The 10 best African writers (who aren’t Chinua Achebe)
Professor John Masterson, author of The Disorder of Things: A Foucauldian Approach to the Work of Nuruddin Farah, provides a list of some of the continent’s other rich talents.
1 Mariama Bâ
Born in Dakar, Senegal, in 1929, Bâ has come to be regarded as one of the most original writers to have emerged from west Africa.
Her life and work were preoccupied with issues such as gender relations, power and inequality, as well as the ways in which these were framed and affected by African and Islamic cultural beliefs. In many ways, her own narrative corresponded with a key feminist mantra: “The personal is political.”
Her early struggle for education informed her writing, both fictional and critical.
Her first novel, So Long a Letter (1981), uses the raw material of her own life to create a narrative which, owing to its resonance with the experience of other African women, is widely acknowledged as a seminal feminist text.
She died before her second novel, Scarlet Song (1986), was published.
Since her death, academics and general readers alike have come to appreciate the peculiar power and considerable contribution of Bâ’s writing, as well as her political legacy.
While she composed her work in French, it has been translated into many different languages, and is read and studied worldwide.
Favourite text: So Long a Letter
2 Buchi Emecheta
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1944, Emecheta’s life and work has, in effect, set the stage for a new generation of west African female writers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie perhaps the most high profile among them.
Like Adichie, much of Emecheta’s fiction is drawn from her diasporic experiences, having been educated in the former colonial centre of London before making a life and home there.
Emecheta’s early and heavily autobiographical novels, such as In the Ditch (1972) and Second-Class Citizen (1974), are key black British texts, concerned as they are with the struggles of Nigerian women and children to adapt to a home that is foreign in more ways than one.
In addition to her work as a novelist, Emecheta is celebrated for her writing for children as well as for a series of critical pieces.
Like Chinua Achebe and Adichie, Emecheta has provided a fictional exploration of the Biafran War in Destination Biafra (1982).
As with Bâ and Bessie Head, much of Emecheta’s most striking work, from The Slave Girl (1977) to The Joys of Motherhood (1979), is preoccupied with the ways in which writing can function as a mode of resistance within patriarchal and, therefore, often hostile cultures and contexts.
As such, a novel like the more recent The New Tribe (1999) supplements her oeuvre in provocative ways.
Favourite text: The Joys of Motherhood
3 Bessie Head
Born in Pietermaritzburg in 1937, Head passed away in 1986. Since her death, the significance and influence of her life and work has been brought more starkly into focus.
She is best known for three novels – When Rain Clouds Gather (1968), Maru (1971) and A Question of Power (1974).
As with the writing of Bâ and Emecheta, Head’s fiction is preoccupied with the issues, struggles and questions that defined her own highly unique narrative.
One of her most pressing concerns was the relationship between racial identity and notions of belonging, born as she was to a then “forbidden” union involving a black man and Scottish woman.
If much contemporary post-colonial fiction is dominated by themes of hybridity and mixture, often framed in somewhat saccharine ways, Head’s experiences and writing attend to the pain, sometimes even trauma, of being a mixed-race woman within a predominantly patriarchal, racist society.
But as with Bâ and Emecheta, the hope and beauty of her work comes from the creation of a singular voice driven by her commitment to writing as a form of correcting injustice and offering resistance.
Favourite text: A Question of Power
4 Ousmane Sembène
Born in Ziguinchor, southern Senegal, in 1923, Sembène is widely acknowledged as a seminal figure in both African literature and film.
As with Bâ, Emecheta, Nuruddin Farah, Head, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Yvonne Vera, Sembène’s work, on both page and screen, is centrally concerned with the cultural practices and political discourses surrounding the female body in Africa.
Before his death in 2007, Sembène won critical acclaim for Moolaadé (2004), a film that offers an uncompromising exploration of female circumcision.
It was a suitably provocative end to a life and career dedicated to the belief that art should play an interrogative, consciousness-raising role.
Alongside his scores of films, Sembène is probably best known for his second novel, which translated from its original French into God’s Bits of Wood (1960), as well as Xala, a novella written in 1973 that evolved into a film of the same name.
In their distinctive yet equally defiant ways, both texts attack political hypocrisy, whether colonial or neocolonial, while also critiquing the excesses of an often violent patriarchal culture.
For readers and viewers on the African continent and beyond, Sembène’s achievements and influence are enormous.
Favourite text: Xala
5 Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Born in Kamiriithu, Kenya, in 1938, Thiong’o is one of the most celebrated African intellectuals and writers.
He has enjoyed international acclaim as a novelist, essayist, playwright, social commentator and activist.
The experience of British colonialism and the Mau Mau struggle for independence, as well as Kenya’s position in the neocolonial era preoccupy much of Ngugi’s thought and writing.
He established himself with a series of novels published in the 1960s: Weep Not, Child (1964), The River Between (1965) and A Grain of Wheat (1967).
His combination of a distinctive prose style with provocative subject matter would come to define other works now considered canonical texts of African literature.
These include Petals of Blood (1977), the play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) (1977) and Caitani Mutharabaini (1981), later translated into English as Devil on the Cross (1982).
Volumes of essays and reflections, such as Decolonising the Mind (1986), Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams (1998), as well as his prison memoir, Detained (1981), have also been influential for generations of readers and scholars alike.
In 2004, he published his leviathan Gikuyu-language novel, Murogi wa Kagogo, translated as Wizard of the Crow.
Favourite text: A Grain of Wheat
6 Nuruddin Farah
Born in Baidoa in what was Italian Somaliland in 1945, Farah has produced a series of novels, plays, essays and journalistic reflections on his native Somalia.
His first novel, From a Crooked Rib (1970), established his concern with the particular struggles of women in the Horn of Africa.
This has only endured and intensified throughout his more than 40-year career.
To date, Farah has written three novelistic trilogies.
The first, Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship, comprising Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), Sardines (1981) and Close Sesame (1983), offers a quasi-Orwellian portrait of life under autocratic power.
The second, Blood in the Sun, featuring Maps (1986), Gifts (1992) and Secrets (1998), is set against the backdrop of civil conflict and famine in Somalia.
The most recent, Past Imperfect, made up of Links (2004), Knots (2007) and Crossbones (2011), provides a fictional exploration of everything from the botched US-led Operation Restore Hope to contemporary debates about international piracy.
Based in Cape Town, Farah has dedicated himself to telling stories about his homeland with a view to disrupting some of the rather more reductive tendencies in both colonial discourse and the contemporary media.
He is widely tipped to add his name to the list of African Nobel prize-winning writers.
Favourite text: Maps
7 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Born in Enugu, Nigeria, in 1977, Adichie has received popular and critical acclaim since the publication of her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, in 2003.
She is widely regarded as one of the most important voices to have emerged in contemporary African literature and has been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards.
Adichie is often spoken of in the same breath as Achebe, with many believing she has assumed his creative mantel.
While meant as a form of tribute, such comparisons run the risk of deflecting attention from the singularity of Adichie’s authorial voice and vision.
With the publication of Half of a Yellow Sun in 2006, for instance, she explored the Biafran War that was so central to Achebe’s literary project, among many others.
But there is no sense in which the novel is imitative, with its commercial and critical success confirming Adichie’s unique presence on the global literary stage.
As an author who divides her time between Nigeria and the US, she has drawn on her own experiences in a collection of short stories titled The Thing Around Your Neck (2009), as well as her most recent novel, Americanah (2013).
On the basis of her achievements to date, many predict Adichie’s status and profile will continue to grow.
Favourite text: Half of a Yellow Sun
8 Ayi Kwei Armah
Born in Takoradi, Ghana, in 1939, Armah is widely considered one of the most important African writers to have emerged in the post-colonial period.
Educated at Harvard, Armah has worked as a translator and scriptwriter, in addition to his activities as a novelist.
His first book, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968), has achieved something approaching canonical status in Anglophone African literature.
With strong echoes of the French existential tradition associated with Sartre and Camus, the novel is often presented as an exemplar of the literature of disillusionment.
It centres on a character trying to make sense of his life, as well as that of the nation, following what can be seen as the betrayal of Ghana’s independence dreams.
A critique of a system overrun by nepotism and corruption, the novel still packs a punch almost 50 years on.
While Armah’s vision seems dominated by the grim and grimy, glimmers of hope for an alternative future, for both the protagonist and the nation, do exist.
As such, arguably the most telling part of the title is “not yet”.
Armah followed The Beautyful Ones with Fragments (1970), Why Are We So Blest? (1972), Two Thousand Seasons (1973), The Healers (1978), Osiris Rising (1995) and The Eloquence of the Scribes (2006).
In so doing, he has secured his position as one of the most prominent and distinctive African writers.
Favourite text: The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born
9 Yvonne Vera
Born in 1964 in Bulawayo in what was then Southern Rhodesia, Vera’s life was cut tragically short when, in 2005, she died of meningitis aged just 40.
She has come to be regarded as one of the most important sub-Saharan female novelists to have emerged in recent decades.
Her career began in earnest during her time as a student in Toronto, Canada, where she published pieces in a local magazine.
This would prove the catalyst for a short story collection, Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals (1993), as well as a series of novels.
These include Nehanda (1993), Without a Name (1994), Under the Tongue (1996), Butterfly Burning (1998) and The Stone Virgins (2002).
Vera returned to Zimbabwe in 1995, and was a source of great inspiration and support to many up-and-coming artists in her role as regional director of the national gallery in Bulawayo from 1997 to 2003.
That Vera was working on a new novel, Obedience, when she died shows her commitment to her work even in the most debilitating of circumstances.
Her work is intimately concerned with the politics of the female body, in relation to such traumatising experiences as infanticide, rape and abortion, seen in terms of wider issues concerning the Zimbabwean body politic.
Favourite text: Butterfly Burning
10 Wole Soyinka
Born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, in 1934, Soyinka’s career has spanned many genres – from his work as a playwright, poet, novelist and essayist – and many guises, including regular appointments as visiting professor at several top universities around the world.
He won the Nobel prize in literature in 1986 and is often spoken of in the company of Achebe and Ngugi.
Like his fellow Nigerian, Soyinka was outspoken on the subject of the Biafran War, calling for a cease-fire in 1967.
He was subsequently imprisoned for just under two years, a period he recounts in his memoir, The Man Died: Prison Notes (1972).
Throughout a more than 50-year career, Soyinka has produced scores of novels, poems and plays. Some of his best-known work includes the plays The Trial of Brother Jero (1963), A Dance of the Forests (1963), Death and the King’s Horseman (1975) and A Play of Giants (1984), as well as the novels The Interpreters (1965) and Season of Anomy (1973).
Collections of his poetry include Poems from Prison (1969), A Shuttle in the Crypt (1972) and Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems (1988).
This considerable body of work has secured his status as one of the most prominent voices on and from the continent. His plays are now as likely to be performed in London as they are in Lagos.