Samira Sawlani shares ten must-read books from the year so far

Every so often I do a piece like this one where I list some of my favourite recently published books by authors of colour/ authors from or in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In many ways it is the easiest and most challenging task for me, easy because of the abundance of literary talent on offer and challenging for exactly the same reason.

At the beginning of this year I wondered if the array of literary fiction released in 2017 would match up to that which made my 2016 list.

The magnificence of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, the euphoric page turner that was Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 and the powerful Born on a Tuesday, By Elnathan John certainly set the bar high, and what a joy it has been to find that the offerings of 2017 have not disappointed.

Heart-wrenching plotlines, melodious prose, witty dialogue and complex characters are just some of the features of the brilliant selection of books I have read this year.

There were many a ‘just one more chapter’ moments, heavy eye lids no match for the need to find out what next and on occasion so engrossed was I that I missed my tube stop.

So if you’re contemplating your next read, you can’t go wrong with any of these (listed in no particular order!)


1/ Stay With Me
Ayobami Adebayo 

Rare is it to come across a writer who captures and articulates the human experience as flawlessly as Ayobami Adebayo does.

In this, her debut novel, Adebayo tells the story of Yejide and Akin, and their journey from love to marriage and then to the tragedy of a childless marriage.

Healers, and men of God are sought, rituals are carried out and pilgrimages are undertaken to ‘fix’ the problem.

Infertility, infidelity, birth, death and the shaky foundations of a marriage collapsing under these burdens, while in the background the political landscape of Nigeria continues to change.

Stigma, gender roles, identity, womanhood and mental health are just some of the themes tackled in the book, just how far are we humans willing to go to meet those standards which we believe define us?

More notable still is the subtle realisation that while outside the walls of their home the Country undergoes its own turmoil, Akin and Yejide’s lives and domestic dramas do not stop.

At its core Stay With Me is about love, exposing in one both its force and its fragility, as said by Akin ‘If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks and comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.’

This is the kind of book one drowns in, impossible to not be drawn into the lives and feelings of every character.

Ayobami Adebayo has managed to spin together a multi-layered tale, in which we see the struggle common in many a society between the traditional and the modern.


2/ No Place To Call Home
JJ Bola

Once in a while you come across a book which remains on your psyche long after you have turned that final page, long after you put it back on the bookshelf, long after you have discussed it with everyone you know.

This is that book.

It is the story of anyone who has known displacement and exile, it is the story of those have lost homes, crossed borders in search of safety and found themselves in new lands desperately holding on to the culture which links them to all they have left behind.

At the centre of the plot is a Congolese family who have fled political violence in the DRC and are seeking asylum in the UK.

Told from the perspective of the two children Jean and Marie and how they navigate this new world they find themselves in while also telling the stories of all that their parents have left behind.

Bola has achieved many a feat in the telling of this story, firstly in a time where refugees and asylum seekers are constantly demonised and looked down upon it is a stark reminder that everyone has a story, a history, a journey, something largely overlooked due to the continuous dehumanization of those that find themselves in that position.

Secondly, his ability to tell this story from the perspective of two children while appealing to adult audiences is an art in itself, one which many a writer have tried and failed at.

Perhaps best of all is the focus on the Congolese community and Diaspora which we see throughout the book, an array of colourful characters that give it a real edge.

For example, there is Mama Nana who ‘did not speak French. Neither did she speak English. It was not because of a lack of education. It was an act of resistance. She would say in her strongest Lingala ‘Look at my back, if it this bent from all the things imposed on me, how bent do you think my tongue is? I am simply trying to straighten it out.’ 

Another character featured heavily in the book is eternal bachelor Tonton, ‘To say he treated women as objects would be to raise their status in his eyes. Objects have a purpose, a tangible use. What use do women have? They take your money, your car, your house and leave you with nothing’ Tonton would say.

This truly is one of those books that once read, will never be forgotten.


3/ Kintu
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

A disclaimer; Kintu was originally published in 2014, however it has this year beenreleased in the USA, and is now available on Amazon UK etc, hence its inclusion in this list.

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 descendants 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, finally though, it has found its way to the world stage.

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.


4/ What we Lose
Zinzi Clemmons

Stunned was I to discover that this was Zinzi Clemmons’ debut novel. This Goosebumps inducing read can be likened to an autobiography of grief, not just that which one experiences upon death, but that which becomes an innate part of so many of us who have lost homes, cultures, identities and a sense of self.

Like Clemmons, the protagonist Thandi is half South African, half African-American, never quite fitting in anywhere, ‘But when I call myself black, my cousins look at me askance. They are what is called coloured in South Africa—mixed race.’

As she grapples with the feeling of being a ‘strange in-betweener’, one is exposed to the challenges of straddling two cultures, her reflections on race, class and the Diaspora experience seen throughout the book, against the backdrop of life simply happening.

Threaded into the story flawlessly is the journey of South Africa, the continuous reminder of the myth that is ‘the Rainbow nation’, the Country in many ways a reflection of the protagonist, in seeking a sense of identity and belonging while divided in so many ways.

The real magic of this book lies in its humanness, few writers are able to express what it is to experience loss and death as effortlessly as Zinzi Clemmons’ has in this book, achieving that rare feat of leaving the reader simultaneously destroyed and awe struck.


5/ Ultimate Tragedy
Abdulai Sila

This is a rare find, considered to be one of the first works of fiction from Guinea Bissau to be translated into English.

Set during the time of Portuguese rule, this is the story of Ndani a young woman rumoured to be cursed who leaves her village and takes up a job as a maid at the home of a wealthy white family in Bissau. Her experience within the household mirroring the brutality faced by the rest of the Country at the hands of the colonialists. As the story goes on we note that at every step of the way Ndani’s life is in some way shaped by the actions of the white men, eventually bringing heartbreak and tragedy.

Sila is both captivating and unapologetic in his storytelling, I devoured this book in one go.


6/ Black Moses
Alain Mabanckou

Every time I read a book by Alain Mabanckou I think, surely the next one will not be better than this, yet every time he proves me wrong.

A master of satire, Mabanckou’s books are mainly set in The People’s Republic of Congo (where he hails from) and are a combination of wit, comedy and tragedy.

At the centre of the novel is 13-year-old Moses who resides at an orphanage where cruelty, chaos and neglect become the norm as the Director enforces a Marxist ideology which reflects the state of affairs in the rest of the country.

Terrorised by 17-year-old twins, Moses decides to take revenge on them and so impressed are they by his prank that a friendship of sorts is formed.

Soon after, three of them leave the orphanage and find themselves on the streets of Pointe- Noire, they form gangs, live on cat meat and act as petty thieves struggling to survive in a Country undergoing its Marxist-Leninist revolution.

For a while stability is found under the wing of brothel madam Maman Fiat 500, however the authorities ‘Zero Zairian Whores in Pointe-Noire’ policy comes into place, the brothel is shutdown, and the sex workers along with Moses (who harbours dreams of being a Robin Hood of sorts) and his ‘Merry Men’ are targeted.

Here our hero begins to unravel as alcoholism, violence and mental illness hit, yet despite it all, he continues to display a kind of resilience.

In many ways, Moses’ journey is symbolic of that of Post-Colonial Republic of Congo, characters in his life representing the many powers that played their part in shaping a Country weighed down by chaos and kleptocracy.

Razor sharp humour peppered with subtle social commentary makes this book a must-read.

welcome to lagos

7/ Welcome to Lagos
Chibundu Onuzo

Like Shanghai in Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire and Mumbai in Raavan and Eddy by Kiran Nagarkar, the energy of Lagos is palpable in the pages of this latest offering by Chibundu Onuzo, the city coming alive.

In a city of millionaires and misfits, five different characters arrive in Lagos, all seeking escape from the lives they have left behind.

From the army lieutenant on the run for refusing to partake in the killing of innocent villagers in the Niger-Delta region to a traumatised 16 year old girl, the five form a bond as they attempt a fresh start in Lagos, a city which has the power to shape and destroy destinies.

This is a novel about history, about displacement, about the extremities of the Nigerian experience, there is pain, there is passion; above all it is one heck of a read.


8/ Kumukanda
Kayo Chingonyi

Though this was to be a list featuring only fictional novels, an exception had to be made for this book, a collection of poetry by British-Zambian poet Kayo Chingonyi, his words and verses sat in the pit of my stomach.

He writes:

The English newsreader told me
home was a broken man
a dying child
with flies round its mouth

At its most basic form it is a striking selection of reflections on race, home, exile, identity and yet it is also so much more than this; it is art, it is music, it is pain and it is beauty.

Renowned poet Warsan Shire (who incidentally refers to Chingonyi as one of her favourite writers) once wrote ‘the first line of a poem should usher you in, a door half open, a warm glow, an empty seat. the last line should punch you in the stomach.’

Every single poem in this collection does exactly that.


9/ What It Means When a Man Falls From The Sky
Lesley Nneka Arimah

Every tale in this collection of short stories is gripping, each better than the last, testament to the versatile talent of writer Lesley Nneka Arimah.

Featuring characters in Nigeria and in the Nigerian diaspora these are stories ranging from the domestic to the supernatural.

In Who Will Greet You At Home, a woman seeks to become a mother and so creates a child from human hair, this is a story as eerie as it is powerful.

In Second Chances a mother comes back from the dead, unleashing within her daughter an array of emotions which anyone that has ever known grief will understand.

These are stories of parental love, familial relationships, magic, other worlds and other realms.


10/ When We Speak of Nothing
Olumide Popoola

Two teenagers, two countries, one constant; friendship.

2011 London, a city on the brink of riots; Abu and Karl are 17-year-old best friends living on an estate. Alongside experiencing the growing pains associated with teenage-hood, both young men become increasingly aware of the injustices around them, grappling with race, sexuality and class in a society which continuously stereotypes and others them (As Abu reflects ‘I can’t even walk along the street without someone following me around because I look like a terrorist in the makin’

As Karl travels to Nigeria in search of his father and Abu remains in London, both young men are further exposed to the grave injustices which affect their communities in both places.

Both during London’s riots and in general, the media’s depiction of young, black British men frequently portrays them in a negative light, this is a story which beautifully illustrates what it is to grow up in a society which continuously alienates this demographic.

More powerful still is the presence of a protagonist who identifies as black and queer, once again challenging the very many stereotypes associated with black masculinity.

Olumide Popoola’s coming of age novel is a masterpiece which should be compulsory reading.

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Samira Sawlani  is a writer/ journalist specialising in the politics, economy and development of East and Horn of Africa. She also runs MD’s social media platforms as director of audience. A holder of an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from SOAS, she is also an avid reader of fiction and poetry. Aside from journalism she has also worked in the emergency humanitarian relief and refugee care sector. @samirasawlani

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