By Joshua Chizoma
2021 is, without doubt, a great year for African writers and writings. The march to greatness has been steady for a while now. African writers, both on the continent and abroad, are some of the most prolific and hardworking across the world. 2021 witnessed the reward of the tenacity of these writers. For the first time in a long while, African writers were universally recognised, with the colour of their skins scarcely standing as a barrier.
From the Noble Prize win by Tanzanian author, Abdulrazak Gurnah, the 2021 Booker Prize win by Damon Galgut for his novel, The Promise; to The Prix Goncourt Prize clinched by Senegalese writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade won by Zimbabwean writer, Tsitsi Dangaremgba, amongst others, the universe beamed its light on Africa, and we basked in its glory. However, while this abundance of fantastic creative literature makes the task of a roundup gruelling, it is a deed that must be done.
Here is Afrocritik’s list of some of the notable African books that were published in 2021. These books held our gaze, rocked our worlds, impacted greatly on us, and kept us company this year.
Children of the Quicksands
Author: Efua Traore
Publishing Date: January 9
Publisher: Chicken rust Books
This deeply imaginative story by Nigerian-German Efua Traore won the 2019 Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition. In Children of the Quicksands, Simi disobeys her grandmother and goes on a forbidden quest in order to unravel her family’s history. Traore reenacts the sacred art of folktales, weaving a mythical story that features mythical creatures and fantastical sceneries.
Author: Nadia Owusu
Publishing Date: January 12
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Owusu’s memoir chronicles an existence that appears almost fantastical. Abandoned by her mother at two and orphaned at an early age, Owusu struggled with her identity for most of adulthood. Aftershock gives an unburnished coming-of-age tale.
Author: Caleb Azumah Nelson
Publishing Date: February 4
Publisher: Viking Publishers
Open Water is a novel about two black British artists who meet in a pub in South East London, fall in love, but quickly find out that the ties that bind may not be as strong as the forces that seek to keep them apart. At once a beautiful love story and a tragic detailing of a world where a black body can rise to be a little more than that, Open Water is powerful in its ability to tell an achingly tender story with unforgettable characters.
The Library of the Dead
Author: T.L. Huchu
Publishing Date: February 4
Publisher: Macmillan Publishers
Zimbabwean author, T.L. Huchu’s The Library of the Dead is the first in the Edinburgh Night series. Ropa, a ghostalker, makes money from ferrying messages from the dead to their loved ones. Unfortunately, she runs into trouble when she stumbles on someone or something stealing young children in Edinburgh. A thoroughly immersive read, The Library of the Dead is a hit for anyone interested in speculative fiction.
The Gilded Ones
Author: Namina Forna
Publishing Date: February 9
Publisher: Delacorte Press
This Young Adult fantasy novel covers every conceivable topic relating to the marginalisation of women. It handles issues of rape, abuse, and gender-based discrimination, without dropping the ball on its engaging plot. In The Gilded Ones, a community of outcast girls has to use their powers to protect a village that refuses to embrace them. There is much to be gleaned from this timely offering from Forna.
Author: Neema Shah
Publishing Date: February 18
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Shah’s debut novel explores what it means to leave all that is familiar behind in search of safety, or at least, respite. Newlyweds Asha and Pran have to abandon their family and all they hold dear and flee for the United Kingdom in order to outrun a decree that expels all Ugandan Asians from Uganda. This journey to safety comes at a cost, both physical and psychological, for the couple who now have to find home in strange lands. In this wonderful novel, Shah engages a topic that is often not spoken about in Ugandan history while giving a glimpse into how government policies affect even the most tightly wound families.
The Actual True Story of Ahmed and Zarga
Author: Mohamedou Ould Slahi
Publishing Date: February 23
Publisher: Ohio University Press
Slahi’s debut novel tells the story of a Mauritanian camel herder named Ahmed Ould Abdallahi who grapples with problems that threaten to put an end to the camel herding tradition that had existed in his family for years. The novel, however, gains speed when it zooms in on Abdallahi’s loss of his prize came Zarga, and his subsequent quest to find her. This journey takes him across the Sahara and brings him face-to-face with many perils as well as unforgettable instances of Bedouin hospitality.
Although The Actual Story of Ahmed and Zarga is a fable, and has all of its elements, it addresses key issues that still threaten humanity’s existence even at the moment. More importantly, its examination of the virtues that unite humans the world over and the challenges faced on the journey to do what is right is commendable.
A Long Way from Douala
Author: Max Lobe
Publishing Date: February 25
Publisher: HopeRoad Publishing
The novel follows Choupi on his search for football fame in Europe. On the treacherous journey, challenges crop up, revealing the perilous nature the sojourn to freedom is for many African immigrants on their search for a better life. Set against the backdrop of Cameroon, the reader gets introduced to the beauty of the African immigration experience.
Author: TJ Benson
Publishing Date: March 5
Publisher: Masobe Books
Hot on the heels of his short story collection We Won’t Fade into Darkness, Benson’s first novel is just as eclectic and enthralling. In The Madhouse, Benson follows a family that can be described as unorthodox in more ways than one.
How Beautiful We Were
Author: Imbolo Mbue
Publishing Date: March 9
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Coming on the heels of the widely celebrated Behold the Dreamers, Mbue’s second book takes on the weighty subject of environmental degradation brought on by oil spillage. Mbue sets her novel in a small, fictional village called Kosawa, suffering the ravages of the greed of an American oil company, a state of affairs not unlike what is obtainable even now in many African communities.
Author: Damon Galgut
Publishing Date: April 6
Publisher: Umuzi (Penguin Random House South Africa)
The Promise follows the account of a promise unfulfilled. Salome, the Swarts family’s maid, has worked for the family for several years and gets rewarded with the promise of her own house. Yet, many years down the line, the promise refuses to bud. This forms the premise of this 2021 Booker award-winning novel. A simple, yet powerful, story of failed expectations and the human ability to falter.
Notes on Grief
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Publishing Date: April 15
Publisher: 4th Estate
The latest offering from Adichie in over a decade, Notes on Grief, first published as an essay on the New Yorker was developed into this powerful memoir that details Adichie’s relationship with her late father. Notes on Grief gives exactly what it promises. Propelled by Adichie’s powerful yet gentle prose, and springing from a place only those who have encountered heart-wrenching loss are able to touch, the book is a worthy companion for anyone who has ever dealt with the always-present hurt of the loss of a loved one.
The Window Seat: Notes from a Life in Motion Hardcover
Author: Aminatta Forna
Publishing Date: May 18
Publisher: Groove Press
Sierra Leonean-British writer, Aminatta Forna’s collection of essays explores the little worlds that exist in different cities of the world. It takes the reader on several journeys, through several landscapes, while interrogating the centrality of place, home, and belonging.
Author: Chibundu Onuzo
Publishing Date: June 3
In Sankofa, Onuzo’s protagonist, Anna, goes in search of her missing father. In an interview, Onuzo reveals the intentionality of her character’s portrayal – Anna is in her mid-forties, separated and nursing the rebellion of a grown-up daughter. All of these tie in to make the novel’s story very compelling, gripping, and engaging of sundry life issues.
Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir
Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Publishing Date: June 8
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Emezi is perhaps the most prolific writer of their generation. Using the epistolary form, Dear Senthuran gives an up-close and personal account of the writer’s life, introducing the reader to a life marked by the supernatural.
The Sex Lives of African Women
Author: Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah
Publishing Date: July 22
Publisher: Dialogue Books
Brazen, The Sex Lives of African Women explores what sexuality means for the various women in Africa. It snatches away the veil that often shrouds conversations regarding sex and sexuality for African women. Sekyiamah hands women back their power and gives them a voice through her powerful storytelling. The Sex Lives of African Women is a powerful guide to the histories and stories in African societies often left buried.
Author: Jamal Mahjoub
Publishing Date: September 7
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd
A sentimental and moving tale, The Fugitives follows the reunion of a jazz band as they embark on what is supposed to be their last outing together. Here, art meets friendship, and using that kindle, Mahjoub lights a fire that rages.
Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth
Author: Wole Soyinka
Publishing Date: September 28
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Coming almost half a century since he released his last novel, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth has all the markers of Nobel Laureate awardee, Wole Soyinka – scathing, deeply-witty, and satiric. The novel takes on several weighty issues and does an excellent job of thoroughly expounding them using storytelling.
Author: Zakes Mda
Publishing Date: October 2021
Publisher: Penguin Random House South Africa
Wayfarer’s Hymns is the latest offering from prolific historical fiction writer Zakes Mda. It picks up from where his previous novel, Ways of Dying, left off. Wayfarer’s Hymns is a celebration of Famo music, indigenous to Lesotho. Using the tools of fiction, Mda highlights this very important part of Lesotho’s history, at once making it relatable and accessible to the average reader. The novel follows the child musician, Kheleke and his sister, Moliehi.
The boy aspires to be a musician, and wants to become like Famole, a singer that has captured his interest. He subsequently meets Toloki and his wife, professional mourner, Noria. Through this young boy’s innocent gaze, the reader is introduced to the mining wars and rivalry that was a feature of the South African bygone era.
Unbury Our Dead with Song
Author: Mukoma wa Ngugi
Publishing Date: October 13
Publisher: Cassava Republic Press
Unbury Our Dead with Song is about — you better believe it — music. It follows four artistes, The Diva, The Corporal, The Taliban Man, and Miriam, who enter into a competition to determine who can play the best Tizita. This leads to an enthralling and unraveling of the life, music, and beauty of Ethiopia. Unbury Our Dead with Song is a treatise to music, a celebration of this vibrant part of the African experience often lost in the discussion of the African cultural experience.
Every Leaf a Hallelujah
Author: Ben Okri
Publishing Date: October 14
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Booker Prize-winning author Ben Okri’s children’s story, Every Leaf a Hallelujah, takes on the issue of climate change. Mangoshi goes on a quest to find a mythical flower to save her mother and her village. A timely novel set in the divisive world of climate problems.
The House of Rust
Author: Khadija Abdalla Bajaber
Publishing Date: October 19
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Bajaber’s debut novel sees a young girl on a quest to rescue her fisherman father. Packed full with metaphors, fantastic creatures and winding tales, House of Rust has been described by the New York Times Book Review as a book that deserves to be huge.
All Shades of Iberibe
Publishing Date: November 2
Publisher: Sandorf Passage
An alumnus of the Purple Hibiscus Writing Workshop, Kasimma has managed to entrench herself in the Nigerian literary consciousness. Her debut short story collection is situated in Nigeria, with fantastic Nigerian characters and experiences. Handling everything from questions of sexuality, Igbo rituals, the bond of family and more, Kasimma wields the pen expertly, weaving a world where the impossible is possible. There are glimpses of the author’s wry humour which adds a further layer to the book’s beauty.
New York, My Village
Author: Uwem Akpan
Publishing Date: November 2
Publisher: WW Norton
In New York, My Village, Eking Udousoro, an ambitious Nigerian writer and editor, lands a fellowship in Manhattan to complete a collection of short stories about the Nigerian Biafra war. While there, he witnesses the bugging problems of racism, classism and emphasised otherness both in his immediate surroundings and in the publishing industry as a whole.
Author: Adrienne Yabouza
Publishing Date: November 5.
Publisher: Dedalus Books Limited
Set in Bangui, the capital city of Central African Republic, Co-Wives, Co-Widows is about two women, Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou, who are recently widowed. The novel is an examination of the various rights and rituals that accompanies the passing of a loved one, especially when that loved one is a married man.
However, Co-Wives, Co-Widows does not fall into the temptation of making the women mortal enemies, clamouring after the properties left behind by their husband. Instead, the women manage to stick together, and in that, save themselves. Told with doses of humour and abundant wit, Yabouza gives an account that is no doubt familiar to many Africans regardless of their roots.
Here you have it, 25 Notable African Books of 2021.