Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Ultimate Africa Reading List

In what is probably a surprise to no one, I love stories about Africa--fiction, non-fiction, history, the immigrant and refugee experience, stories of war and stories of peace, graphic novels, written in French or English... you name it. With summer here, I wanted to share some of my favorites with you, and maybe receive some recommendations in return!

In college, I minored in African Studies and our capstone course focused on African film. It turned upside down my perspective on and understanding of the representation of Africa and Africans in the media and arts. (Wow, did I rewatch Out of Africa in a new light.) I write this as a sort of caveat, because now whenever I recommend something related to Africa I feel I need to think twice about how the continent and people are represented.... and some of these books I read long before I became more aware of the stereotypes so engrained in much of what the world has to say about Africa. (Wow, is it eye opening to be confronted with your own subconscious stereotypes.)

That being said, I remember relishing the pages of each of these books, and so perhaps I will introduce you to a new beloved read as well!

One more note: While some of these favorites are written by authors of African heritage, others are "as told" stories written by Western writers in collaboration with Africans. And some are simply written by Westerners regarding Africa.


Without further ado (and in no particular order)...

1. AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I read this book about a month ago and was completely floored. I bought it to read on vacation in South Africa but I was so hooked, I abandoned sleep and finished it on the flight over. Adichie explores so many facets of the immigrant experience, as well as the strife of repatriation. Her writing is modern and nuanced, riveting and accessible. Anyone would love this book, passionate about Africa or not. It is officially one of my top five favorite books ever. Please read it!

3. WHAT IS THE WHAT by Dave Eggers (based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng)
This is my favorite book, ever. I can honestly say it changed my life and solidified my passion for Africa and dream to work in humanitarian assistance, domestically or abroad {yes, I am officially a bleeding heart--no shame}. Not to mention Dave Eggers is... Dave Eggers. It is beautiful, harrowing, a page-turner, and a testament to the human experience... you must read What is the What. It stayed with me for months after I finished the last page.

3. THE THING AROUND YOUR NECK by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Another engrossing work by Adichie, this time a collection of short stories. Its been several years since I gobbled up these pages--the details are vague but I distinctly remember the satisfaction I found in these tales, and eventual sadness after finishing The Thing Around Your Neck. I never wanted it to end. Adichie can pretty much do no wrong, in my book ;)

4. THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver
I read this novel before diving into African Studies at university, so I wonder if I would react differently to this "risky" book a second time around (in fact, I think I'm going to reread it now). I remember The Poisonwood Bible as complex, gripping, layered, and in many ways atrocious. The perspective on missionary work during the colonial period is eye-opening, as are the different expatriate paths and hypocrisies explored in this novel. Kingsolver is a fantastically talented writer.

5. LITTLE BEE: A NOVEL by Chris Cleave
I'm don't have a very vivid memory of this book either, but I do remember being at once fascinated and horrified as I learned about the refugee/asylee system in the UK and followed the harrowing and captivating story of Little Bee. I also I remember being slightly put off by the British main character, though she does underscore a very real segment of modern society. I also think this book has quite the mass appeal, so definitely worth checking out!

6. AYA DE YOPOUGON (AYA: LIFE IN YOP CITY) by Marguerite Abouet
This series is amazing! I discovered the Aya books while traveling for business in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire - the graphic novels are set in a suburb of the city in the 1970s and written by an Ivoirian woman. It felt so special to read these stories with amazing illustrations as I discovered the city for myself, and I added to my collection with each visit (there are seven books total, I believe). The collection of graphic novels has since taken off and is now available in English. PLUS they were made into an animated movie which was quite popular in France (and I got to watch on the plane!). To read more about this series, check out this blog post on the books.

7. THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
This is a non-fiction story about an astoundingly inspiring Malawian boy who brings electricity to his village, despite dropping out of school before sixth grade. I am a sucker for inspiring tales, and this is told with honesty and poignance... extremely uplifting. Plus, I knew very little about Malawi, so it was historically educational as well!

A classic Senegalese novel, Une Si Longue Lettre served as my introduction to modern polygamy and Senegalese society. Ba's exploration of polygamy and divorce in Senegal was eye-opening and a good prep course for my semester in Dakar--not to mention eloquent, tragic, and spellbinding. This is a must-read for all Senegal expats (at least)!

If I had to choose three, you MUST read Americanah, What is the What, and The Poisonwood Bible. GO!

A few bonus links:
Two of my listed books feature a similar tree: The Poisonwood Bible (cover not pictured above) and
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Yikes.


  1. The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favourites! Another great 'African' novel is 'Skeletons on the Saharah' - gripping and surreal!

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