Just ahead of Africa Writes – quite possibly the UK’s largest celebration of African books and literature, we teamed up with the Bookshy Blogger’s Zahrah Nessbit-Ahmed to compile a list of 50 books by African women writers that we think everyone should read – before they die. It was definitely an interesting exercise to decide on the titles for myself, and Zahrah; some of them came to mind quite instinctively.
The more recent novels by Adichie, and Bulawayo, can’t help but press themselves against the imagination – but there are also older titles which deserve to be read, and read again. There are some omissions because wherever possible we’ve avoided more than one entry from an author, especially where neither of us has read their complete ouvre. While this is predominantly a list of novels, there are some non-fiction, and poetry titles which just had to be on the list because of their contemporary or lasting impact.
Now, it’s not definitive, exhaustive or even representative – but we hope you enjoy reading these titles (because you will read them all, right?) – and feel free to join the conversation about the list on the Africa Writes facebook page, as well as ours! (Oh, and hit the like button while you’re at it)
- The Translator
About the Author: Leila Aboulela grew up in Khartoum, Sudan where she attended the Khartoum American School and Sister School. She graduated from Khartoum University in 1985 with a degree in Economics and was awarded her Master’s degree in statistics from the London School of Economics. In 2000, she was the inaugural winner of the Caine Prize for African for her story, The Museum. She lived for many years in Aberdeen where she wrote most of her works while looking after her family; she currently lives and lectures in Abu Dhabi.
About the Book: Leila Abouleila’s debut novel is a nuanced and sensitive portrayal of love and faith; it follows the life of Sammar, a Sudanese widow, living in Scotland and working as an Arabic translator at a university in Aberdeen. Having lost her much-loved husband in a car accident, Sammar has completely abandoned herself to grief. She has spent the four years since his death almost entirely withdrawn from the world, her only comfort the five azan (daily calls to prayer) that gently remind her “only Allah is eternal.” It is not until she begins working for Rae, an agnostic Scottish Islamic scholar that Sammar begins to imagine a happier ending to her story, boldly allowing herself to love this man and to be loved by him, despite her unsettling doubts about his potential for faith.
- The Aya Series
About the Author: Marguerite Abouet was born in Abidjan in 1971. At the age of 12, she was sent with her older brother to study in France under the care of a great uncle. She now lives in Romainville, a suburb of Paris, where she works as a legal assistant and writes novels she has yet to show to publishers. Aya is her first comic. It taps into Abouet’s childhood memories of Ivory Coast in the 1970s, a prosperous, promising time in that country’s history, to tell an unpretentious and gently humorous story of an Africa we rarely see–spirited, hopeful and resilient.
About the Book: The series is one of the few works of postcolonial African fiction that focuses almost entirely on the middle class. Although not entirely autobiographical, the story is based on the author’s life in Côte d’Ivoire. Aya of Yop City is the second of three books in the Abouet’s Aya series, each based on the same characters. All three of the books in the series haven been illustrated by the author’s husband, Clément Oubrerie. It was adapted into a critically acclaimed animated film, Aya de Youpougon.
- Half A Yellow Sun
About the Author: Chimamanda Adichie has been called “the most prominent” of a “procession of critically acclaimed young anglophone authors [that] is succeeding in attracting a new generation of readers to African literature”. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977. She is the author of three novels, Purple Hibiscus (2003), Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), and Americanah (2013), of a short story collection, The Thing around Your Neck (2009). She has received numerous awards and distinctions, including the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction (2007) and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (2008).
About the Book
Adichie’s sophomore novel wasn’t the first book about the Biafran war, but, on publication, it was a powerful story that humanised in a way never done before the personal cost of the war. In a haunting narrative, that follows the lives of five main characters during the war. Ugwu, a boy from a poor village who works as a houseboy for Odenigbo, university professor; Olanna, who has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos to live with her charismatic new lover, the professor, and Richard, a shy English writer, in love with Olanna’s enigmatic twin sister, Kainene; a bold, breath-taking, and heart breaking narrative with a shockingly painful ending, it’s a contemporary masterpiece of fiction, which re-loaded the starting gun in the race to write the great African novel.
About the Book: As teenagers in Lagos, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love – what happens after that – is the subject of this book. A good old fashioned romance with lots of heartbreak, and hair – Americanah is a novel that aimed to say everything anew on race, love and hair from a very, decidedly, Nigerian and African perspective. It tackles African brain drain, blogging, diasporans returning to Africa, US and British strains of racism – and best of all, is laugh out loud funny in more places than we can count.
- Changes: A Love Story
About the Author: Ama Ata Aidoo: Professor Ama Ata Aidoo, née Christina Ama Aidoo (born 23 March 1940, Saltpond) is a Ghanaian author, poet, playwright and academic, who is also a former Minister of Education in the Ghana government. Professor Ama Ata Aidoo, née Christina Ama Aidoo (born 23 March 1940, Saltpond) is a Ghanaian author, poet, playwright and academic, who is also a former Minister of Education in the Ghana government.
About the Book: Before Carrie in Sex and the City – there was Esi, the career-centred heroine of Ama Ata Aidoo’s 1991 novel; a woman who divorces her first husband and marries into a polygamist union, all the while working hard to make it in a challenging modern day, Accra; sumptuously written and totally engrossing, Changes explores the complex world in which the lives of professional working women have changed sharply, but the cultural assumptions of men’s lives have not. This is an immensely unputdownable book.
- Our Sister Killjoy
About the Book: Because when you read it, despite being written in the 1970s, it still feels brazenly contemporary; you’ll find yourself reading and agreeing with young Ghanaian Sissie’s running commentary as she travels through Europe – talking about her feelings of alienation, her reflections on European culture and “civilization” and her return to the warmth of home in Africa. And we absolutely understand her obsession with plums. It’s like reading a commentary by a wry, wise and amusing companion travelling through the tshengen zone, and it’s all the more delightful because it’s a mixture of poetry and prose.
- African Love Stories: An Anthology
About the book: There are many, many reasons to love this book – and each is a title in this brilliant collection. This anthology is a radical collection of love stories from African women. The collection is a radical departure from conventional anthologies and the love theme is aimed at debunking the myth that African Women are poor and helpless victims whilst showing their strength, complexity and diversity. The stories deal with a range of challenging themes including taboo subjects such as homosexuality, domestic violence, female circumcision, ageism amongst others to produce a melting pot of narratives from interesting and informed perspectives.
- Our Wife and Other Stories
About the Author: Karen King-Aribisala: A Nigerian novelist, and short story writer. Her stories, Our Wife and Other Stories won the 1991 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Best First Book Africa, and her novel the hangman’s game won 2008 Best Book Africa. She is Associate Professor of English at the University of Lagos. She won grants from the Ford Foundation, British Council, Goethe Institute, and the James Michener Foundation.
About the Book: Our Wife is the author’s first complete published work of short stories; the work has won the best first book prize (African Region) Commonwealth Price 1990/91.
- Everything Good Will Come
About the Author: Sefi Atta: Nigerian-born Sefi Atta’s short stories have appeared in journals like Los Angeles Review and Mississippi Review and have won prizes from Zoetrope and Red Hen Press. Her radio plays have been broadcast by the BBC. She is the winner of PEN International’s 2004/2005 David TK Wong Prize and in 2006, her debut novel Everything Good Will Come was awarded the inaugural Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa.
About the Book: Everything Good Will Come is a coming of age novel about a girl growing into a woman in postcolonial Nigeria and England. Throughout the novel the main character, Enitan, is faced with various issues such as family troubles, rape, cheating boyfriends, and imprisonment. Beyond Enitan’s personal entanglements, the novel is a biting commentary on post-independence governments in Nigeria and tensions between Igbo (Biafrans), Yoruba, and Hausa ethnic groups after the Biafrian War.
- So Long a Letter
About the Author: Mariama Ba: Born in Dakar, she was raised a Muslim, but at an early age came to criticise what she perceived as inequalities between the sexes resulting from African traditions. Raised by her traditional grandparents, she had to struggle even to gain an education, because they did not believe that girls should be taught. Bâ later married a Senegalese Member of Parliament, Obèye Diop, but divorced him and was left to care for their nine children.
About the Book: This novel is a perceptive testimony to the plight of articulate women who live in social milieux dominated by attitudes and values that deny them their proper place. It is a sequence of reminiscences, some wistful, some bitter, recounted by a recently widowed Senegalese school teacher. The letter, addressed to an old friend, is a record of her emotional struggle for survival after her husband’s abrupt decision to take a second wife. Although his action is sanctioned by Islam, it is a calculated betrayal of his wife’s trust and a brutal rejection of their life together.
- Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe
About the Author:Ugandan writer Doreen Baingana is a short story writer and editor – she’s won various prizes for her writing. Until recently, Baingana was chair of FEMRITE – the Uganda Women Writers Association. She has twice been a finalist for the Caine Prize for African Writing and her book Tropical Fish won the 2006 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book.
About the Book: Tropical Fish is a collection of linked short stories that explore the coming of age of three African sisters. Introspective and personal, the stories reveal the unexpected ambiguities of the young women’s lives.
About the Author: Ellen Banda-Aaku: Ellen Banda-Aaku was born in Woking Surrey in 1965. The middle child of three she grew up in Zambia and has lived and worked in Ghana, South Africa, the UK and Zambia. In 2004 she won the Macmillan Writers’ Prize for Africa for Wandi’s Little Voice, a book for children. In 2007, her short story, Sozi’s Box, was the overall winner of the 2007 Commonwealth Short Story Competition. Her novel “Patchwork,” published 2011, won the Penguin Prize for African Writing. She has a BA in Public Administration from the University of Zambia, an MA in Financial Management with Social Policy from Middlesex University and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. She’s currently is based in the UK where she lives with her two children Saada and Kweku.
About the Book: Destined from birth to inhabit two very different worlds– that of her father, the wealthy Joseph Savakungo, and that of her mother, his mistress– this emotive tale takes us to the heart of a young girl’s attempts to come to terms with her own identity and fashion a future for herself from the patchwork of a life she was born into
13. The Shining Girls
About the Author: Lauren Beukes: A South African novelist, short story writer, journalist, and TV scriptwriter. Beukes, born in Johannesburg, currently lives in Cape Town. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. She worked as a freelance journalist for ten years, including two years in New York and Chicago.
About the Book: The jaw-dropping, page-turning, critically-acclaimed book of the year: a serial-killer thriller unlike any other from the award-winning Lauren Beukes. ‘GONE GIRL has not exactly gone. But THE SHINING GIRLS have arrived’ (The Times). “It’s not my fault. It’s yours. You shouldn’t shine. You shouldn’t make me do this.” THE GIRL WHO WOULDN’T DIE. Kirby is lucky she survived the attack. She is sure there were other victims were less fortunate, but the evidence she finds is … impossible. HUNTING A KILLER WHO SHOULDN’T EXIST, Harper stalks his shining girls through the years – and cuts the spark out of them. But what if the one that got away came back for him?
- We need new names
About the Author: No Violet Bulawayo: Noviolet Bulawayo was born in Tsholotsho. She earned her MFA at Cornell University, where she was also awarded a Truman Capote Fellowship, and she is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University in California. She is the author of the short story Hitting Budapest (2010), which won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, and Snapshots (2009), shortlisted for the South Africa PEN Studzinsi Award. Her latest novel We Need New Names (2013) is long listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize
About the Book: ‘To play the country-game, we have to choose a country. Everybody wants to be the USA and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and them. Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti and not even this one we live in – who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?’ Darling and her friends live in a shanty called Paradise, which of course is no such thing. It isn’t all bad, though. There’s mischief and adventure, games of Find bin Laden, stealing guavas, singing Lady Gaga at the tops of their voices. They dream of the paradises of America, Dubai, and Europe, where Madonna and Barack Obama and David Beckham live. For Darling, that dream will come true. But, like the thousands of people all over the world trying to forge new lives far from home, Darling finds this new paradise brings its own set of challenges – for her and also for those she’s left behind.
- Daughters of Africa
About the Author: Margaret Busby: Margaret Busby OBE (Nana Akua Ackon) Editor was born in Ghana, of part-Caribbean parentage, and educated in Britain. On graduating from London University in the 1960s she became the UK’s youngest and first Black woman publisher when she co-founded Allison & Busby Ltd, of which she was Editorial Director for 20 years. She works as a writer, editor, consultant, reviewer and broadcaster. Publications she has written for include The Guardian, Independent, Observer, New Statesman, and Wasafiri and The Times Literary Supplement.
About the Book: Arranged chronologically, this anthology of writing spans from the Ancient Queen Hatshepsut and the Queen of Sheba, to popular contemporaries such as Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and Buchi Emecheto, and includes many lesser known writers and anonymous traditional works that exemplify the oral tradition handed down through the generations. This anthology brings together women from across the globe and besides translations from African languages it includes work originally written in Dutch, French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.
16. Nervous Conditions
About the Author: Tsitsi Dangarembga: Dangarembga was born in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), in 1959 but spent part of her childhood in England. She began her education there, but concluded her A-levels at Hartzell High school, a missionary school in the Rhodesian town of Umtali (now Mutare). She later studied medicine at Cambridge University but returned home soon after Zimbabwe was internationally recognised in 1980.
About the Book: The semi-autobiographical novel focuses on the story of a Rhodesian family in post-colonial Rhodesia during the 1960s. The novel attempts to illustrate the dynamic themes of race, class, gender, and cultural change during the post-colonial conditions of present-day Zimbabwe.
- Woman at Point Zero
About the Author: Nawal El Saadawi: is an Egyptian feminist writer, activist, physician and psychiatrist. She has written many books on the subject of women in Islam, paying particular attention to the practice of female genital cutting in her society. She is founder and president of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and co-founder of the Arab Association for Human Rights. She has been awarded honorary degrees on three continents. In 2004, she won the North-South prize from the Council of Europe. She is the founder of Health Education Association and the Egyptian Women Writers Association; she was Chief Editor of Health Magazine in Cairo, Egypt and Editor of Medical Association Magazine.
About the Book: ‘All the men I did get to know, every single man of them, have filled me with but one desire: to lift my hand and bring it smashing down on his face. But because I am a woman I have never had the courage to lift my hand. And because I am a prostitute, I hid my fear under layers of make-up’. So begins Firdaus’ story, leading to her grimy Cairo prison cell, where she welcomes her death sentence as a relief from her pain and suffering. Born to a peasant family in the Egyptian countryside, Firdaus suffers a childhood of cruelty and neglect. Her passion for education is ignored by her family, and on leaving school she is forced to marry a much older man. Following her escapes from violent relationships, she finally meets Sharifa who tells her that ‘A man does not know a woman’s value the higher you price yourself the more he will realise what you are really worth’ and leads her into a life of prostitution. Desperate and alone, she takes drastic action.
18. The Joys of Motherhood
About the Author: Buchi Emecheta: Is a Nigerian novelist who has published over 20 books. Her themes of child slavery, motherhood, female independence and freedom through education have won her considerable critical acclaim and honours, including an Order of the British Empire in 2005. Emecheta once described her stories as “stories of the world… [Where]… women face the universal problems of poverty and oppression, and the longer they stay, no matter where they have come from originally, the more the problems become identical.”
About the Book: The basis of the novel is the “necessity for a woman to be fertile and above all to give birth to sons”. It tells the tragic story of Nnu-Ego, daughter of Nwokocha Agbadi and Ona, who had a bad fate with childbearing.
- The Memory of Love
About the Author: Aminatta Forna: born in Scotland, raised in Sierra Leone and Britain and spent periods of her childhood in Iran, Thailand and Zambia. Aminatta is Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and in 2013 held the post of Sterling Brown Distinguished Visiting Professor at Williams College, Massachusetts. In March 2014 Aminatta Forna was named as a winner of a Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prize awarded annually by Yale University.
About the Book: Freetown, Sierra Leone, 1969. On a hot January evening that he will remember for decades, Elias Cole first catches sight of Saffia Kamara, the wife of a charismatic colleague. He is transfixed. Thirty years later, lying in the capital’s hospital, he recalls the desire that drove him to acts of betrayal he has tried to justify ever since. Elsewhere in the hospital, Kai, a gifted young surgeon, is desperately trying to forget the pain of a lost love that torments him as much as the mental scars he still bears from the civil war that has left an entire people with terrible secrets to keep. The Memory of Love is a heartbreaking story of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances
- July’s People
About the Author: Nadine Gordimer: a South African writer, political activist and recipient of the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature. She was recognized as a woman “who through her magnificent epic writing has – in the words of Alfred Nobel – been of very great benefit to humanity”. Gordimer’s writing has long dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa. Under that regime, works such as July’s People were banned. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress during the days when the organization was banned. She has recently been active in HIV/AIDS causes.
About the Book: For years, it had been what is called a “deteriorating situation.” Now all over South Africa the cities are battlegrounds. The members of the Smales family—liberal whites—are rescued from the terror by their servant, July, who leads them to refuge in his village. What happens to the Smaleses and to July—the shifts in character and relationships—give us an unforgettable look into the terrifying, tacit understandings and misunderstandings between blacks and whites.
- The Collector of Treasures
About the Author: Bessie Head: Head was the daughter of a white woman and black man. After her mother’s parents found she was pregnant she was sent to a mental asylum, where Head was born on 6 July 1937. She was brought up by foster parents and then by the Anglican mission orphanage. Head trained as a primary school teacher and taught for a few years but in 1959 she began a career as a journalist. She wrote short stories for Johannesburg’s Golden City Post a weekly supplement that was related to the more famous Drum magazine. Her work for Drum magazine won her a reputation as writer.
About the Book: Bessie Head writes about ordinary women in African villages, often dealing with extraordinary situations. She writes with great love and feeling for these women. In a series of short, simply presented stories, Bessie Head introduces us to women with profound decisions to make, and often difficult circumstances to deal with. How each woman faces these trials and deals with them, reveals the authors deep understanding of the way tragic and profound experiences can enrich us and give greater meaning to our own and others’ lives.
- In Dependence
About the Author: Sarah Ladipo: an Anglo-Nigerian writer. She was raised in Nigeria and has lived in Kenya, France, and England. Her writing includes published essays, academic papers, book reviews and short stories. Sarah’s first novel, In Dependence, was published by Legend Press in 2008. Her short story “Mr. Wonder” appeared in the 2008 collection Women Writing Zimbabwe. Sarah inherited her maiden name (Ladipo) from her father who was born in Ibadan (South West Nigeria) in the late 1930s. Sarah herself was born in the UK (where her father met and married her mother in the late 1960s) but she spent much of her childhood in the city of Jos in Plateau State.
About the Book: The novel begins in the early 1960s when Tayo Ajayi meets Vanessa Richardson, the beautiful daughter of an ex-colonial officer. Their story, which spans three continents and four turbulent decades, is that of a brave but bittersweet love affair. It is the story of individuals struggling to find their place within uncertain political times – a story of passion and idealism, courage and betrayal.
- Secret Son
About the Author: Laila Lalami: Laila Lalami was born and raised in Morocco. She attended Université Mohammed-V in Rabat, University College in London, and the University of Southern California, where she earned a Ph.D. in linguistics. She is the author of the short story collection Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, and the novel Secret Son, which was on the Orange Prize long list. She is the recipient of a British Council Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship and is currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside.
About the Book: In the spirit of The Inheritance of Loss and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Laila Lalami’s powerful first novel explores the struggle for identity, the need for family, and the desperation that overtakes ordinary lives in a country divided by class, politics, and religion.
About the Author: Lesley Lokko: A Ghanaian-born Scottish architect, academic, and novelist. She says: “I live almost simultaneously in Johannesburg, London, Accra and Edinburgh.” Much of Lokko’s writing contains themes about cultural and racial identity.  She regularly lectures in South Africa, and has also taught in the United Kingdom and the United States.
About the Book: This novel takes four friends, beautiful, wealthy and thoroughly spoilt, Rianne:who has the world at her feet but is about to risk everything, Gabrielle: intelligent, loyal and always worrying about everyone else, and Nathalie: petite, pretty and with a shrewd eye for business, she uses her work to help her forget the one man she can’t have, while flirty and outrageous Charmaine is already sure about what the good life is, she just needs someone to pay for it. A chance encounter changes everything – and for Rianne and her friends, nothing is going to be the same again…
- Black Mamba Boy
About the Author: Nadifa Mohamed was born in Hargeisa in 1981 while Somalia was falling deeper into dictatorship. In 1986 she moved to London with her family in what she thought was a temporary move but a couple of years later it became permanent as war broke out in Somalia. She was educated in London and went to Oxford to study History and Politics and she finally returned to Hargeisa, now in the new Republic of Somaliland, in 2008. She lives in London and is currently working on her second novel.
About the Book: Long listed for the Orange Prize and winner of the Betty Trask Award. For fans of Half of a Yellow Sun, a stunning novel set in 1930s Somalia spanning a decade of war and upheaval, all seen through the eyes of a small boy alone in the world. Aden, Yemen, 1935; a city vibrant, alive, and full of hidden dangers and home to Jama, a ten year-old boy. But then his mother dies unexpectedly and he finds himself alone in the world. Jama is forced home to his native Somalia, the land of his nomadic ancestors. War is on the horizon and the fascist Italian forces who control parts of East Africa are preparing for battle. Yet Jama cannot rest until he discovers whether his father, who has been absent from his life since he was a baby, is alive somewhere. And so begins an epic journey which will take Jama north through Djibouti, war-torn Eritrea and Sudan, to Egypt. And from there, aboard a ship transporting Jewish refugees just released from German concentration camps, across the seas to Britain and freedom. This story of one boy’s long walk to freedom is also the story of how the Second World War affected Africa and its people; a story of displacement and family.
The first 25 titles are published here – and the second half, is published on the Bookshy blog.
List Compiled By: Dele Meiji Fatunla & Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed
Research: Chinemelu Okafor