who was reading the book said to me, “Mimmi!” (as she calls me) “you have to hear this,” and proceeded to read to me the following:

Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps. Leaving their mothers and fathers and children behind, leaving their umbilical cords underneath the soil, leaving the bones of their ancestors in the earth, leaving everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay. They will never be the same again because you cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are, you just cannot be the same.

This first novel of Bulawayo’s has been a recipient of Nyong’oesque early career awards and honours and I have a feeling that I will reach the end of ‘New Names’, understanding precisely why this is.


OK, your turn. Have you read any of these books?

African women writers and stories that raise awareness

 African women writers and stories that raise awarenessWriting down some of my new year’s resolutions earlier this year inspired me so much I’ve been maintaining the practice by making ‘new month’s resolutions’. In March my goal was to sleep more and as a result feel more energetic and reconnected with mother and father earth but I failed miserably. Instead March was a month of work and exams, being scolded by the librarian @SOAS  for repeatedly not allowing him to lock up on time, and unhealthy eating and sleeping patterns.
Not much time for peaceful reflection, in other words.

Over the years, my NYE resolutions have become increasingly abstract, with concrete ‘sub-goals’. So for example, this year my journal entry on January 1st started, “My goal is for 2011 to be yet another space in time where I continue a journey towards the spirit, bearing in mind that spirituality and awareness are synonymous. To not neglect awareness, is to become more spiritual. But awareness in itself is a journey, you grasp it one moment and it slips from you the next, however, the residue of understanding which it leaves is what matters.”

Anyway, despite the non-accomplishment for March, I’m entering April with equally ambitious hopes. Next month, my grand task is to catch up with reading novels; I’ve missed reading fiction. The writings of Chris Cleave, Pettina Gappah, Teju Cole, Sofi Oksanen and Nii Parkes await promisingly.

Last October I co-hosted the African Writer’s Evening, the only reading that regularly features African Writers outside Africa. In fact, AWE is usually hosted by author Nii Parkes whose book Tail of the Blue Bird is on my reading list for April. Here I am in what looks like an empty room, but it was quite busy.

AWE1 African women writers and stories that raise awareness

We discussed the novel Bitter Leaf by Chioma Okereke. I enjoyed the book a lot. The love story, which it unfolded around was romantic rather than realistic, the latter being favourable in my opinion, but throughout I found myself taking pauses to chew and regurgitate thoughts on Okereke’s poetic form of writing. The book is set in a fictitious village called Mannobe, a bit like the Africa I have saudade, kaiho and longing for. The main characters, Allegory and Jericho, and all the many others you get to know are all distinctly entertaining and the language they occasionally speak is a seeming mix of Yoruba, Spanish and Portuguese. There’s a great interview with Okereke on Belinda Otas’ blog.

Okereke was on the ‘commonwealth prize for literature’ long list,  and other African women authors receiving well deserved recognition are Aminatta Forna, Lola Shoneyin and Leila Aboulela on the Orange Prize for Fiction long list. I’m folowing the Orange Prize awards with excitement, and I also have made the long list my reading list for the year.

Probably yet another ambitious plan.

How are you doing with your 2011 resolutions?

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Dinner with 7 African feminists and why

31985 10150202323640099 602680098 12347120 5393955 n 300x200 Dinner with 7 African feminists and whyin·spi·ra·tion

Stimulation of the mind or emotions to a high level of feeling or activity.

Thursday 03/02/11: Experienced lack of stimulation of the mind resulting in a low level of feeling towards activity = leth·ar·gy

I’ve been feeling sluggish this week, and particularly yesterday. I tackled work assignments in the morning, went to an interesting seminar about the sexually laden rituals of iron smelters in precolonial Congo in the afternoon, and in the evening I attended a boring seminar about something I can’t remember now. I went out for a drink, but after one G&T I decided to go home and do what I’d been wanting to do all day – sleep.

Like Aretha said, what a difference a day makes. Today’s been quite the reverse. Last night I started reading (finally) Buchi Emecheta’s book ‘The Joys of Motherhood’ and her writing was just the inspiration I needed. It triggered a realisation that I’ve been feeling a bit restless, like I should be working on something that I’m not because I’ve not yet defined what that something is. Basically I was feeling sluggish because I needed inspiration.

This got me thinking that one way to prevent lethargy is to be reminded of people that inspire us, role models if you like, although I’m not entirely sure about that term. And so I wondered – how do we know whom we can use as resources of inspiration? I concluded that one good way is to think of people we would love to have dinner with, apart from friends and family.

My imaginary dinner, and I’m limiting myself to seven as is my habit, consists of seven African feminists. There are many men and non-feminist women and white feminists like Gloria Steinem and African-American feminists like bell hooks or Latin American feminists like Isabel Allende and so many more that I’d love to invite, but tonight I am having dinner with these women and here’s why.

 Dinner with 7 African feminists and why1. Nawal El-Saadawi – The Egyptian novelist, essayist and physician, whose works have have the central theme of women’s oppression and desire for self-expression has written books that have been banned in Egypt and some other Arab countries. It’s no surprise that she might rub people the wrong way: claims such as ‘all women are prostitutes in one way or another’ because patriarchy forces women to sell their bodies at a price, and that the lowest paid body is that of a wife, are not likely to be popular. El-Saadawi writes in her book ‘Woman at Point Zero’:

“They said, “You are a savage and dangerous woman.”
I am speaking the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous.”

Well, I’d love to hear more about what she sees as the truth.

 Dinner with 7 African feminists and why2. Waangari Maathai - The first African woman to win the Nobel peace prize would of course make an honourable guest at my dinner. A spokesperson for ecofeminism, she was also the first East African woman to hold a doctorate, but what she refers to as ‘the tragedy of her life’ was the sexism she encountered at university in Kenya which meant she was unable to continue her academic work.

Her ex-husband is to have said that he wanted a divorce because she was “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control”.

 Dinner with 7 African feminists and why3. Ama Ata Aidoo - The Ghanaian novelist was once asked in an interview how she deals with people saying that she learnt to be a feminist abroad-out of Africa and how she learnt to give voice to the silenced African woman. Aidoo replied, “…if the women in my stories are articulate, it is because that is the only type of women I grew up among. And I learnt those first feminist lessons in Africa from African women.”

Discussing the misconception that most female African writers that write about women’s issues are not feminist, Aidoo rejects those suggestions in her case, saying: “how much more loudly should I declare my feminism?”

 Dinner with 7 African feminists and why4. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Without this champion of primarily, the written word, but also of feminist and pan-African activism, my African feminist themed dinner party would be missing a key ingredient. In On being an African feminist I mentioned that the Nigerian writer has referred to herself as a feminist who likes to wear lipgloss. I kind of like that because even though it’s absolutely fine to not wear lipgloss, or make up, feminism is at a stage where we should accept that women can be simultaneously girly and feminist. I’m not saying that Adichie is girly, I can’t confirm that until after dinner…

 Dinner with 7 African feminists and why5. Bisi Adeleye – Fayemi - Nigerian/Ghanaian feminist activist Adeleye can claim the impressive titles of social entrepreneur, organisational development practitioner, fundraiser, trainer, writer and last and perhaps most significantly, the Executive Director and co-founder of the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), an Africa-wide grantmaking foundation for African women’s organisations. She has said:

I am a feminist because I am angry. I am angry because despite what most constitutions, laws, policies andscriptures say, women are still treated as second-class beings. The lives of women and girls do not seem to mean as much as the lives of men and boys.

And also:

I am a feminist because I have hope. I have hope in the love, brilliance and creativity of my sister feminists, who rise and rise again.

 Dinner with 7 African feminists and why6. Shailja Patel - On her blog, the Kenyan writer and poet quotes another huge inspiration of mine, Arundhati Roy, immediately making her my 6th dinner guest.

‘A feminist is a woman who negotiates herself into a position where she has choices,’ Arundhati Roy says and Patel embraces that as her favourite definition of feminism.

 Dinner with 7 African feminists and why7. Jessica Horn - A poet with ‘roots in Uganda’s Mountains of the Moon and the shadows of New York’s Yankee stadium’, Horn has commited her creative and professional life to exploring women’s experience and advocating for respect of women’s rights. As soon as I read the below quote, I knew that Jessica and I would have a lot to talk about during dinner.

I was raised by a woman that I have come to recognise as a revolutionary mother, who used the act of mothering as a process of education and affirmation for the minds and sensibilities of her children. From this upbringing I learned that the real catalyst for liberation is neither force nor discourse, but the revolutionary power of love.

Would you join our table and would you have anything in particular you would ask these women?

‘Children of War’ Inspired by ‘Beasts of no Nation’ by Uzodinma Iweala

iweala uzodinma beasts Children of War Inspired by Beasts of no Nation by Uzodinma Iweala

I am remembering the night when the war is starting. Even before they are arriving to killing us the air is feeling sticky like okra and people are not happying.
I am sensing that something is wrong but my mother and father is saying that everything will be fine. But if everything will be fine then I am wondering why they are naming baby before she is seven days old. They are saying that sometimes it is OK to be naming baby very soon. I am thinking that I will not be calling baby, Agnes, until in two days time.

That same night, I am knowing something is wrong when I am not able to be sleeping and I am hearing father’s footsteps walking back and forwards in their room. I am hearing mother whispering loud to father and trying to stopping baby crying at the same time.

Then I am hearing father is walking outside and mother is coming into my room to waking me up and saying that we are having to go. Father is angrying, and telling us to going back inside but we are not stopping. We are seeing others too walking and I am thinking that we are walking towards Babalawo. We are all resembling ghosts and no star is shining in the sky and nobody is talking. Nobody is really knowing what is to be saying, so only baby is crying.

But we are not reaching Babalawo before the soldiers are coming and everybody is running back to their houses. Father is pushing us inside and shouting us where to be hiding when they are coming but there is no time to be hiding because they are already here and they are asking father what he is doing standing outside like big man. They are slapping father, but he is staying quiet, and mother is telling me to hiding under blanket and to be not saying anything. She is wrapping baby inside yam cloth and putting her inside cupboard.

I am hearing when soldier is coming inside and they are saying they are killing father and will be killing mother too if she is saying anything. They are telling her to bringing them food and they are walking into my room and lifting blanket and pulling me into kitchen to be bringing food.

They are telling mother they are wanting yam and I can see that mother is touching her cross pendant and praying that baby will not be crying when she is opening cupboard and taking out one yam.

I am bringing them water to be drinking when one of the soldiers is telling me to remove my dress. I am shaking my head and he is slapping me, and I am crying only because I am realising that father is dying, not because he is beating me. The soldier is holding gun in one hand and using the other to unzip his trouser and saying I should touch his soldier. I am not understanding what he is meaning and mother is saying that how can one child be telling another child to be doing nonsense. She is saying that she will kill them all if they are not leaving me alone. The other four soldier are laughing at mother but she is not laughing and she is coming to pulling me away. Baby is still not crying and I am wondering if she is dying because there is no air in cupboard. The soldiers are removing my dress and they are also removing mother’s dress and then they are doing some things to me and mother. I am not knowing what they are doing and I am paining but I am only thinking about baby and whether she is dying. Then somehow I am seeing mother taking gun from one soldier’s pocket and shooting him. KPWAM. I am hearing baby crying and the soldiers are shooting and mother is dying. I am running to cupboard and then I am running out of the door and then I am running and running until my legs are stopping to running.

I am not dead, I am thinking.
I am not dead, I am thinking.

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