Following a phenomenally successful 2021 for African writers, this year is also shaping up as another bumper harvest season. Gail Collins reviews works from seasoned pens as well as those fresh to publication that illuminate our senses and give plenty of food for thought.
In January, Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr, a remarkable woman in her own right (she is the founder of She ROARS), published the formidable story of her own mother – I Am Because We Are: An African Mother’s Fight for the Soul of a Nation (House of Anansi Press, Jan 2022).
Unfolding the eventful life of Dora Akunyili and her battles against counterfeit imports in Nigeria, particularly pharmaceuticals, the book also charts her incredible rise from a strong and dedicated voice against a damaging industry to catching the attention of Olusegun Obasanjo, President of Nigeria at the time, who appointed her to run Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration (NAFDAC). A potent book extolling the power of one.
Described as “an authoritative and entertaining account of an often-misunderstood figure in South Africa’s literary canon”, Can Themba: The Intellectual Tsotsi (Wits University Press, March 2022) unveils the man who was an icon of the South African literary world and is well known for his short story, ‘The Suit’ – published in 1963 and banned by the Apartheid regime.
Author Siphiwo Mahala’s well-researched biography contains a wealth of new information from previously untapped archives and interviews with Themba’s friends and colleagues and is possibly the definitive account of a larger-than-life man who left this world far too early.
We move from fact to fiction with an original and dazzling debut novel – Things They Lost (Oneworld, April 2022) by past AKO Caine Prize winner, Okwiri Oduor.
With writing as part of her DNA since she was just seven years old, this debut novel is a haunting, magical union of Kenyan folklore and the sometimes fragile but deeply bonded relationship between mother and daughter. Twelve-year-old lonely girl, Ayosa, is about to discover that growing up means making choices.
The debut novel is on a roll with a moving contribution from award-winning Nigerian journalist, Abi Ishola-Ayodeji. Patience is a Subtle Thief (Harper, May 2022) is a story of lost innocence set in a politically unstable 1990s Nigeria.
Also keep a look out for the first novel from Ghanaian Blitz Bazawule, a man of many talents who is also a hip-hop musician, artist and filmmaker. His book, The Scent of Burnt Flowers (Ballantine, June 2022) is already set to become a six-part TV series!
Escape from the ‘mouth of the crocodile’
From time immemorial, writers have been persecuted for their words against tyranny, injustice or simply for having a different point of view and alarmingly, in the 21st century, not much has changed. The most recent author to fall into this precarious pit is Ugandan novelist and lawyer, Kakwenza Rukirabashaija.
He was arrested by Ugandan authorities in April 2020 following the publication of his first novel, The Greedy Barbarian – a satirical tale set in a fictitious country. His incarceration was based on the belief that it referred to the current President, Yoweri Museveni.
He was subsequently released but re-arrested in September of the same year for his second book – Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous.
His second book is a part memoir of his journey as a writer and part vivid account of his ordeal at the hands of Uganda’s military intelligence agency, the CMI, following his arrest.
In December 2021 he was arrested yet again for disparaging remarks on Twitter against the President’s son and lieutenant general in charge of Uganda’s land forces, Muhoozi Kainerugaba.
Released on bail at the end of January 2022, under surveillance and with his passport confiscated, he made the decision to avoid further jeopardy by escaping to neighbouring Rwanda, travelling through another country (unnamed) and receiving assistance from the UN Refugee Agency to gain entry to Germany. His stand against adversity has won him the PEN Pinter Prize as an International Writer of Courage.
His relief at arriving in Germany prompted him to say it was “like I’ve escaped from the mouth of a crocodile, so I really feel safe.”
Debut novelist: Umar Turaki
Such a Beautiful Thing to Behold (Little A, May 2022) may be Umar’s Turaki’s debut novel, but he has already made a name for himself in Nigerian TV with his writing and directing, and previously been known for his short stories.
His first novel tells a tale of survival and love when a small town is cut off from the rest of the world due to a mysterious illness. It is appearing as part of a two-book deal with Little A, an imprint of Amazon. I had the pleasure of contacting him to find out more.
Was your story influenced in any way by the current pandemic?
I had been working on the novel off and on for three years by the time the pandemic hit. The concept itself, of this mysterious spiritual sickness that affects a community, I had had for nearly nine years, as I had tried to use it in a short story back then. This was a complete coincidence. I think I would have probably ditched the idea if I had had it during the pandemic. I tend to shy away from being topical in my fiction writing, unless it is an issue that chokes me and refuses to let go.
Was the transition from writing short stories to a full-length novel a difficult one?
I wrote two full-length novels before I ever tried my hand seriously at a short story, which is actually the story this novel is based on. I started my first attempt at a novel when I was 14, and my second when I was 22. So, if anything, it was the transition from longform writing to short fiction that I found difficult. The short story is such a particular form, and I continue to fumble along, wondering if I’m suited to it at all.
You have a two-book deal with Little A – have you considered the content of your second novel or perhaps started writing it?
I’ve started on the second book. It’s a very old idea, one that has refused to leave me. When I decided to expand the story of Such a Beautiful Thing to Behold into a longer format, I intended it to be a novella, but it just kept growing.
So, for a long time, I actually thought the book I am currently writing would be my first full-length work to be published. My publishing story has been such a zigzagging affair. In order not to jinx it, all I will say about this book is that it will feature the desert as a major character.
We wait in anticipation for its publication!