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Friday, 7 July 2017

10 (+) Books by Writers of African Origin Set in London


High Street by Matt Bannister

The beginning of this month marked exactly ten years since I officially moved to London (time really does fly). I still remember it like it was yesterday. I had officially graduated from my first degree (whoop! whoop!) and had been offered a 6-week internship at a publishing house (first, proper job!). And I was full of optimism, so much optimism, too much optimism. Well, a little bit of that optimism came back earlier this week when I realised I moved here a decade ago. So, in honour of my second home, I thought I would look at ten (plus) books written by writers of African origin set (mostly) in London. 

Update: two books - Becoming Abigail and Growing Yams - have been added to the list.

1. Becoming Abigail by Chris Abani
Tough, spirited and fiercely independent, Abigail is brought as a teenager to London from Nigeria by relatives who attempt to force her into prostitution. She flees, struggling to find herself in the shadow of a strong but dead mother. In spare yet haunting and lyrical prose reminiscent of Marguerite Duras, Abani brings to life a young woman who lives with a strength and inner light that are inspiring.

Tough, spirited, and fiercely independent Abigail is brought as a teenager to London from Nigeria by relatives who attempt to force her into prostitution. She flees, struggling to find herself in the shadow of a strong but dead mother. In spare yet haunting and lyrical prose reminiscent of Marguerite Duras, Abani brings to life a young woman who lives with a strength and inner light that will enlighten and uplift the reader.




'Makeeda?' I looked up from my phone. 'Hold this for me,' Aunt Grace said, shoving her bag into my lap as she disappeared into a cubicle. 'Great, no signal!' I mumbled, shoving my phone back into my bag. As I stared into the mirror, I began to wonder why I was dressed head to toe in a black and white ntoma, at a memorial service for someone I didn't even know? As usual, with family functions, 'no' wasn't in my parents' vocabulary. Makeeda is a fourteen-year-old Ghanian whose love of all things western causes her family to despair. She is always being compared to the dutiful and obedient Afua, her Aunt Grace's daughter. But it seems that whatever Makeeda does, it ends up in trouble. She just wants to hang out with the fit Nelson and her mates, and forget about the Ghanaian stuff. But when she has to do a school project, she begins to understand the depth of her cultural heritage and wonders if she can honour her culture and enjoy life as a London teenager.



3. Forest Gate by Peter Akinti
It's 2006 in Forest Gate, East London. Suicides are on the rise as defeated youths make irreversible decisions.
In a community where poverty is kept close and passed from one generation to the next, two teenage boys, best friends Ashvin and James, stand on top of twin tower blocks. Facing each other across the abyss of London's urban sprawl, they say final goodbyes in the final stages of a suicide pact. The boys jump together, each with a rope around his neck. Only Ashvin dies. James awakes in hospital, struggling with guilt and faced with his dysfunctional family, a well-meaning psychologist and, eventually, Ashvin's grieving sister Armeina.
Forest Gate is narrated by Armeina, a young refugee from Somalia who, with the death of her brother, suffers the loss of her entire family. As she tells the story of her brother's life and seeks to understand why he would kill himself, she finds herself drawn to James. Seeking comfort from each other, and desperate to rebuild their lives, James and Armeina form a special bond and together set out to find a place they can both call home.
Set in London, Somalia and Brazil, Peter Akinti's debut is a beautifully wrought, profoundly affecting and sometimes violent novel rich in the true history of our time. As he confronts the daily trauma that confronts teenagers brought together from all over the world to London, Akinti's writing radiates honesty, an uncompromising clarity, and a refreshingly original voice. Armeina and James's journey towards life through their past is, ultimately, a powerful story of redemptive love.



Set in BrixtonThe Street, is inhabited by eccentric, mesmerising characters, who, according to the unnamed narrator, are 'people reaching out to one another, searching for love'.This multiracial neighbourhood witnesses Mide the bookseller, moonlighting as a stand-up comedian; Haifa Kampana, infatuated with the cashier at the 7-eleven; and the Heckler, deriding the sandwich-board preachers outside Brixton tube station.
Through these characters, Biyi Bandele creates a surreal social milieu in which he positions the restored relationship between the painter, Nehushta, and her father, Ossie Jones, who has awakened from a fifteen-year coma. Bandele's blend of humour, sentimentality and the fantastic is an invigorating literary exploration of diasporic reality in contemporary Britain.



Jean starts at a new school and struggles to fit in. He develops an unlikely friendship with rowdy class mate James, who gets him into a string of sticky situations; fights, theft, and more. At home, his parents, Mami and Papa, who fled political violence in Congo under the dictatorial regime of Le Marechal, to seek asylum as refugees – which Jean and his star-student little sister, Marie, have no knowledge of – pressure him to focus on school and sort his act out. Jean is then suspended, and Marie, who usually gets on his nerves, helps him keep his secret, which draws them closer together.
As the family attempts to integrate and navigate modern British society, as well as hold on to their roots and culture, they meet Tonton, a sapeur, womaniser, alcohol-loving, party enthusiast, who, much to Papa’s dislike, after losing his job, moves in with them. Tonton introduces the family – via his church where colourful characters such as Pastor Kaddi, Patricia and Nadege congregate – to a familiar community of fellow country-people, making them feel slightly less alone. They begin to settle, but the reality of their situation unravels a threat to their future, whilst the fear of uncertainty remains.


When he lands in Harare North, our unnamed protagonist carries nothing but a cardboard suitcase full of memories and a longing to be reunited with his childhood friend, Shingi. He ends up in Shingi's Brixton squat where the inhabitants function at various levels of desperation. Shingi struggles to find meaningful work and to meet the demands of his family back home; Tsitsi makes a living renting her baby out to women defrauding the Social Services. As our narrator struggles to make his way in 'Harare North', negotiating life outside the legal economy and battling with the weight of what he has left behind in strife-torn Zimbabwe, every expectation and preconception is turned on its head. 

This is the story of a stranger in a strange land - one of the thousands of illegal immigrants seeking a better life in England  - with a past he is determined to hide.



Alice Walker called this 'one of the most informative books about contemporary African life that I gave read'. In the late 1960’s, Adah, a spirited and resourceful woman manages to move her family to London. However in London, Adah struggles on many levels. Adah struggles to cope with being a poor, migrant in a England (compared to being a woman in a higher position in Nigeria), but she also struggles with being a mother, a wife, supporting her entire family, while also trying to be a writer.  



Identical twins, Georgia and Bessi, live in the loft of 26 Waifer Avenue. It is a place of beanbags, nectarines and secrets, and visitors must always knock before entering. Down below there is not such harmony. Their Nigerian mother puts cayenne pepper on her Yorkshire pudding and has mysterious ways of dealing with homesickness; their father angrily roams the streets of Neasden, prey to the demons of his Derbyshire upbringing. Forced to create their own identities, the Hunter children build a separate universe. Older sister Bel discovers sex, high heels and organic hairdressing, the twins prepare for a flapjack empire, and baby sister Kemy learns to moonwalk for Michael Jackson. It is when the reality comes knocking that the fantasies of childhood start to give way. How will Georgia and Bessi cope in a world of separateness and solitude, and which of them will be stronger?



1970s London: Young Michael runs past the railway arches and terraces of Vauxhall. Reaching the street on which he lives, he witnesses a young girl fall from a window, her sari floating down behind her. Her lifeless body lies crumpled on the ground. This incident marks the beginning of a period in which Michael s life threatens to unravel. From his sister s taunts to a series of house fires, police harassment, his parents crumbling marriage and the realisation that the council intends to clear out the slum he calls home, he learns to navigate his way through an array of obstacles, big and small. An extraordinary debut novel, Vauxhall tells a warm and hopeful story of a young boy and the city that surrounds him.



After the sudden death of her mother, London photographer Joy struggles to pull the threads of her life back together with the support of her kind but mysterious neighbour Mrs Harris. Joy's fortunes begin to change when she receives an unexpected inheritance from her mother: a huge sum of money, her grandfather's diary and a unique brass artefact from the ancient kingdom of Benin. Joy's search for the origins of the artifact takes us on a journey through time, and as dark family secrets come to light, Joy unearths the ties between her mother, grandfather, the wife of a king, a fearsome warrior, and the brass head's pivotal connection to them all.




The stories in the short story collection are captivating, erotic, enigmatic and disturbing. In these stories Okojie creates worlds where lovelorn aliens abduct innocent coffee shop waitresses, where the London Underground is inhabited by the ghosts of errant Londoners caught between here and the hereafter, where insensitive men cheat on their mistresses and can only muster enough interest to fall for one-dimensional poster girls and where brave young women attempt to be erotically empowered at their own peril. Sexy, serious and at times downright disturbing, this brilliant collection sizzles with originality.



Maja was five years old when her black Cuban family emigrated from the Caribbean to London. Now, almost twenty years later, Maja is a singer, in love with Aaron, pregnant, and haunted by what she calls “her Cuba.” Growing up in London, she has struggled to negotiate her history and the sense that speaking Spanish or English made her less of a black girl. But she is unable to find herself in the Ewe, Igbo, or Akum of her roots. It seems all that’s left is silence. 

Meanwhile distance from Cuba has only deepened Maja’s mother faith in Santeria —the fusion of Catholicism and Western African Yoruba religion—but it also divides the family as her father rails against his wife’s superstitions and the lost dreams of the Castro revolution.

On the other side of the reality wall, Yemaya Saramagua, a Santeria emissary, lives in a somewherehouse with two doors: one opening to London, the other to Lagos. Yemaya is troubled by the ease with which her fellow emissaries have disguised themselves behind the personas of saints and by her inability to recognize them. 




Best mates Karl and Abu are both 17 and live near Kings Cross. Its 2011 and racial tensions are set to explode across London. Abu is infatuated with gorgeous classmate Nalini but dares not speak to her. Meanwhile, Karl is the target of the local "wannabe" thugs just for being different. 
When Karl finds out his father lives in Nigeria, he decides that Port Harcourt is the best place to escape the sound and fury of London, and connect with a Dad he's never known. 

Rejected on arrival, Karl befriends Nakale, an activist who wants to expose the ecocide in the Niger Delta to the world, and falls headlong for his feisty cousin Janoma. Meanwhile, the murder of Mark Duggan triggers a full-scale riot in London. Abu finds himself in its midst, leading to a near-tragedy that forces Karl to race back home.

When We Speak of Nothing launches a powerful new voice onto the literary stage.The fluid prose, peppered with contemporary slang, captures what it means to be young, black and queer in London. If grime music were a novel, it would be this.


PS. I had so much fun putting this post together, and found more than 10 books, so there'll be a part two soon. 


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