It has been a big year for novelists of colour, with both renowned names and up and coming writers releasing long awaited and highly anticipated books. 2014 was predicted to be a banner year for African literature and as expected books and writers coming out of the continent did not disappoint. Meanwhile the South-East Asian literary scene continues to flourish as writers from the region and in the diaspora release literary masterpieces which look at the intricacies of relationships and identity in the context of culture and religion. There are an increasing number of books by novelists from these countries that tackle the evils of terrorism, poverty, corruption, crime and war.
Though less familiar with Hispanic literature, I plan to rectify this in 2015 (of course Junot Diaz is a favourite). Meanwhile books set in the Asia- Pacific region by authors like Tash Aw, Amy Tan, and Yangsze Choo gained greater popularity towards the end of 2013 and though they are not on the list, do deserve a mention. 2014 was also the year where Arabic fiction fuelled by events in the region took centre stage. Notable books include No Knives in the Kitchens of This City by Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa and Ahmed Sadaawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad.
As an avid reader choosing my top ten 2014 releases by writers of colour has proven to be a monumental task due to the vast amount of literary talent out there, however, I have finally managed to narrow it down.
- Everything I never told you by Celeste Ng
The book’s description seems to suggest that it falls into the ‘crime/thriller’ genre. However, rave reviews and Amazon.com choosing it as the book of the year convinced me to give it a chance and I am so glad I did. The central characters are a Chinese American family coping with the mysterious death of their teenage daughter; what follows is an unravelling of the family, unearthing the tensions borne as a result of issues around race, culture, gender and age. How history, the migrant experience, family roles and cultural inheritance have a subtle yet profound experience on familial relations, and have the power to destroy. This debut novel has been heralded a masterpiece and rightly so, it is rare to find a book that can combine suspense, human emotion and the complexities of human relations; Everything I never told you does.
- The Scatter Here is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer
A bomb explodes in the Pakistani city of Karachi, a hustling, busy, cosmopolitan hub of activity brought to a chaotic standstill as a result. The book jumps, each chapter narrated by a different, often unnamed character; the grieving writer, the car-stealing bully, the teenager; and on it goes. Disjointed stories, yet bound together by the blast, reflecting upon their lives and realities. Yet neither the blast nor the city take centre stage, they are dominant backdrops against which betrayal, estrangement, fear, poverty, class, failure, success and the human experience are based. This is a spectacular debut by the latest literary talent to come out of Pakistan.
- Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole
Initially published in 2007 in Nigeria, prior to the release of Cole’s 2011 book ‘Open City’, Every Day is for the Thief has been repackaged and republished for a global audience. The unnamed America based protagonist prepares to travel to Nigeria after a lengthy absence. Upon his arrival in Lagos, we see him continuously connect and disconnect with the city he grew up in and one becomes immersed in his observations laced with disenchantment and heartache. There is the interaction with the corrupt police officer that has a ‘hungry look’ and the disappointing reminder that ‘Money, dished out in quantities fitting the context, is a social lubricant here.’ Though the book has no plot as such, there is a passionate undercurrent throughout it as the narrator describes his interactions with new faces and those from his past and revels in the glimpses of a Nigeria, which continues to shine from under the rubble of flaws. Much of the book is set in Lagos, it takes centre stage, however in a twist of irony it soon becomes evident that the city is a reflection of the protagonist. A simple yet thought provoking read, Teju Cole fans will not be disappointed.
- Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
A more dominant presence of Ugandan literature on the world stage is long long overdue and if the talent of Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is anything to go by, then its time has come. Set in the years between 1750 and 2004 in what was Pre-Colonial Buganda and what is now Uganda, Kintu narrates the story of the descendants of Kintu Kidda, upon whom a curse had been placed and how this affects his descendents through generations. Filled with wit, mystery and comedy the book unveils the various historical traditions, practices and culture of the people of Buganda while raising questions around the belief systems associated with curses, magic and madness. Remarkably Kintu barely focuses upon Colonialism and when asked by Aaron Bady if this was intentional Makumbi stated “Yes, the almost complete lack of colonization was deliberate… Europe remains at the centre of African creative production; there is something not right about that for me.” She has previously said agents have told her that the novel was too ‘African’ and this has seen it be almost dismissed by Western publishers. Despite this the book has taken East Africa by storm. We live in a time where history suggests that colonised lands and people only came into being when the white man discovered them. Kintu reminds us that this is not the case.
- The Thunder That Roars by Imran Garda
A sign of an excellent writer is one that crafts multi-dimensional characters with layered personalities and the complexities which feature in all human beings. Here is where International journalist Imran Garda excels. The protagonist, Yusuf is a South-African journalist of Asian descent living in America who returns to South Africa to investigate the disappearance of their missing Zimbabwean gardener Sam. The search takes Yusuf across the African continent and beyond and Garda strikes a superb balance between keeping the reader absorbed with this fast paced plotline while simultaneously articulating the complexities of human beings and the ugly realities created by inequality, race, nationality, displacement and class. An absolute must read.
- A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Since publishing his second book ‘The Book of Night Women’ Jamaican novelist Marlon James has been the recipient of much praise, meaning expectations of this, his third book were always going to be high. A Brief History of Seven Killings is brutal, it’s unsettling, it is in places a challenging read; but it is so worth it. There is an assassination attempt targeting ‘the singer’ (Bob Marley) and this event is at the centre of an Island in turmoil, a nation struggling with violence, drug wars, gang rivalries, poverty, and dirty politics. The narrative is taken up a notch by a mesmerising range of characters; CIA agents, the police, gangsters and so on. Thrilling till the very last page, it brings alive Jamaica, the terror and the beauty and is a stomach churning yet enthralling read. Like Marley, Marlon James once more puts Jamaica firmly on the map.
- All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu
Ever been sat on a train reading a book and felt a pang of disappointment when you reach your stop and have to stop? That is how I felt every time my reading of the third book by Dinaw Mengistu was interrupted. The first narrator is a young man that leaves Ethiopia for Uganda where he is drawn into friendship with a revolutionary of some sorts, a bond which forms the undercurrent of this book. Colonialism is over, but the shadow of dictatorship, internal tensions and war hover around them, one which they both decide to take on with brutal results. This leads the narrator to ultimately flee to America where he encounters social worker Helen, and between them stands his mysterious past and the horrors of racism and bigotry which surround them. All Our Names is not just a story of fleeing conflict and the immigrant experience, it is about the chaos which results as a consequence of a loss of identities, of places, of names. Its unique selling point lies in the story-telling, ambiguous throughout, leaving the reader hungry for more.
- A God in Every Stone, by Kamila Shamsie
The first book I read by Kamila Shamsie was ‘Kartography’ which I discovered in my local library almost ten years ago. Her latest offering ‘A God in Every Stone’ was described by The Independent as having ‘an epic quality’; certainly this is a most appropriate description. The book begins in 1914, where Englishwoman Vivian Spencer joins an archaeological dig in Turkey. Against the backdrop of the Ottoman Empire stories from the era of the Ancient Persians are unearthed while the love story of Vivian and archaeologist Tahsin Bey begins to unfold. A betrayal and the onset of war bring on the winds of change and Vivian soon finds herself in Peshawar where she meets brothers Qayyum and Najeeb, before returning to London. Years go by and in 1930 circumstances lead Vivian back to Peshawar where the movement against British Colonial rule is gaining much momentum. Suspense, love, historical accuracy, mystery and descriptions so vivid that one can almost taste and smell the surrounding being described are all captured in this novel. In an act of genius Shamsie gives great insight into the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised, between the East and the West, one which is encapsulated by Vivian’s opinion of women wearing the veil, an attitude which eerily continues to be the case today. Every time I read a book by Shamsie and think ‘she cannot top this’, she continues to prove me wrong.
- FOREIGN GODS, INC. by Okey Ndibe
From Achebe to Adichie, Nigeria continues to manufacture writers of exceptional talent and Okey Ndibe is one more name to add to this list. I am reluctant to give too much away because no description can do this book justice. The Protagonist Ike is an economics graduate who is working as a cab driver in New York and struggling with debt due to a myriad of addictions and flamboyant life choices. He discovers a gallery in Manhattan where statues of ‘deities’ are selling like hot cakes and decides he wants a piece of this lucrative market where wealthy western folk satisfy continue to be mesmerised by everything ‘tribal’. So is borne a plan to return to his village in Nigeria and steal the figurine of war God ‘Ngene’. What follows is a comical journey through his home country, filled with a myriad of hilarious escapades and well rounded characters. Of course beneath it all there is that one question; is anything really sacred when it comes to the want for wealth? Read the book and decide for yourself.
- Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
There are books which stay with you long after the last page has been turned, long after they have been shoved to the back of a cupboard or passed on to another owner. You will be walking down the street and a dialogue, a scene, an exchange of words which you had reads months ago will find itself in the forefront of your mind. ‘Dust’ is one of these books. It begins with the gruesome murder of Odidi, a young man in Nairobi and the arrival of his sister Ajany who is investigating the circumstances around his demise. Her questions and his death open up Pandora’s Box revealing dark family secrets, which have been buried in the silences of Kenya. There are two characters in this book which have a dominant presence throughout, the first being the Country itself and the second being its bloody history from colonialism to the 2007 Post- Election Violence, the era in which it is set.. Owour’s story-telling ability is unrivalled and the reader continuously falls into a chasm of memories both collective and individual. The ultimate triumph is the short, sharp statements which stay in the mind of the reader like a dull ache. The narrator notes “Kenya’s official languages are English, Kiswahili and Silence” and towards the end observes “They were not lovers who needed words to wound; absence sufficed.”
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Samira Sawlani is a writer and journalist specialising in politics, economy and development of East and Horn of Africa, in particular Kenya, Uganda and Somalia. She also writes fiction and human interest stories. A holder of an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London she has previously worked with the Commonwealth Secretariat and as an International Election Observer for the Kenyan elections in 2013. Aside from journalism she has also worked in the emergency humanitarian relief and refugee care sector. Twitter: @samirasawlani
- Black writers are not plagued by mental tyranny (a response to Ben Okri) (mediadiversified.org)
- Teaching English in China While Black (mediadiversified.org)