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Thursday, 26 July 2018

29+ Memoirs and Autobiographies from African Women



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"Autobiography is awfully seductive; it's wonderful." - Maya Angelou, Paris Review 1990

A lot of rich memoirs have been published over the decades, and from a variety of categories within the genre - autobiographies, travel memoirs, culinary memoirs - and by a range of African women writers including Buchi Emecheta and Nawal El Saadawi. Indeed, Folasade Hunsu writes that the:
‘Autobiography occupies a central space in African women’s writing as the primal genre through which African women have participated in the representation of African experience and the shaping of African literature.’
I am trying to do better with reading more memoirs, and because I am intentional in my reading of women writers, I have started to put together a reading list of some memoirs I know of - a few I've read, including Reflecting Rogue by Pumla Dineo Gqola and The Settler's Cookbook by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, and others I would like to read. Here, I am most interested in the nonfiction autobiographies written by African women, as there are also fictional stories, in which African women have drawn on elements of their life histories, such as Buchi Emecheta's Second-class Citizen. I’ve included a mix of older and newer titles - all in English - and I would love any other recommendations to add to this list.

*Since posting this list, I've received some recommendations via Twitter - thanks! So, the list has been updated to include them.**

Leila Abouzeid's, childhood memoir brings to life the interlocking dramas of family ties and political conflict. Against a background of Morocco's struggle for independence from French colonial rule, Leila Abouzeid charts the development of personal relationships, between generations as well as between husbands and wives. Abouzeid's father is a central figure; as a strong advocate of Moroccan nationalism, he was frequently imprisoned by the French and his family forced to flee the capital. Si Hmed was a public hero, but the young daughter's memories of her famous father and of the family's plight because of his political activities are not so idyllic.

Leila Ahmed movingly recounts her Egyptian childhood growing up in a rich tradition of Islamic women and describes how she eventually came to terms with her identity as a feminist living in America. As a young woman in Cairo in the forties and fifties, Ahmed witnessed some of the major transformations of this century—the end of British colonialism, the rise of Arab nationalism, and the breakdown of Egypt's once multireligious society. As today's Egypt continues to undergo revolutionary change, Ahmed's inspirational story remains as poignant and relevant as ever.


The Settler's Cookbook: Tales of Love, Migration and Food by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Through the personal story of Yasmin’s family, food, and recipes they’ve shared together, The Settler’s Cookbook tells the history of Indian migration to the UK via East Africa. Her family was part of the mass exodus from India to East Africa during the height of British imperial expansion, fleeing famine and lured by the prospect of prosperity under the empire. In 1972, expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin, they moved to the UK, where Yasmin has made her home with an Englishman. The food she cooks now combines the traditions and tastes of her family’s hybrid history. Here you’ll discover how shepherd’s pie is much enhanced by sprinkling in some chilli, Victoria sponge can be enlivened by saffron and lime, and the addition of ketchup to a curry can be life–changing.



First published in Arabic over thirty years agoa young Radwa Ashour charts her years as a student in the US of the 1970s, where she would become the first PhD student to graduate from the newly founded W.E.B Du Bois department of Afro-American Studies and the English Department of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1975. The Journey narrates the years which Ashour spent in the US and captures so vividly the spirit and ethos of the time it chronicles - the early 1970s. Anti-colonial movements, a commitment to popular struggles and peoples liberation, as well as linking scholarship and work on the ground, are all alive and real in her memoir. Just emerging from the devastation of the Six Day War in 1967, Ashour talks about the pain of what we call the sixties generation in the Arab world and intermeshes the pressing questions and issues of the time within a quotidian story, as well as the life of an Egyptian woman within a deeply divided US society at war both with itself and abroad. 


Abandoned by her mother and sent to live with relatives in Dakar, the author tells of being educated in the French colonial school system, where she comes gradually to feel alienated from her family and Muslim upbringing, growing enamoured with the West. Academic success gives her the opportunity to study in Belgium, which she looks upon as a "promised land." There she is objectified as an exotic creature, however, and she descends into promiscuity, alcohol and drug abuse, and, eventually, prostitution. (It was out of concern on her editor’s part about her candor that the author used the pseudonym Ken Bugul, the Wolof phrase for "the person no one wants.") Her return to Senegal, which concludes the book, presents her with a past she cannot reenter, a painful but necessary realisation as she begins to create a new life there.



Journalist Helene Cooper - a descendant of two Liberian dynasties - grew up at Sugar Beach, a twenty-two-room mansion by the sea. Her childhood was filled with servants, flashy cars, a villa in Spain, and a farmhouse up-country. It was also an African childhood, filled with knock foot games and hot pepper soup, heartmen and neegee. When Helene was eight, the Coopers took in a foster child—a common custom among the Liberian elite. Eunice, a Bassa girl, suddenly became known as “Mrs. Cooper’s daughter.” For years the Cooper daughters blissfully enjoyed the trappings of wealth and advantage. But Liberia was like an unwatched pot of water left boiling on the stove. And on April 12, 1980, a group of soldiers staged a coup d'état, assassinating President William Tolbert and executing his cabinet. The Coopers and the entire Congo class were now the hunted, being imprisoned, shot, tortured, and raped. After a brutal daylight attack by a ragtag crew of soldiers, Helene, Marlene, and their mother fled Sugar Beach, and then Liberia, for America. They left Eunice behind.


Michaela DePrince was known as girl Number 27 at the orphanage, where she was abandoned at a young age and tormented as a “devil child” for a skin condition that makes her skin appear spotted. But it was at the orphanage that Michaela would find a picture of a beautiful ballerina en pointe that would help change the course of her life. At the age of four, Michaela was adopted by an American family, who encouraged her love of dancing and enrolled her in classes. She went on to study at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at the American Ballet Theatre and became the youngest principal dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. 
 
A Daughter of Isis is the autobiography of Nawal El Saadawi . In it she paints a sensuously textured portrait of the childhood that produced the freedom fighter. We see how she moulded her own creative power into a weapon - how, from an early age, the use of words became an act of rebellion against injustice.


Head Above Water by Buchi Emecheta
"As for my survival for the past twenty years in England, from when I was a little over twenty, dragging four cold and dripping babies with me and pregnant with the fifth one - that is a miracle. And if for any reason you do not believe in miracles, please start believing, because keeping my head above water in this indifferent society...is a miracle." Buchi Emecheta's autobiography beginning with her childhood in Nigeria to her life in North London as an internationally acclaimed writer.


117 Days presents the harrowing chronicle of journalist Ruth First's isolation and abuse at the hands of South African interrogators after her arrest in 1963. Upon her arrest, she was detained in solitary confinement under South Africa's notorious ninety-day detention law. This is the story of the war of nerves that ensued between First and her Special Branch captors-a work that remains a classic portrait of oppression and the dignity of the human spirit.


 

Aminatta Forna’s intensely personal history is a passionate and vivid account of an idyllic childhood which became the stuff of nightmare. Mohamed Forna was a man of unimpeachable integrity and enchanting charisma. As Sierra Leone faced its future as a fledgling democracy, he was a new star in the political firmament, a man who had been one of the first black students to come to Britain after the war. He stole the heart of Aminatta’s mother to the dismay of her Presbyterian parents and returned with her to Sierra Leone. But as Aminatta Forna shows with compelling clarity, the old Africa was torn apart by new ways of western parliamentary democracy, which gave birth only to dictatorships and corruption of hitherto undreamed-of magnitude. It was not long before Mohamed Forna languished in jail as a prisoner of conscience, and worse to follow.



Aminatta’s search for the truth that shaped both her childhood and the nation’s destiny began among the country’s elite and took her into the heart of rebel territory. Determined to break the silence surrounding her father’s fate, she ultimately uncovered a conspiracy that penetrated the highest reaches of government and forced the nation’s politicians and judiciary to confront their guilt. 


Reflecting Rogue is the much anticipated and brilliant collection of experimental autobiographical essays on power, pleasure and South African culture by Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola. In her most personal book to date, written from classic Gqola anti-racist, feminist perspectives, Reflecting Rogue delivers 20 essays of deliciously incisive brain food, all extremely accessible to a general critical readership, without sacrificing intellectual rigor. These include essays on ‘Disappearing Women’, where Gqola spends time exploring what it means to live in a country where women can simply disappear – from a secure Centurion estate in one case, to being a cop in another, and being taken by men who know them. 


A Woman Alone is a collection of autobiographical writings, sketches, and essays that covers the entire span of Bessie Head's creative life, up to her death in 1986. It reveals a woman of great sensitivity and vitality, inspired through her knowledge of suffering with "a reverence for ordinary people'' and finding some healing for her own anguish in a quiet corner of Africa.



A shockingly naked chronicle of how her depression almost robbed her of her shine, this unflinchingly honest book recounts Bonnie's intricate journey living in constant fear of darkness. After she unsuccessfully tried to pursue her acting career in Hollywood, she was diagnosed with clinical depression. Thanks to this diagnosis, Bonnie began the painful climb back to a life of health and mental stability. This is the candid account of her new life trek.


Born Karoline King in 1980 in Johannesburg South Africa, Sara-Jayne (as she will later be called by her adoptive parents) is the result of an affair, illegal under apartheid’s Immorality Act, between a white British woman and her black South African employee. Her story reveals the shocking lie created to cover up the forbidden relationship, and the hurried overseas adoption of the illegitimate baby, born during one of history’s most inhumane and destructive regimes. Killing Karoline follows the journey of the baby girl (categorised as ‘white’ under South Africa’s race classification system) who is raised in a leafy, middle-class corner of the South of England by a white couple. It takes the reader through the formative years, a difficult adolescence and into adulthood, as Sara-Jayne (Karoline) seeks to discover who she is and where she came from. Plagued by questions surrounding her own identity and unable to ‘fit in’ Sara-Jayne (Karoline) begins to turn on herself, before eventually coming full circle and returning to South Africa after 26 years to face her demons.




When Sheila Kohler was thirty-seven, she received the heart-stopping news that her sister Maxine, only two years older, was killed when her husband drove them off a deserted road in Johannesburg.  Stunned by the news, she immediately flew back to the country where she was born, determined to find answers and forced to reckon with his history of violence and the lingering effects of their most unusual childhood—one marked by death and the misguided love of their mother. In her signature spare and incisive prose, Sheila Kohler recounts the lives she and her sister led. Flashing back to their storybook childhood at the family estate, Crossways, Kohler tells of the death of her father when she and Maxine were girls, which led to the family abandoning their house and the girls being raised by their mother, at turns distant and suffocating.  We follow them to the cloistered Anglican boarding school where they first learn of separation and later their studies in Rome and Paris where they plan grand lives for themselves—lives that are interrupted when both marry young and discover they have made poor choices.  Kohler  evokes the bond between sisters and shows how that bond changes but never breaks, even after death.


Since the he Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its work in 1995, it has been the central player in a drama that has riveted the country. In this book, Antjie Krog, a South African journalist and poet who has covered the work of the commission, recounts the drama, the horrors, the wrenching personal stories of the victims and their families. Through the testimonies of victims of abuse and violence, from the appearance of Winnie Mandela to former South African president P. W. Botha's extraordinary courthouse press conference, this award-winning poet leads us on an amazing journey. Country of My Skull captures the complexity of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's work. The narrative is often traumatic, vivid, and provocative. Krog's powerful prose lures the reader actively and inventively through a mosaic of insights, impressions, and secret themes. This compelling tale is Antjie Krog's profound literary account of the mending of a country that was in colossal need of change.


As the first complete autobiography of Miriam Makeba, this book celebrates the life of this remarkable talent and global icon of music, style, and history. It chronicles Makeba's entire life, from her early days growing up on the Rand and performing with the Manhattan Brothers, to her departure from South Africa. It also details Miriam's life in America and friendship with Harry Belafonte, her performance for President John F. Kennedy alongside Marilyn Monroe, her marriage to Stokely Carmichael, and her life in Conakry, Guinea.



In Unbowed, Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai recounts her extraordinary journey from her childhood in rural Kenya to the world stage. When Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, she began a vital poor people’s environmental movement, focused on the empowerment of women, that soon spread across Africa. Persevering through run-ins with the Kenyan government and personal losses, and jailed and beaten on numerous occasions, Maathai continued to fight tirelessly to save Kenya’s forests and to restore democracy to her beloved country. Infused with her unique luminosity of spirit, Wangari Maathai’s remarkable story of courage, faith, and the power of persistence is destined to inspire generations to come.



The Bite of Mango by Mariatu Kamaraand Susan McClelland
As a child in a small rural village in Sierra Leone, Mariatu Kamara lived peacefully surrounded by family and friends. Rumours of rebel attacks were no more than a distant worry. But when 12-year-old Mariatu set out for a neighbouring village, she never arrived. Heavily armed rebel soldiers, many no older than children themselves, attacked and tortured Mariatu. As told to her by Mariatu, journalist Susan McClelland has written the heartbreaking true story of the brutal attack, its aftermath and Mariatu’s eventual arrival in Toronto where she began to pull together the pieces of her broken life with courage, astonishing resilience and hope.


This diary written by an anti-apartheid activist during her incarceration in the Old Fort in Johannesburg in 1976 begins with her arrest and ends after her release and arrival back in Durban. Details about living conditions, treatment by female guards, and visits with her daughters are provided. Her 113 days in captivity are recounted, including how she the practiced her Muslim faith and read the Koran.


Malika Mokeddem’s memoir of the men in her life presents a mosaic of relationships defining what it is to be a woman, an immigrant, a doctor, and a citizen of an uncertain world. From her childhood days in French colonial Algeria to her later years as a doctor in Paris and a writer in Montpellier, Mokeddem traces the path of a brilliant girl in a world of men. Anorexia, insomnia, financial independence, escapism in books, atheism, self-imposed exile, painting, and the poetics of free love—such are the various ways in which she has responded to discrimination. Mokeddem hauntingly describes how her literary and medical careers blossomed along with her sexuality and her desire to escape the gender bias that shackled Algerian tradition. 


In Always Another Country, Sisonke Msimang writes about her exile childhood in Zambia, Kenya and Canada, her college years in the USA, and returning to South Africa in the 1990s. She reflects candidly on present-day South Africa, but this is a book about family, romance and motherhood; of childhood jealousies and adult passions, and what it means to be born into a life scored by history. Her memoir is a chronicle of a coming of age, for both a woman and a young democracy.


‘I hated being pregnant with you. I used to cry the whole day. I hated carrying you in my stomach.’ 

Thuli Nhlapo grew up constantly hearing these words from her mother. She was seven years old when she realised that no one called her by name. Known as "Yellow”, she was bullied at home and at school. Fearing that she had a terrible disease, she withdrew into herself. Years later, Thuli is still haunted by her childhood experiences. She confronts her mother about her real father and real surname. Getting no answers, Thuli embarks on years of searching for the truth. In the process, she uncovers unsettling family secrets that irrevocably change all their lives.



"I am telling my stories in English for many months now, and it is a time for me to see my whole life. I see that things are always changing. I was born in 1930, so I remember many things which were happening in the old days in Lesotho and which happen no more. I lived in Benoni Location for more than ten years, and I saw the Boer policemen taking black people and beating them like dogs. They even took me once, and kept me in one of their jails for a while." Described as a compelling and unique autobiography. 

This autobiography of an African princess royal (her father was the king of Toro) and its comments on modern Ugandan history is a revised edition of African Princess which was published in Nigeria and then in Great Britain in 1983. Additions include accounts of the filming of her book, her marriage and the death of her husband, and her service as Ugandan ambassador to the United States under President Museveni. This very personal view of historical events from a woman who was educated at elite schools and became a lawyer, a high-fashion model, the foreign minister of Uganda under Idi Amin, and, most recently, ambassador to the United States, gives a different perspective from the standard historical accounts of Ugandan history and politics. 


In 1974 Hannah Pool was adopted from an orphanage in Eritrea and brought to England by her white adoptive father. She grew up unable to imagine what it must be like to look into the eyes of a blood relative until one day a letter arrived from a brother she never knew she had. Not knowing what to do with the letter, Hannah hid it away. But she was unable to forget it, and ten years later she finally decided to track down her surviving Eritrean family and embarked upon a journey that would take her far from the comfort zone of her metropolitan lifestyle to confront the poverty and oppression of a life that could so easily have been her own.


Cancer: A love story by Lauren Segal
Cancer: A Love Story is the intimately searing memoir of a four-time cancer survivor. The book magnificently tracks Lauren’s journey to come to terms with the untold challenges of facing the dreaded disease. Forced to face her needle phobia, the author leads the reader into her crumbling world as she confronts the terrors of treatment – from debilitating chemo to nuking radiation. Death is her uninvited companion. But in the midst of her lonely horror, in a quest for deeper meaning, Lauren discovers the unexpected gift of awareness of unanticipated opportunities that cancer presents – to confront her unmasked humanity – her fears, strengths and weaknesses.


This book is the story of the life of Nisa, a member of the !Kung tribe of hunter-gatherers from southern Africa’s Kalahari desert told in her own words to Marjorie Shostak.


In January 2006, after the Republic of Liberia had been racked by fourteen years of brutal civil conflict, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was sworn in as president, an event that marked a tremendous turning point in the history of the West African nation. In this stirring memoir, Sirleaf shares the story of her rise to power, including her early childhood; her experiences with abuse, imprisonment, and exile; and her fight for democracy and social justice. She reveals her determination to succeed in multiple worlds, from her studies in the United States to her work as an international bank executive, to campaigning in some of Liberia's most desperate and war-torn villages and neighbourhoods. It is the tale of an outspoken political and social reformer who fought the oppression of dictators and championed change. By telling her story, Sirleaf encourages women everywhere to pursue leadership roles at the highest levels of power, and gives us all hope that we can change the world.

Memoirs of a Born Free is a journey back through the life of Malaika Wa Azania as she recounts the experience of growing up through the end of apartheid and South Africa’s transition into a democratic nation. She was not born during the times of constitutionalised apartheid but is still a product of an epoch of systematic individualised apartheid. Her story is not a reflection of freedom; it is an epitome of the on-going struggle for liberation and emancipation from mental slavery. 



Zukiswa Wanner sets off on an adventure-filled road trip with her partner and son. Travelling through six borders, on busses and on the backs of trucks, Wanner celebrates the 10 years since her debut novel, The Madams, was published by having a reading in as many countries as possible. Between protests against bond notes in Zimbabwe and celebrating her birthday, Wanner reconnects with good friends and gets the opportunity to give her son an African education that he’ll cherish for years to come.


Bonus: because, why not? These includes previously unpublished letters from three women who contributed to the southern African struggle, and two that draw on stories from women and men.


What Is Africa to Me? tells for the first time the story of Maryse Conde's early adult years in Africa - years formative not only for her, but also for African colonies appealing for their own independence. What Is Africa to Me? traces the late 1950s to 1968, chronicling Condé’s life in Sékou Touré’s Guinea to her time in Kwame N’Krumah’s Ghana, where she rubbed shoulders with Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Julius Nyerere, and Maya Angelou. Accusations of subversive activity resulted in Condé’s deportation from Ghana. Settling down in Sénégal, Condé ended her African years with close friends in Dakar, including filmmakers, activists, and Haitian exiles, before putting down more permanent roots in Paris. Condé’s story is more than one of political upheaval, however; it is also the story of a mother raising four children as she battles steep obstacles, of a Guadeloupean seeking her identity in Africa, and of a young woman searching for her freedom and vocation as a writer. 


Everyday Matters brings together the previously unpublished letters of three women, Lilian Ngoyi, Bessie Head and Dora Taylor - who each made vital and perhaps under-appreciated contributions to the southern African struggle. Each woman writes to one trusted friend or relative. These letters record their ordinary, domestic lives as well as touching on the socio-political struggles which they conducted from within their homes. These letters also record all three writers’ joys and sorrows as they struggled to live principled lives in adversity. As well as giving access to the thoughts of three remarkable women letter-writers, this timely book presents letters as literary artefacts, not just sources of information and opinion. It invites readers to taste the intriguing and sometimes disturbing pleasures of reading personal letters.




This unique anthology probes deeply into the diverse experiences of French and native Algerian, male and female, rich and poor, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian people who, through their writing, congregate here to recount personal tales of growing up in this region in North Africa, experiences that bind them as humans. Through literature, Sebbar deftly cultivates an imaginary landscape that does not yet exist within Algeria: a public ground based upon reconciliation and respect for differences. These sixteen stories, wrought with youthful exuberance and a passion for place, reflect how ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds greatly shape lifelong values and perceptions.


Walter & Albertina Sisulu by Elinor Sisulu

For more than five decades Walter and Albertina Sisulu were at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid. As secretary-general of the ANC, Walter was sentenced to life imprisonment with Nelson Mandela in 1964 and spent 26 years in prison until his release in 1989. While her husband and his colleagues were in jail, Albertina played a crucial role in keeping the ANC alive underground, and in the 1980s was co-President of the United Democratic Front. Their story has been one of persecution, bitter struggle and painful separation. But it is also one of patience, hope and enduring love. 



** Book recommendations via Twitter.

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