Five "New" Works of Historical Fiction from African Writers

by - 01:09

Route map of Ugandan railway - which went through Kenya. Source: Telegraph stamps of the World

Last night, I had the pleasure of listening to Peter Kimani, who was in conversation with Fiammetta Rocco – Culture Correspondent at Economist, about his novel Dance of the Jakaranda, which has been recently published in the UK by Saqi Books. The insightful conversation touched upon the novel's focus on an Indian character as one of the main protagonist, whether Peter Kimani – as a Black Kenyan could write about a Kenyan Asian, how the book has been received by Asians in Kenya, as well a Kenyans more broadly, about where the story came from, why it was set in a hotel, the significance of music and dance in the story and more.

One thing that came out from the conversation, and something that has been at the back of my mind for a while, was 1) that specifically this is a historical novel and 2) that more generally there is a rise in historical fiction in Africa. The last few years has seen quite a number of historical fiction from writers from Africa and the Diaspora, such as Homegoing from Yaa Gyasi ,The Moor’s Account from Laila Lalami, and Butterfly Fish from Irenosen Okojie. This is not to say that historical fiction from African writers is a new thing – as a post I did a couple years ago on African historical fiction included works such as Abdulrazak Gurna’s Paradise Lost and Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love. Still, it’s amazing to see more African historical fiction being published and the new and novel ways writers are re-imagining and re-writing African history. Indeed, this year alone sees some very exciting new historical fiction releases (in the UK), and there’s already a very exciting novel coming out in 2019.

The year is 1750. As he makes his way to the capital to pledge allegiance to the new leader of the Buganda Kingdom, Kintu Kidda unleashes a curse that will plague his family for generations. As the centuries pass, the tale moves down the bloodline, exploring the lives of four of Kintu Kidda’s descendants. Although the family members all have their own stories and live in very different circumstances, they are united by one thing – the struggle to break free from the curse and escape the burden of their family’s past.

Blending Ganda oral tradition, myth, folktale and history, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi has brought to life an extraordinarily colourful cast of characters to produce a powerful epic – a modern classic.

Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani (March 2018 | Saqi Books)

1963. Kenya is on the verge of independence from British colonial rule. In the Great Rift Valley, Kenyans of all backgrounds come together in the previously white-only establishment of the Jakaranda Hotel. The resident musician is Rajan Salim, who charms visitors with songs inspired by his grandfather's noble stories of the railway construction that spawned the Kenya they now know.

One evening, Rajan is kissed by a mysterious woman in a shadowy corridor. Unable to forget the taste of her lavender-flavoured lips, Rajan sets out to find her. On his journey he stumbles upon the murky, shared history of three men – his grandfather, the owner of the Jakaranda and a British preacher – who were implicated in the controversial birth of a child. What Rajan unearths will open his eyes about the birth not just of a child, but of an entire nation.

The first in a trilogy about the last emperor of southern Mozambique.
Southern Mozambique, 1894. Sergeant Germano de Melo is posted to the village of Nkokolani to oversee the Portuguese conquest of territory claimed by Ngungunyane, the last of the leaders of the state of Gaza, the second-largest empire led by an African. Ngungunyane has raised an army to resist colonial rule and with his warriors is slowly approaching the border village. Desperate for help, Germano enlists Imani, a fifteen-year-old girl, to act as his interpreter. She belongs to the VaChopi tribe, one of the few who dared side with the Portuguese. But while one of her brothers fights for the Crown of Portugal, the other has chosen the African emperor. Standing astride two kingdoms, Imani is drawn to Germano, just as he is drawn to her. But she knows that in a country haunted by violence, the only way out for a woman is to go unnoticed, as if made of shadows or ashes.
Alternating between the voices of Imani and Germano, Mia Couto’s Woman of the Ashes combines vivid folkloric prose with extensive historical research to give a spellbinding and unsettling account of war-torn Mozambique at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Haruna Attah (May 2018 | Cassava Republic Press)

Aminah lives an idyllic life until she is brutally separated from her home and forced on a journey that turns her from a daydreamer into a resilient woman. Wurche, the willful daughter of a chief, is desperate to play an important role in her father's court. These two women's lives converge as infighting among Wurche's people threatens to cleave the region, during the height of the slave trade at the end of the 19th century. Set in pre-colonial Ghana, The Hundred Wells of Salaga is a story of courage, forgiveness, love and freedom. Through the experiences of Aminah and Wurche, it offers a remarkable view of slavery and how the scramble for Africa affected the lives of everyday people.

In the Palace of Flowers by Victoria Princewill (2019 | Cassava Republic Press)
Set in Iran in the 19th century in the Persian royal court of the Qajars— In The Palace of Flowers is an atmospheric historical debut. Inspired by the only existing first-person account of an Abyssinian slave in Iran, Jamīla Habashī, In the Palace of Flowers vividly recreates the court of the Iranian Shah in the 1890s, a precarious time of growing public dissent, foreign interference from the Russians and British, and the problem of an ageing ruler with an unsuitable heir. It tells the story from the unique perspective of two Abyssinian slaves: Jamila, a concubine, and Abimelech, a eunuch.

Highly accomplished, In the Palace of Flowers is a magnificent novel about the fear of being forgotten. It has all the ingredients of the best historical fiction: power struggles, scandal, sex, ambition, secrets and betrayal, and it explores inequality and oppression with insight and subtlety. In this debut, Victoria Princewill shines a light on an area of history about which many readers will know little in a way that feels fresh and grand, yet contemporary.

The man at the centre of the photo is one of many Africans from Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and the Swahili coast sold to Persians to work as servants. Photo by Antoin Sevruguin who photographed in Iran and Armenia from 1870 to 1930 when the Qajar dynasty ruled Persia. Source: Sailors & Daughters Exhibition.

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