Five Books by African Women Writers I Absolutely Adore

by - 13:30

I didn't initially have any plans to do a post for International Women's Day, because as cheesy as it may sound - everyday is Women's Day for me, but as I was scrolling through twitter I read a tweet where someone mentioned what book would make it on their top 15 books of ALL time. This then got me thinking, which books by African women writers would make it on my top books of ALL time? 

Artwork by Nicholle Kobi
Definitely not as glamourous when I'm reading. 

Now, here's the catch - I am notoriously bad with deciding what my favourite books are. I struggle with choosing one favourite for many reasons - because different books have meant different things to me at different points in my life; because the ones that I love, I love them in different ways. At the same time, I also do know that there are some books that stay with me long after I have read them, that I would recommend if someone asks for a recommendation, and that I would shout (if I was the shouting type) at the top of my lungs about how absolutely awesome/amazing/epic/stunning/add other words to the list the book is. 

So, here I am about to share some of the contemporary books by African women writers that I absolutely adore, and would make my top books of ALL time. I'm starting with 5, mainly because when I asked myself, in the last 5 years which 5 books I've read would make it onto a list like this, they were the ones that instantly popped into my head. I'm also starting with 5 because I liked the sound of 5 books in 5 years :). Others came up afterwards, which makes me want to give myself more time to put together a longer list of my ALL time favourite books by African writers. That will soon come.

For now here are the first 5 - and in the order in which I first read them. I should add that four out of five of the books have one thing in common - they are either historical fiction, or have strong elements of historical fiction in them. While three of the five have strong elements of fantasy fiction and mythology. And, if there are two genres I stan hard for, it is fantasy and historical fiction. 

I first read Byrony Rheam's This September Sun in 2013 thanks to a copy sent by 'amaBooks (a Zimbabwean publisher). I instantly fell in love with the story and the characters. This September Sun is set mainly in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and tells the story of Ellie - trying to make sense of her life and her grandmother, Evelyn - whom she had a really close relationship with. There was something about Ellie's constant sense of longing that I was drawn to. She never could quite fill it- she didn't quite fit in in her hometown, longed to escape but when she finally moved to the UK (thinking that void would be filled), it didn't quite make a difference. I loved the historical elements of the story, Evelyn's diaries and letters that Ellie finds when she returns home and begins to piece her grandmother's life together. 

I first read Irenosen Okojie's Butterfly Fish in 2015. As I have admitted in a review I wrote on the book, I never would have read this novel if it wasn't for a book chat I had with Irenosen Okojie at Ake Festival in 2015. What a travesty that would have been, because this book is everything I love in one - it's intergenerational (following a family), it's historical fiction (starting in 19th century Benin and going all the way to modern-day London), it's set across multiple locations (Benin, Lagos, London), there's somewhat of a curse (oh I love a good curse), there's the fantasy and mythical element, but there are also layers. In Butterfly Fish, the main character Joy's mother unexpectedly passes away and we see how Joy copes with that loss, especially as it's been only her and her mother since day one. There's more than that, as while Joy in modern-day London is trying to cope, we also go way back to 19th century Benin to the Oba's palace, where we meet his new and eighth wife, Adesuwa. There's more, of course, an inheritance, a brass head, a diary, and tons of secrets (I also love a good secret). Okojie is a beautiful storyteller, she creates fascinating worlds and I absolutely love the way her mind works.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi's Kintu, I first read in 2016 immediately after the Writivism Festival in Kampala. I had been wanting to read Kintu since it was published by Kwani?, but unfortunately it was extremely hard to access it outside of Kenya and Uganda. So, obviously when I was in Kampala, I knew I had to get a copy of it, which thankfully I did. I didn't even wait to get home - I read the book on the flight back to London from Entebbe. I was sucked into the world Makumbi created from the prologue in Kampala in 2004. Again, here was a book including elements of all the things I love - multi/intergenerational (it follows a family), historical fiction (going as far back as the Buddu Province in 1750), there's also the fantasy and mythical elements, a family curse (I really do love a good curse), and layers upon layers. Told in six parts, I loved how each part was separate, but also interconnected (as the family curse wove through). And I was intrigued by how one man's terrible action and even more terrible decision to hide that action affected his entire generation, which made me think about the scars we are left with based on actions made and decisions taken by our ancestors.

I first read Ireonsen Okojie's Speak Gigantular late 2016, while in Jos for work. If Butterfly Fish didn't already make me a fan of Okojie, Speak Gigantular definitely cemented it. It felt like Speak Gigantular was written for women like me who love reading about weird and twisted things. Most (but not all of the stories) are set in London. There's one in a Danish town with a boy who is growing a tail (like I said wonderfully weird). There are tales of suicide and ghosts haunting the London underground; twin sisters, impersonation, and inner demons coming to life; deadly foot fetishes and more. After reading it I posted on instagram that it was 'without a doubt ... now one of my favourite short story collections. It's so so so good. It's also really disturbing, but I like my oh so very weird and wonderful reads'. I still feel that way 18 months later.

Laila Lalami's The Moor's Account is the most recent book I've read on this list - having read it in 2017. I will admit when I first picked it up to read I wasn't feeling it. So, I put it aside and read something else. A few weeks later, I decided to give it another try, and I.was.blown.away. The Moor's Account is epic - I can't think of any other word to describe it. In the acknowledgement of the book Laila Lalami writes '... my protagonist, about whose background nothing is known, except for one line in Cabeza de Vaca's "Relacion" ("The fourth survivor is Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor")'. From that one line, Lalami gifted us with 428 pages of Estevancio's life. From how he came into this world, to his life in Azamor, to wilfully selling himself as a slave, to his first 'owner', to how he happened to be on this voyage to the Americas, to their experiences in the Americas. I could not put the book down. It's rich, it's gripping, it's remarkable ... I could go on.

As I mentioned earlier these were the first five books that came to my mind when I asked myself the question, but since then I've thought of at least ten more books I would add to this list (by women writers alone). So I definitely am going to put together a list of my ALL time top books by African writers. Until then, what would be in your top 5?

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