The last year has undoubtedly been one to celebrate for African stories and authors, with Nobel winner Abdulrazak Gurnah (pictured above) just one of many sweeping up the world of literature’s most prestigious prizes. Compiled by Gail Collins.
This tale of glory began in June 2021 when Senegalese author, David Diop won the International Booker Prize – an award that recognises the best novels that have been translated from a foreign language to English – with At Night All Blood is Black, the harrowing and emotional story of one man’s war experience and descent into madness.
In the same month, Zimbabwean novelist, filmmaker and activist, Tsitsi Dangarembga received the 2021 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade – an annual award that has been running since 1950, recognising a person who has made an important contribution to peace, humanity and understanding between peoples.
Her trilogy, which began with the first novel she ever wrote, Nervous Conditions (1988), followed by the sequel in 2006, The Book of Not and lastly, This Mournable Body (2018), following a Shona family in post-colonial Rhodesia in the 1960s, led the judges to their decision, commenting that she was “not just one of her country’s most important artists but also a widely audible voice of Africa in contemporary literature.” She is the first African woman to win the prize.
November 2021 saw two more great successes, including a historical first with the International Booker, and the Booker prizes being won in the same year by African writers.
South African author and playwright, Damon Galgut won the 2021 Booker Prize with his ninth novel – The Promise – a powerful and insightful family saga that begins at the end of Apartheid while, as we mentioned above, David Diop scooped the International Booker.
Secondly, France’s most notable literary accolade, the Prix Goncourt award, went to Senegalese author Mohamed Mbougar Sarr. His third novel, La plus secrète mémoire des hommes (The most secret memory of men), a thriller about a young Senegalese writer discovering a fabled book from 1938 and delving into the mystery of its vanished author, fought off the stiff competition. He also made another piece of history by becoming the first sub-Saharan writer to win the coveted prize.
The year ended with another celebratory drum roll, when Tanzanian novelist and academic, Abdulrazak Gurnah, scooped the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
When informed of his win, whilst at home in the UK, where he has lived since 1964, he very modestly though it was a prank. His win comes at a time when Tanzania has been seeing a steady decline and apathy towards reading and many in the country will be unaware of his novels, mostly set on the East African coast. Hopefully his success will spark a renewed energy and interest in the written word.
Plethora of excellent writing
But it is not just the prize winners who have made 2021 a phenomenal year for African creatives. There has been a plethora of excellent fiction and non-fiction titles that have grabbed the attention of readers everywhere. I was enthralled, amused and on occasion, troubled by the books I read last year, by authors from across the continent. These writers are giving the world a real perspective on African countries’ hugely individual and diverse cultures and history.
Debut authors made their mark with books such as Ghanaian-British photographer and writer, Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water – a story gracefully charting the slightly contentious love affair between a photographer and dancer but also dealing with systemic racism.
Although not his first book, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, published his first fiction title – The Actual True Story of Ahmed and Zarga – which steers the reader into the beguiling and harsh life of a Bedouin camel herder. 2021 incidentally also saw the release of the movie The Mauritanian, based on his non-fiction work written whilst imprisoned for 14 years without charge, in Guantanamo Bay.
Cameroonian Imbolo Mbue’s second novel, How Beautiful We Were, was actually started almost two decades before it was published but the powerful story of residents in a small African village rising against the ravages of a global oil company is as stirring today as when she first started it and particularly poignant considering the Niger Delta’s never-ending oil spill struggles which continued to be reported last year.
Seasoned novelist, Jamal Mahjoub, has drawn much of the inspiration for his work from his mixed-race heritage (Sudanese-British) and his experience of being raised in Khartoum and later living in several different countries including the UK, Spain and Denmark.
His 2021 novel, The Fugitives, takes us on a jaunty road-trip when the Kamanga Kings, an old Khartoum jazz band which no longer exists is invited to perform in Washington DC. Disenchanted Rushdy, the son of an original Kamanga King, seizing the opportunity to go beyond his country’s borders, revives the band and sets off to Donald Trump’s America.
Son of acclaimed Kenyan writer and theorist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Mukoma Wa Ngugi brought us his fourth novel last year. He stayed with the musical theme in Unbury Our Dead with Song, telling a story that is both appealing and grounded through the eyes of a journalist following four gifted Ethiopian musicians competing to sing the best Tizita.
And talking of acclaimed writers, the revered first African winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Wole Soyinka, gave us his third novel after a wait of 47 years with the brutally satirical Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth.
Non-fiction titles also gained attention, none more so than the unique and ground-breaking The Sex Lives of African Women: Self-Discovery, Freedom and Healing. From the pen of Ghanaian feminist writer and blogger, Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah and inspired by Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women, a no-holds-barred blog she co-founded in 2009 as a space for African women to express their sexuality, the book is a collection of powerful, liberating, raw and sometimes heartbreaking real-life stories from women across Africa and the diaspora.
Six years in the making, it shatters the taboos that have until now surrounded many of the issues and experiences of African women, who have unfurled the most private area of their lives in its pages.
A Bigger Picture: My Fight To Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis, by the young Ugandan climate activist, Vanessa Nakate, tackles a worldwide problem from an African perspective.
In 2020, Vanessa posed with four fellow youth activists at the World Economic Forum. Later the same day the picture began appearing in the media, minus Vanessa, the only black person in the original photo.
She saw this as a symbol of how Africa, the continent with the most to lose from the crisis, and at the same time affecting the climate the least, was not an equal voice in the global fight. This moment sparked her book, which clarifies the need for Africa to be an inclusive partner in the climate conversation and highlights the views of a new generation of young activists searching for ways to save the world they are growing up in.
Finally, a writer who has been an unshakeable champion of marginalised writers and the 2020 Booker Prize winner, Bernardine Evaristo, gave us an insight into her motivation in her memoir, Manifesto on Never Giving Up. Her non-fiction debut is an inspiration to perseverance against all odds and provides a colourful, humorous and rebellious understanding of her life and writing.
To those fine writers I have not had space to mention – I applaud you and may 2022 continue with a deluge of wonderful words!