By Sybil Fekurumoh, Chimezie Chika, and Ijeoma Ntada
2022 has been a remarkable year for African writers in Africa and in the African Diaspora, with writers putting out memorable works; novels, anthologies, essays, non-fiction, and other forms of creative writings, garnering praise and literary acclaim from both local and international audiences. Writers from Africa are telling African stories through newer lenses, and away from the ways the continent is stereotypically perceived, while also highlighting the realities of being African in today’s society.
There have also been several highlights for writers in the year. Nigerian writer, Akwaeke Emezi, was nominated for the “Romance” category at the 2022 Goodreads Choice Awards. In September, writers such as Zimbabwean T.L Huchu, Nigerian Pemi Aguda, and Nnedi Okoroafor, were winners at the 2022 Nommo Awards which celebrates works in magical realism, Sci-Fi, horror, and graphic novels. Nigerian author, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, was also announced as winner of the 2022 World Fantasy Award for The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction (2021). The successes of these writers prove that African writers are able to explore several genres with their writings.
Here’s Afrocritik’s top novels of 2022. Curated in no particular order, this list cuts across different genres, all published within the year. Some are debut novels, delightful titles readers will not forget in a hurry.
Vagabonds! is Nigerian writer and visual artist, Eloghosa Osunde’s debut novel. Set in Lagos, Nigeria, the story explores alternate universes and realities, fantasy and mysticism, that employ readers to use their imagination. Osunde creates characters who live on the extremes of Nigerian societies, with Lagos, one of the most significant Nigerian urban areas, at the epicenter where events unfold. Characters are the outlaws, the unconventional, the queer, the poor, and the misfits, who are generally disadvantaged, and whose existences are a form of resistance against the conventional.
These characters confront the corruption and austerity in Nigeria’s largely religious and homophobic legislation; a celebrity seamstress who must hide her relationship with another woman who gives birth to an adult daughter, a driver for a corrupt politician with the power to command life and death, and a politician who gets more than he anticipated, a lesbian couple whose relationship sheds surprising light on their experiences with underground sex work; a wife and mother who attends a secret spiritual gathering that changes her world.
The lives of these characters intertwine in several ways and in different places; marketplaces, underground clubs, churches, and hotel rooms. These outlaws and vagabonds, challenged by the spirits that command Lagos’ dark energy (Èkó), confront and support one another as they run from danger, meet secret lovers or battle their shadowselves. They gather to give the book a joyous conclusion in the end.
Osunde is an alumna of the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop, the Caine Prize Workshop, and the filmmaking and screenwriting programs at the New York Film Academy. Her short stories have been longlisted for the 2017 Writivism Short Story Prize and published in Catapult, Guernica, Berlin Quarterly, and The Paris Review. She is the winner of the 2021 Paris Review Plimpton Prize for Fiction.
Tomorrow I Become a Woman
This literary fiction, Tomorrow I Become a Woman, is loosely based on the experiences of real women known to the author. Written by Nigerian writer, Aiwanose Odafen, the novel follows the complex relationship between a mother and daughter coming to terms with a tremendous loss, against a backdrop of a post-civil war, political turbulence, and the changing economies in Nigeria. Odafen’s debut novel explores the societal and cultural expectations of women, and the struggles women experience to meet up the expectations as it surrounds marriage. The novel showcases the harsh realities of gender inequality, and how gender-based violence against girls and women continues to be pervasive. It also celebrates female friendships and a love story spanning two decades and continents.
Odafen has a degree in Accounting and holds an MBA from the Said Business School, University of Oxford. She has contributed to published non-fiction works and has participated in the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus Trust Writing Workshop. She was longlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, and holds a postgraduate degree from the University of Oxford.
What Happened to Janet Uzor?
This Young Adult mystery novel follows four young adults trying to resolve the mystery behind a murder. Best friends, Pamela and Ebere, are grappling with the death of their friend, Janet Uzor, who died in a drowning accident. But, as Pamela buries her emotions and tries to heal and move on from the incident, Ebere is convinced that their friend Janet, an excellent swimmer, may have been murdered, and sets out to find the killer. Pamela begins to receive death threat letters and is forced to confront her fears, and together with Ebere, on/off boyfriend Eche, and good friend Daniel Kalio, she sets out to find the mystery person after her life.
Set in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, the novel showcases the exploits of these transitioning young adults, as they traverse hurdles of parental influences, searching and navigating personal identities while trying to piece the puzzle of their friend’s death. This a conundrum that must be resolved before time runs out, and Pamela is, again, at the mercy of a bloodlust killer.
What Happened to Janet Uzor is Miracle Emeka-Nkwor’s first novel. Her writing style has been applauded for its originality such as in revealing societal behaviours, religion, culture, and seasonal celebrations of the environment in which the novel is set in. Emeka-Nkwor is also praised for creating relatable characters and being able to keep readers captivated with suspense, as the novel kept on unraveling its many twists and turns.
Emeka-Nkwor was born and raised in Garden city, Port Harcourt. She is a graduate of Biochemistry from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and has always likened herself to an overflowing drum of creativity. When she isn’t sketching designs, drafting patterns, and bent over a sewing machine, her nose is buried in the pages of a good book.
Harry Sylvester Bird
Harry Sylvester Bird is a satirical novel by Nigerian-American writer, Chinelo Okparanta. Okparanta explores racism, microaggression, xenophobia, and White supremacy, themes which continues to be salient in conversations about modern-day America. The book’s premise is the eponymous character, Harry Sylvester Bird, a young white man who pictures himself as Black.
Okparanta was born and raised in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Her debut short story collection, Happiness, Like Water, was nominated for the Nigerian Writers Award, long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, as well as the Etisalat Prize for Literature. Her first novel, Under the Udala Tree, was nominated for several awards, including the Kirkus Prize and Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Okparanta received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she is currently an Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Swarthmore College.
You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty
You Made a Fool Out of Death with Your Beauty is Nigerian writer, Akwaeke Emezi’s first romance novel. The book takes readers through the romantic story of a young Nigerian-American visual artist, Feyi Adekola, who lost her husband and high-school sweetheart five years before. Readers are exposed to the complexities of trauma, as Feyi, left with both physical and emotional scars from the incident, tries to heal and find love again. Can Feyi release her past and honor her grief while still embracing her future? And, how far is she willing to go for a second chance at love?
Emezi moves away from the regular romance trope, and instead, to make things more exciting, they introduce an illicit love triangle. They also explore queer relationships, with main characters that are aware of and embrace their sexualities. The novel won the bid to be adapted into a film in what has been called the biggest book deal of the year so far.
Things They Lost
Beautifully written by Kenyan writer, Okwiri Oduor, Things They Lost is a fantasy, magical realism fiction novel. Set in a fictional Kenyan town called Mapeli, it tells the story of four generations of women, each haunted by the mysterious curse that follows the Brown family. This coming-of-age story is told through young Ayosa Ataraxis Brown, a twelve-year-old and the loneliest girl in the world. Set in an intersection of spirit and the human world, Things They Lost is a story about connection and the dualities of love at its most intoxicating and all-encompassing.
Oduor writes a story that is particularly Kenyan. The Guardian writes of Oduor as “skilfully balances whimsy with satirical, devastating realism…,” creating a surreal novel that is compelling, ominous, and mysterious, with a female Kenyan character at its centre.
Things They Lost is Oduor’s debut novel. She won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2014 for her story My Father’s Head. She was also named on the Hay Festival’s Africa39 list of 39 African writers under 40 who would define trends in African literature. She has been a MacDowell Colony fellow, and she received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Glory has been called a Zimbabwean Animal Farm, likened to George Orwell’s novella, which is an inspiration for the book. Zimbabwean writer, NoViolet Bulawayo, writes a political satire that chronicles the fall of an oppressive regime, and the chaotic, kinetic potential for real liberation that ensues after the fall.
The novel is centred around the unanticipated fall of Old Horse, a long-serving leader of the fictional country of Jidada, alongside his wife, a donkey named Marvellous. The book follows the ensuing saga of the clamouring animal nation, as the nation seeks out true liberation.
Glory is inspired by the unexpected fall by coup, in November 2017, of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president of nearly four decades. Bulawayo notes that she intended to write Glory as a nonfiction about the coup and the fall of Mugabe, but settled for a political satire instead. Bulawayo uses humour, farce, and allegory, to showcase authoritative regimes, which several African nations have experienced or still experience.
Glory is the second novel by Bulawayo, and much like her first novel, We Need New Names, Bulawayo uses an assertive voice and clear imagery that fully immerses readers into the everyday life of a struggling nation, and through the narrative of animal voices, the book reveals how a nation is able to be optimistic under distressing circumstances. Glory was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize.
Truth is a Flightless Bird
In Truth is a Flightless Bird, readers find the pregnant and frightened Nice (real name Theresa) fleeing her Somali drug-dealer boyfriend, her brutal work with the UN in Mogadishu, and the life choices that stalk her. In her desperation to flee, she involves one of her oldest friends, Duncan, an American pastor heading a small evangelical denomination in Nairobi who is also fleeing from his life choices. Their car crashes on the way back from the airport, and Nice is kidnapped by a dubious immigration officer, Hinga.
The novel is set against the backdrop of President Barrack Obama’s visit to Kenya, and how the country, especially the capital, is preparing for his arrival. Truth is a Flightless Bird is a love story to modern-day Nairobi. Amidst the city’s hustle and bustle, the novel reveals the political intricacies of present-day Nairobi, the failures of capitalism, class divides, and a society of inequality; but regardless, it reveals the capacity for humans to have hope, and what it means to risk everything to hold on to something, to believe.
Truth is a Flightless Bird is Akbar Hussein’s debut novel, and with this, he establishes a remarkable voice, one truly his own. Hussein is a lawyer and co-founder of a successful fintech startup, and has lived in Nairobi for 7 years. He currently resides in New York.
The Scent of Burnt Flowers
The Scent of Burnt Flowers is a historical fiction novel set in 1960s America. It follows a Black couple who free America to Ghana for asylum, but whose newfound freedom is threatened by fresh dangers and old secrets.
The Scent of Burnt Flowers is Ghanaian creative, Blitz Bazawule’s debut novel. Bazawule is a hip-hop artist, director, author, and visual artist based in the US. The novel explores post-colonial history and mythology as it intersects with the civil rights movement in America. It combines political intrigue, magical encounters, and forbidden romance that collides with morality and power. The novel is already in the works to be adapted into a television series.
People Live Here
People Live Here is Benson’s third book and second novel. The novel begins in Eastern Nigeria. The light is shed on the life of a 25-year-old single mother, Kanulia Madueke, who strives against the harsh economic realities of a Nigeria still grappling with the aftermath of the fuel subsidy removal of 2012.
Kanulia, who is addressed mostly as Lia throughout the book, seeks for greener pastures for herself and her dear child. Her quest for greener pastures would cause her to leave home and move to a new country.
An Unusual Grief
How do you get to know your daughter after her death? This is the question that Omotoso’s An Unusual Grief will give you answers to. Omotoso unravels this novel as one would peel the layers of an onion. She explores different topics that the average society isn’t audacious enough to speak about as often as they ought to.
Omotoso’s An Unusual Grief is also a story of self-discovery as the protagonist, Mojisola, learns to break free from the constraints her upbringing and society subjected her to.
The Unfortunates takes us into the world of a young half-Nigerian woman in her sophomore year in an elite college. As opposed to all the faux perfection that people seem to associate with elitist schools, The Unfortunates reveals the not-so-great things that go on, especially if you’re queer and black. This novel explores racism in all its gore. It also explores themes like body dysmorphia.
Fighting racism and advocating for gay rights in an elitist college is no stroll in the park, but with a solid community of BIPOC women who love and cheer for Sahara, she is able to speak up loudly for herself and the others like her before they “disappear.” The novel highlights the essence of community and the good it does for causes like this one.
Such a Beautiful Thing to Behold
Umar Turaki’s debut novel, Such a Beautiful Thing to Behold is a depiction of sadness, deep pain, hope, sheer human will and strength. The book tells the story of the small village of Pilam that was plagued by a strange illness called Grey which affected only adults. This strange illness killed off the older people and left the young alone and devastated.
Dunka, the eldest of four siblings, goes in search of a solution to the deadly disease in a bid to save himself and the ones he loved from dying. Turaki’s use of language in Such a Beautiful Thing to Behold is a mastery. He writes in a poetic and captivating style that keeps you hooked with every single word.
Bridges are for Burning
Bina Idonije’s debut novel, Bridges are for Burning, is a book that captures the complexities of female friendships and the foundations on which they are built.
Set in Lagos and centred on the lives of three women, Fifi, Gigi, and Alana, the book focuses on the everyday life and love lives of the upper Lagos. It unravels things that outsiders do not always get to see. Looking for the relatable Nigerian love triangle and the dirt it carries? You should read this.
Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun
If you’re a big fan of superhero books, you’d be fascinated by Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun. There’s something about it that makes one think of the X-Men or Black Panther.
Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun takes you into the life of Onyeka, a 12-year-old British-Nigerian girl who lives in London. She has bulbous Afro hair that gives her a tough time to maintain. Her Afro hair contains psychokinetic powers whose existence she wasn’t aware of until the day she magically saves her best friend, Cheyenne, from drowning.
Onyeka’s character is influenced by the author who keeps an Afro hair, and saw herself through Onyeka. Onyeka’s arrival in Nigeria was an avenue for Okogwu to explore Nigerian culture and she did it fully. Using Afro hair as the site of Onyeka’s powers tells the black girl story. It reinforces the narrative that Afro hair is gorgeous and that black women do not have to make their hair more acceptable to people.
Here Again Now
Here Again Now is a delicate love story between two men, Achike Okoro, and his best friend of twenty years, Ekene. But their love story isn’t the conventional one that’d make you swoon like that of Romeo and Juliet.
Here Again Now is one piece of queer literature that would capture you with every word, take you through a wide spectrum of emotions, and still fill you with the satisfaction that comes with reading a fine novel.
In this apocalyptic novel set in 2050, Onyebuchi explores diverse stories that touch on our present day troubles and the ones that could brew in the future. In a radioactive world when acts as simple as breathing become difficult, citizens of the United Space of America are fleeing from the country into the safety and comfort of space colonies. This act of fleeing subtly explores privilege and class bias. When the environment is greatly harmed, the privileged and wealthy ones flee from its rage while the lower class are left to dwell in it.
Onyebuchi tells this story in an immersing way that allows you to explore your imagination fully. With every page you open, the more suspense you find. Goliath is a novel of many layers.
These Impossible Things
In El-Wardany’s novel, These Impossible Things, the spotlight is on three women from different backgrounds, Kees, Malak and Jenna, who are coming of age in London in the 2010s, and the romantic entanglements that define their lives. Their friendship developed when they attended the same Islamic school together as young girls. Despite being grounded in the Islamic religion and the expectations of Islamic marriage that comes with it, the three friends begin to date non-Muslim men in their twenties.
Told in moving, witty prose, El-Wardany’s novel captures complex, well-drawn characters caught in a crucial moment in their lives. It is an ode to youth and female friendship, and the joys and troubles that come with it.
Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband?
Lizzie Damilola Blackburn
Yinka is an accomplished woman in her 30s, educated at Oxford with a well-paid job. Her only problem seems to be her inability to bring home a husband, prompting her mother to always ask her every time, “Yinka, where is your husband?” In the novel, Yinka’s entire Nigerian family is concerned about her singleness. In funny depictions of Nigerian culture, the novel presents characters amidst misshapen cultural tensions. The novel is entirely hilarious and relatable, a reminder that life is full of messiness.
The book also explores issues of colourism, especially for an African woman in modern British society. It is a novel that will speak deeply to women of colour who also struggle through the same life issues as the central character and have the same friends and family who exist and navigate the same cultural milieus. Damilola’s debut novel, Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband? is a fine addition to the romantic comedy genre. It features a heroine bold enough to ask important questions of the love she wants and desires. This is a moving love story about what it means to navigate modern life in two cultures.
If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English
The two nameless protagonists at the centre of Noor Naga’s novel, If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English, are simply identified as “the American” and “the boy from Shobrakheit.” The American woman is a diaspora Egyptian born in New York, who returns to Egypt in the Aftermath of her parents’ marital issues in an attempt to find a sense of purpose. The Egyptian man is also a product of a dysfunctional marriage in the village of Shobrakheit in the Egyptian Nile Delta. By orchestrated chance, the two meet in a bohemian cafe in downtown Cairo and fall in love afterwards. What follows is a painstaking study of what it means to have a relationship stilted by the most fascinating of all limitations—language.
Naga’s lyrical prose is full of achingly poetic observations. The psychological insight into the nature of modern relationships can also be equally provoking. Here, national concerns become personal traumas. The narrative brims with symbolism in places, especially with the descriptions of the inner structures of the American’s flat, the airy rooms and the dark kitchen. These connections might have buckled at the hands of a lesser talent.
In Naga’s steady hands, the sense of place and time that the novel repeatedly evokes is heightened. Noor Naga’s debut novel, If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English is a curiously beautiful book. It is an engrossing tale of migration and return, of love and hate, and revolution and ennui, of a society startled by the suddenness of change, and above all, of language. The sex scenes are nuanced and pithy with beauty and an admirable command of the language of empathy, sensibility and thought. If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English announces a talent poised to do great things in the coming years.
Naga’s novel won the Graywolf Africa Prize as a manuscript and is currently shortlisted for several prizes. It is easy to see why.
One for Sorrow, Two for Joy
This novel follows the life of its central character, Stella, who wants to be good. As Stella begins to build a new life, she is haunted by her past, and she must muster all her courage and grace to break free of the shackles that hold her back. Stella’s damaged childhood threatens to derail her career. As a child, Stella’s confusion rises as her father beats her frequently. Her personal ailment also puts her in a dangerous circle where her life is always on the brink. As a grown woman, as Stella navigates her life, she discovers that the route to salvation is an uneasy one.
Amuah’s narration can be painful at times, but the author’s exploration is filled with truth and empathy. Stella is interested in only survival; the same can be seen in all the other characters whom the author bestows with real emotional heft. This story can be sometimes difficult to read because of its subject matter, but the author speaks to the very soul of womanhood and family.
Set in both London and Ghana, Amuah debut is an unforgettable exploration of intergenerational trauma. Brimming with compassion and sensitivity, One for Sorrow, Two for Joy is a sensitive portrayal of the effects of domestic violence, trauma, grief, anxiety, and the victory of friendship, hope, resilience and companionship.
House of Shells
Traore’s sophomore novel, House of Shells, coming behind her successful first novel, Children of the Quicksands, tells a strange magic realist story centering around the character of Kuki who thinks the curse of Abiku is a joke and that her destiny is not to die young. One evening while exploring around, Kuki spies a driveway lined with giant palm trees and leads to an abandoned beach house full of shadows and scattered seashells. In the fading light, she meets a girl called Enilo with whom she becomes friends until Kuki makes a terrifying discovery.
While exploring the mystical world of the Abiku, Traore demonstrates the modern day disparity that exists within families of those who believe and those who don’t, and the consequences thereof. This is a gripping story of determination and the lives of two girls linked by a chance meeting. On the surface, this is an earnestly enjoyable story; however, Traore use the opportunity to offer an education on the nature of mythology and how it reflects in cultures and childhood and the minds of children. Kuki is a heroine to root for, and her escapes will keep young readers fascinated and enthralled.
The story also gives a sense of novelty to things like seashells and beaches. There are whole sections of the story that will fascinate younger readers to no end with their twists and mysteries. With her works, Efua Traore is filling an important gap in African literature with epic children’s novels, especially now when famous authors of children’s books are few and far-between.
The Quality of Mercy
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu
Ndlovu’s The Quality of Mercy is a crime novel that follows Spokes Moloi, a police officer who had spent his years in service guarding his integrity as he prepares to retire. Moloi is given one last crime to investigate. The crime is the possible murder of the secretive and dark Organisation of Domestic Affairs, who disappears on the day a ceasefire is declared, just on the brink of the country’s independence. Moloi has to unravel the tangled threads of Coetzee’s life to find out what became of him. To do this, Moloi is obliged to resolve the conundrums that have haunted him, and his country, for decades under colonial rule.
This novel sets the way for a classic crime novel. Ndlovu’s most recent novel, perhaps her best yet, reveals the history of a country transitional from colonialism to independence. With compassion and an unflinching eye to important detail, Ndlovu explores the rough side of life in the City of Kings. This epic crime novel also builds up a quirky cast of Dickensian characters at every turn: the good, the bad and the ugly. There are villagers, ex-soldiers, guerillas, aspiring politicians, shopkeepers and many more.
The author weaves elements of social comedy and crime in this novel that is part of, perhaps, the most monumental trilogy to come out of Southern Africa. Only time will tell. What is clear now is that Ndlovu’s professorial knowledge is evident in her masterly storytelling. The Quality of Mercy is indeed a novel about mercy and forgiveness. It is also about kinship and unbroken bonds, and how love can be a balm to human trauma. It is a story that deserves to endure into posterity.
Namwali Serpell’s second novel, The Furrows, is another magisterial effort from the immensely gifted author. Subtitled “an elegy,” the novel explores grief and trauma with Serpell’s virtuoso writerly powers at its most accomplished. This novel will expectedly win several awards. It follows the story of Cee William, a woman who loses her seven-year old brother, Wayne, when she was twelve. As a grown woman, William is wracked by grief and constantly blames herself for Wayne’s death.
Serpell delights in fantasies and the subversions of genres. The Furrows is no different. Here, she mixes elements of fantasy and mystery to create a narrative that explores all the different manifestations of grief and its ripple effect on the living. Her masterly narration offers new ways in which the novel can be many things other than an ordinary story. What she does with grief here can only be done by a writer of Serpell’s talent and powers. Her unrelenting gaze on human emotion and familial trauma offers a look into the hidden mystery behind ordinary lives.
Eve, the protagonist of Onyi Nwabineli’s novel, is still grieving the unexpected death of her husband, but her family and friends want her to move on. Eve is unable to do what they want because she feels she cannot face the world again in her state. Her attempt to look backwards at her erstwhile marriage forms of this story.
Essentially, this is another 2022 African novel that deals with and excavates grief in all its different ramifications. The novel focuses on Eve’s present state in the aftermath of loss, and her interactions with other people around her, with snippets of her private married life with her husband coming as recollections and reflections. Nwabineli’s knowledge of the nuances of grief is admirable.
There is a deliberateness in the way the author’s prose avoids equal heaviness in its use of words. Despite the heavy, dark subject matter the reader will find this witty page-turner easy to read. The humour in the book mellows down the pervasiveness of pain and grief. Someday, Maybe is also a novel of hope and the comforts of family. With this novel, Nwabineli shows that another significant writer has arrived on the scene of African literature.
Thank you for this comprehensive list. I am Daniel from Zambia. Is there a reason why the list is so Nigeria heavy? I see only one Zambian and a few East Africans.