19 Works of Historical Fiction by African Writers

by - 21:36

So in the last few months, I've been noticing a lot of  lists on historical fiction (like this one BookRiot or this one on The Telegraph). And because I love my lists, I decided to put one together centred on African historical fiction. 

It's always tricky trying to figure out how far back to go - fifty years, a hundred years, two hundred years, more? To answer that, I consulted quite a few pieces, including this one defining the historical fiction genre to try and decide what my cut-off should be. In the end I settled for novels set sixty or more years in the past (so early to mid-1950s) - factoring to some extent (but not fully) the period prior to the first wave of Independence in African nations. So here are 19 works of historical fiction with settings that range from 5th century Egypt to 1940s Berlin. As always this isn't an exhaustive list, and only an indication of some of the works out there. 

Ama by Manu Herbstein
Winner of the 2002 Commonwealth Prize for Best Fist book, Ama personifies the experience of eighteenth century Africans during the slave trade. In it Nandzi - who was given the name Ama - is thrust into a foreign land, passed from owner to owner and stripped of her identity. Though forced into desperation, brutally seized, raped and enslaved Ama never lets her soul be consumed by fear. This is a story of defiance and spiritual fire. 

Azazeel by Youseef Ziedan
Set in the 5th century AD, Azazeel is the exquisitely crafted tale of a Coptic monk's journey from Upper Egypt to Alexandria and then Syria during a time of massive upheaval in the early Church. Winner of the Arab Booker Prize, Azazeel highlights how one man's beliefs are challenged by the malice of the devil, but by the corruption with the early Church.

Butterfly Fish by Irenosen Okojie
Set in multiple locations and eras - including modern day London, 1950s Lagos, 18th century Benin, it follows Joy who struggles to pull the threads of her life back together after the sudden death of her mother. She receives an unexpected inheritance from her mother - a large sum of money, her grandfather's diary and unique brass head, which takes us on a journey through from modern day London to 18th century Benin.

Burma Boy by Biyi Bandele
In a few months, fourteen-year-old Ali Banana goes from being a blacksmith's apprentice in his rural hometown. Now its winter 1944, the war is enterring its most crucial stage and Ali is a private in Thunder Brigade. His unit has been given orders to go behind enemy lines and wreak havoc. But the Burmese jungle is a mud-riven, treacherous place, riddled with Japanese snipers, insanity and disease. 

Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz
The Cairo Trilogy (Palace Walk, Palace Desire and Sugar Street) traces three generations of a Muslim family in Cairo during Britain's occupation of Egypt in the early decades of the twentieth century. At the centre is the patriarch - al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, who rules his household with a strict hand while living a secret life of self-indulgence.

Palace Walk introduces us to his wife, two daughter and three sons. Al-Sayyid Ahmad's rebellious children struggle to move beyond his domination in Palace of Desire, as the world around them opens to the currents of modernity and political and domestic turmoil brought by the 1920s. Sugar Street brings Mahfouz's vivid tapestry of an evolving Egypt to a dramatic climax as the ageing patriarch sees one grandson become a Communist, one a Muslim fundamentalist and one the lover of a powerful politician.  Throughout the trilogy, the family's trials mirror those of their turbulent country during the years spanning the two World Wars, as change comes to a society that has resisted it for centuries. 

Cloth Girl by Marilyn Heward Mill
Matilda Quartey is fourteen years old when sophisticated black Gold Coast lawyer, Robert Bannerman, sets eyes on her and resolves to take her as his second wife. For Julie, his first wife, this is a colossal slap in the face; for Matilda it is an abrupt - and cruel - end to childhood. Entwined with their story - by turns funny and heartbreaking - is that of Alan Turton, new ADC to the Governor and his dissatisfied wife, Audrey, a hard-drinking accident waiting to happen, who is appalled by her new life. Cloth Girl's Ghana is a cauldron of contradictions - outwardly Christian, yet profoundly superstitious and reliant on fetish priests; exhausting, but exhilarating. For Matilda, it is her passionately loved homeland, for Audrey it is a prison. For the men it is a land of opportunity, where careers can be made and broken, fortunes lost and won. And for all of them the events of these ten years will shape and define their lives forever.

Creole by Jose Eduardo Agualusa
As he travels across three continents, Fradique Mendes, Portuguese aristocrat and adventurer, will bear witness to the Portuguese slave trade and the empire's painful attempts to reinvent itself for the modern age. His journey will bring him into contact with slaves and aristocrats, slave-owners and abolitionists, capoeira fighters and witch-doctors. Most importantly, he will meet Ana Olimpia Vaz de Caminha, a former slave-girl, but now one of Angola's richest women and said to be the most beautiful woman in the world - and fall deeply in love with her. Creole is a tale of romance and redemption that examines the fortunes of the Creole bourgeoisie of Luanda.

The Fire of Origins by Emmanuel Dongala
First published in French in 1987, Makunku, a 'destroyer' - who is born in mysterious circumstances in a banana plantation and whose identity is as variable as that of his land. The novel traces his development along with that of his unnamed country, from the precolonial era, through the horrors of European subjugation, to independence and the complexities of the postcolonial nation. Along the way. charlatans and saints, workers and bureaucrats, warriors and peacemakers are introduced in a moving melange of laughter and terror. 

Kinda preferred this cover to the English version
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
Set in Baltimore, Berlin and Paris, Half Blood Blues spans from just after the Great War to the 1990s. The aftermath of the fall of Paris, 1940. Hieronymous Falk, a rising star on the cabaret scene, was arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. He was twenty years old. He was a German citizen. And he was black. Fifty years later, Sid Griffiths, Hero's bandmate and the only witness that day, is going back to Berlin. Persuaded by his old friend Chip Jones, Sid discovers there's more to the journey than he thought when Chip shares a mysterious letter, bringing to the surface secrets buried since Hiero's fate was settled. Half Blood Blues chronicles the black experience in Nazi Germany. 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasa
In Homegoing two half sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle's dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast's booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia's descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asant nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonisation. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth century Harlem, right up through the present day. 

The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif
In 1900 Lady Anna Winterbourne travels to Egypt where she falls in love with Sharif, an Egyptian Nationalist utterly committed to his country's cause. A hundred years later, Isabel Parkman, an American divorcee and a descendant of Anna and Sharif goes to Egypt, taking with her an old family trunk, inside which are found notebooks and journals which reveal Anna and Sharif's secret. The Map of Love weaves an account of the consequences of British imperialism and the fierce political battles of the Egyptian Nationalists through the love story of Anna and Sharif. 

The Moors Account by Laila Lalami
In 1527 the Spanish conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez arrived on the coast of modern-day Florida with hundreds of settlers, and claimed the region for Spain. Almost immediately, the expedition was decimated by a combination of navigational errors, disease, starvation and fierce resistance from indigenous tribes. Within a year, only four survivors remained: three noblemen and a Moroccan slave called Estebanico. The official record, set down after a reunion with Spanish forces in 1536, contains only the three freemen's account. The force, to which the title of Laila Lalami's novel alludes, is Estebanacio's own. Lalami gives us Estebanico as history never did: as Mustafa, the vibrant merchant from Azemmur forced into slavery and a new name, and reborn as the first black explorer of the Americas discovering and being discovered by various tribes both hostile and compassionate. 

Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah
Born in East Africa, Yusuf has few qualms about the journey he is to make. It never occurs to him to ask why he is accompanying Uncle Aziz or why the trip has been organised so suddenly, and he does not think to ask when he will be returning. But the truth is that his 'uncle' is a rich and powerful merchant and Yusuf has been pawned to him to pay his father's debts. Paradise is a rich tapestry of myth, dreams and Biblical and Koranic tradition, the story of a young boy's coming of age against the backdrop of a Tanzania that is increasingly corrupted by colonialism and violence. 

Philida by Andre Brink
The year is 1832 and the Cape is rife with rumours about the liberation of slaves. Philida is the mother of four children by Francois Brink, the son of her master. Francois has reneged on his promise to set her free and his father has ordered him to marry a white woman from a prominent family, selling Philida on to owners in the harsh country in the north. Unwilling to accept this fate, Philida tests the limits of her freedom by setting off on a journey. She travels across the great wilderness to the far north of Cape Town - determined to survive and be free.

Queen of Flower by Gabriella Ghermandi
Mahlet, a young Ethiopian girl with a gift for storytelling, has a special bond with Yacob, the oldest in her household. When Yacob tells her stories of how he and the other warriors fought in the resistance against the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, Mahlet vows to become the keeper and teller of her family’s stories. From the time of Menelik to the present, Mahlet's long voyage through time and space links thousands of stories between Africa and Europe. Intensely personal, this powerful and beautifully narrated novel tells the story of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia as well as of others around the globe who have suffered under colonialism or have been forcibly exiled from their homelands.

Thread of Gold Beads by Nike Campbell-Fatoki
Amelia, daughter of the last independent King of Danhomè, King Gbèhanzin, is the apple of her father’s eye, loved beyond measure by her mother, and overprotected by her siblings. She searches for her place within the palace amidst conspirators and traitors to the Kingdom. Just when Amelia begins to feel at home in her role as a Princess, a well-kept secret shatters the perfect life she knows. Someone else within the palace also knows and does everything to bring the secret to light. A struggle between good and evil ensues causing Amelia to leave all that she knows and loves. She must flee Danhomè with her brother, to south-western Nigeria. In a faraway land, she finds the love of a new family and God. The well-kept secret thought to have been dead and buried, resurrects with the flash of a thread of gold beads. Amelia must fight for her life and what is left of her soul. Set during the French-Danhomè war of the late 1890s in Benin Republic and early 1900s in Abeokuta and Lagos, South-Western Nigeria, Thread of Gold Beads is a delicate love story, and coming of age of a young girl. It clearly depicts the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversities.

What the Day Owes the Night by Yasmina Khadra
As a boy Younes' life is irrevocably changed when he leaves his broken home in the Algerian countryside for the colourful and affluent European district of Río Salado. Renamed Jonas, he begins a new life and forges a unique friendship with a group of boys, an enduring bond that nothing – not even the Algerian Revolt – will shake.Yet with the return to Río Salado of Emilie – a beautiful, beguiling girl who captures the hearts of all who see her – an epic love story is set in motion that will challenge the bond between the four friends and force Jonas to choose between two worlds: Algerian or European; past or present; and at last decide if he will surrender to fate or take control of his own destiny.

Which historical fiction by African writers is missing?

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