It has been a joy to see the authors and books I mentioned in my Top 10 Books by Novelists of Colour published in 2014 list gain great successes and recognition in 2015. For example, Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, Imran Garda’s The Thunder That Roars is to be made into a film and Yvonne Adhiambo Owour’s Dust has taken the literary landscape by storm.
Compiling this year’s list was no easy feat; I was again spoilt for choice and it is my hope that this is a challenge I will continue to face, for it serves as a reminder of the abundance of talent within our communities.
Without further ado, here are my Top 12 Books by novelists of colour published in 2015, with a few honourable mentions at the end.
- The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma
I had heard very little about The Fishermen when I first obtained a copy and from the first chapter in I knew this book was going to make waves. A novel? A work of fiction? A mythical story passed down the ages as is the tradition in many parts of Nigeria? Or an Aristotelian tragedy? The Fishermen is a combination of all of these, and the result is thus pure literary magic. In the small town of Akure, four brothers, aged between nine and fifteen reside with their parents. Their father, an employee of the Central Bank of Nigeria is determined that his sons will grow up to ‘become successful doctors, pilots, professors, lawyers.’
Upon their father being transferred out of town the four young men begin to partake in forbidden activities, one of which is fishing in the Omi-Ala River. Told from the perspective of nine year old Benjamin, they encounter a local madman who delivers a terrifying prophecy and with every page the reader sees it materialize, the hanging question being whether it is supernatural forces at play or whether it is the belief in it that leads to its creation.
Yet the book goes beyond the mystic and mythical; familial relationships, sibling rivalry and the shadows of British colonialism, which in many ways the plot mirrors.
The style, linguistic sophistication and descriptive abundance found in The Fishermen explains why Man Booker Prize 2015 nominee Chigozie Obioma is being compared to another Nigerian great, Chinua Achebe. A dream debut, leaving readers hungry for more.
- In The Country, Mia Alvar
Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s most famous quote goes as follows: ‘The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’
Mia Alvar’s debut collection of nine stories told from the perspective of Filipinos both at home and in the Diaspora serve as a reminder that there is no single story through which an entire community’s experience can be summed up.
1971 in Manila: nurse Milagros organises a protest over low-paid wages and finds herself caught up in political turmoil which is ravaging the country. Fast forward to September 11th 2001: a Filipina nurse heads to the World Trade Centre in search of her businessman lover. Steve the pharmacist returns to the Philippines from America to visit his sick parents, suddenly seeing their marital roles in a different light, while other stories focus on Filipino expats in 1980s Bahrain and a network of young men working in Saudi Arabia.
In The Country is a dazzling debut and Alvar is a welcome and refreshing voice, exquisitely narrating the experiences of a community who have a thousand stories to tell.
- Born on a Tuesday, Elnathan John
Many of you may be familiar with Elnathan John, a force on social media entertaining us with his witty and satirical tweets while also providing moving insights into the more serious issues of our time. Articles on his blog are both hilarious and a joy to read; satirical excellence writ large.
With his debut novel Born on a Tuesday, Mr John (a two-time Caine Prize for African Literature finalist) deviates from satire, and the result is a fast paced, compelling, heart wrenching yet humorous read which has remained on my mind long after I have completed it.
In the media Northern Nigeria exists framed by a particular narrative: the rise of Boko Haram, terror attacks and underdevelopment, with an added dose of perpetual stereotyping. Born on a Tuesday serves as a reminder that while for many Northern Nigeria is just something they read about in the newspaper, it is actually home to people, many of whom are navigating day to day living within a fragile environment.
The book centres round Dantala, a young man growing up in an environment where politics and religion shape everyday realities and are quite literally a matter of life and death. We see this young man come of age as he leaves his hometown to study in a Quranic school, only to end up on the streets, part of a gang. Tragedy strikes as he gets involved in violence during the Country’s elections and his escape route leads him to a Mosque where he prospers. Yet the reader knows that this too is only temporary for Dantala’s story is tied up within a myriad of political rivalries, splits within the Muslim community, fundamentalism, corruption and a feeling of impending tragedy.
Where John triumphs is in the formation of his characters, as the protagonist Dantala’s quiet observations of everything from homosexuality to why ‘Allah’ does what he does are simply endearing, more so one can imagine many many like him across Northern Nigeria.
Born on a Tuesday brings together a great plot, descriptive prose and humour while also exposing the reader to a harrowing reality of people in a part of the world whose voices we barely hear.
Simply put, this book is pure brilliance.
- The Year of the Runaways, Sunjeev Sahota
‘Immigrants’, ‘off the boat’, ‘freshies’, ‘sponging off us’. ‘taking our jobs’, ‘traitors leaving behind their homeland’, ‘living the high life in the West.’ How often these labels are used to define people, to the extent that they are no longer seen as human, just a sum of the stereotypes and stories bestowed upon them by society.
Thus Sunjeev Sahota’s Year of the Runaways is a timely, poignant, entertaining and often funny read, centring around four main characters based in the city of Sheffield. Three of these are men who whilst living together in the UK are managing to remain in the Country through unconventional means. The fourth is a woman, Randeep, who having provided one of the men with a visa as a result of a ‘fake marriage’ has her own demons to face.
The book alternates between India and the UK, providing an insight into what each character has left behind, what it is that they are running away from, the solace they imagine awaits them and the bitter reality they find instead. This reality ranges from major events to minuscule occurrences; from acts of violence to those throwaway comments which turn home into what feels like a noose around the neck.
The greater narrative not only explores the reality of a particular ‘immigrant experience’ (that which involves living in a cramped house with ten other men, throwing up after eating a questionable version of curry, struggling to make ends meet and the exploitation faced by migrant workers) but also explores the challenge which is balancing family obligations, religion and identity in the Diaspora. Other themes include the continued existence of the Indian caste system, the concept of ‘belonging’ and the power of poverty and politics to dictate lives.
Sahota does not write from a place of morality, neither is his aim to create some form of sympathy within the reader, what is left is a compelling, harrowing read; one which is all too real.
- Beauty is a wound, Eka Kurniawan
‘One afternoon on a weekend in May, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for 21 years’; this sets the scene of Eka Kurniawan’s spectacular novel set in Indonesia, a country first colonised by the Dutch, then the Japanese, until later finding its feet to independence.
At the centre of the story is Dewi Ayu, a sex worker renowned for her beauty and her family, the lives of whom we see as reflecting that of the country in which they reside as it struggles under the weight of those that occupy it.
While Beauty is a Wound is an epic family saga filled with drama, romance and humour, it also captures the brutal history of Indonesia, something which many of us are likely to know nothing about. Kurniawan manages to succeed where so many have failed, creating a dramatic page turner enriched rather than overshadowed by the history which shapes it.
Get yourself a copy of this one, you won’t regret it.
- God Help The Child, Toni Morrison
Two words; Toni Morrison. Surely this is enough reason to justify this book making the list, but if you need more then so be it. I devoured this novel in all its pain and beauty.
Bride (formerly known as Lula-Anne) is a successful young woman, renowned for her beauty. This reality in contrast to the hatred and hostility she experienced as a child due to her dark skin. Her father, unable to love her leaves and her mother, horrified after giving birth, says, ‘She was so black she scared me. Midnight black. Sudanese black’.
Yearning for her mother’s love as a child Bride tells a terrible lie and years later seeks to make her amends. In among all this her lover leaves and Bride finds her body has begun to change, as if regressing to her pre-teen years, almost as if her body is mirroring her own redemption seeking journey into the past and the rejection from her lover, so similar to that from her parents.
Race, colour, abuse, childhood, society, trauma, damage and horror all form part of a truly haunting novel.
I fear that my description cannot do justice to Morrison’s latest offering and therefore I will stop here. Do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of the book.
- The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician, Tendai Huchu
Having read his debut novel The Hairdresser of Harare I had high expectations of Tendai Huchu’s latest offering and have not been left disappointed.
A witty and intelligent read, the book follows three Zimbabwean men adjusting to life in Scotland.
Our magistrate re-lives his glory days while coming to terms with the fact that the success, qualifications and titles lauded on him back in Zimbabwe mean nothing in the UK; from magistrate to menial worker, how location can change the worth of a man, providing insight into the middle-aged male migrant experience. The mathematician, a student living it up away from home, benefitting from the chaos which is taking place there, and the maestro, a white Zimbabwean seeking solace from his turmoil in drugs and books.
This was a joy to read from start to finish, stirring within me both laughter and tears.
- In Light of What We Know, Zia Haider Rahman
Another debut, another epic story. While the central plot is gripping enough, the power of the book lies in the elegantly careless manner in which statements and observations are made by both the narrator and his friend, leading me to stop and make note of these on random bits of paper.
Our narrator is an investment banker from a wealthy Pakistani family. He finds on the doorstep of his Kensington home his friend Zafar, a classmate from his time at Oxford University. British-Bangladeshi Zafar’s roots are in contrast to that of the narrator, and the book tells his story, focusing on the inter-twined existence of these two men, both of whom possess an abundance of knowledge, yet fail to open the door to what it is that they really seek.
Identity, colonialism, the diaspora experience, and race make this an at times uncomfortable read, largely due to the accuracy of Zafar’s musings on these. ‘If an immigration officer at Heathrow had ever said “Welcome home” to me, I would have given my life for England, for my country, there and then. I could kill for an England like that.’
This book sums up the longing to belong and how the pursuit of this seems to only end in self exile.
- The Dictator’s Last Night, Yasmina Khadra
Colonel Gaddafi: villain, hero, eccentric, ingenious. These are just some of the labels given to one of the world’s most talked about leaders.
It’s 2011 and death is coming for Gaddafi. As he hides out in a school while awaiting his fate he reflects upon his surroundings. Angry at the people that have abandoned him he curses those that used bombs and bullets to remove him from his throne.
Gaddafi takes us back to his childhood, his career in the military – the difficult days – and just as the reader begins to feel an unexpected level of sympathy, reflections and memories of another kind are unveiled. Sexual conquests, revenge plots, a self-inflated ego and a list of his every achievement and the greatness he bestowed upon his country.
Khadra (pseudonym of Algerian writer Mohammed Moulessehoul) provides a captivating, hilarious and bold insight into what the mind of the infamous Gaddafi may have looked like on that final day. Ultimately it still leaves us with the question Villain? Hero? Eccentric? Ingenious? Or is it as Gaddafi imagines in the book? ‘People say I am a megalomaniac. It is not true. I am an exceptional being, providence incarnate, envied by the gods, able to make a faith of his cause.’
- Butterfly Fish, Irenosen Okojie
One of those books which left me in awe of the writer’s literary imagination. In London, Joy drowns in grief as she struggles to come to terms with the death of her mother, Queenie. Joy inherits a bronze head, a relic gifted to Adeusa the eighth wife of the ruler of Benin (now Nigeria) in the 19th century.
Through memory, myth and magic Okojie weaves together the stories of Adeusa, Joy and Queenie.
Okojie’s triumph lies in her ability to capture and express the emotions of her characters (the way in which Joy’s grief was described left me in tears) while keeping alive the excitement in the reader which is associated with traditional storytelling.
A truly brilliant debut.
- Hotel Arcadia, Sunny Singh
The central setting of the novel is a hotel under attack by terrorists. While security forces act and the world looks on, we are drawn into the stories of two people over the space of 67 hours, both trapped inside the hotel; Sam, who is staying as a guest, and manager Abhi.
Sam, a war photographer, ventures out of her room, adamant in her mission to capture images of the terror attack so far. Abhi assists her via telephone, following her every move through the CCTV camera. The presence of death in the air leads both Sam and Abhi to reflect upon their lives as they await their fate. Memories of childhood, lost lovers, decisions made, battles won and lost are unearthed, providing insight into both protagonists. Simultaneously, an edge-of-your-seat narrative continues as danger envelops the hotel.
The hallmark of a good thriller is its ability to keep the reader continuously engaged and Hotel Arcadia certainly does that. Yet there is more to it and here is where Singh triumphs: though by all appearances Hotel Arcadia is a literary thriller, read it and you find a very human story. An insight into the lexicon of human emotions borne as a result of fear and tragedy, this is a story of how we humans seek some form of redemption in each other.
- The Architect’s Apprentice, Elif Shafak
All too often I have been left breathless by Elif Shafak’s books, and this time was no different.
Those that have read The Bastard of Istanbul and The Forty Rules of Love will be familiar with her ability to bring to life a different time and place with her vivid descriptions and atmospheric storytelling. The novel’s protagonist, 12 year old Jahan, arrives in Istanbul in 1574 and is taken on as an apprentice by the Chief Royal Architect. Survival in the palace is no easy feat, a place filled with betrayal, whispers, intrigue, love and war. While Jahan’s story forms the centre of the book, it is immersed in a wider narrative which encompasses the history, tradition, culture, art and politics of the time. Shafak’s ability to bring alive the city of Istanbul is enviable and the intricacy with which she weaves together the stories of her many characters is flawless.
With her ability to create a story through a mix of history and fantasy it is no surprise that Elif Shafak is one of Turkey’s best known writers, and nine novels later she is still going strong.
Other notable mentions include:
Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila
The Kindness of Enemies, Leila Aboulela
Under the Udala Trees, Chinelo Okparanta
What Will People Say, Rehana Roussouw
Frog, Mo Yan
The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro
The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, Ratika Kapur
Shadowshaper, Daniel Jose Older
Africa 39, various authors
The Moor’s Account, Laila Lalami
The Book of Memory, Pettina Gappah
John Crow’s Devil, Marlon James
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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
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