My admiration and fixation with African literature was instigated by my sister, who studied abroad for a semester at a university in Kenya (when she told this one woman she was going to Kenya, the lady replied, "Oh I so admire people who go over there to do charity work!" And my sister corrected her with, "No, I'm going there to study…" Just in that simple exchange is a microcosm of how uneducated we Americans are about Africa and the many countries, cultures, economies, and influential people occupying the continent).
My sister was the one who first recommended Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I know Adichie has finally received the limelight she deserves in the past year, but people's praises shouldn't come from Beyoncé's say-so; they should come from her talent. I've followed her development as a writer for some time because I like her style, storytelling abilities, and careful dialogue. Her lyrical, heart wrenching debut novel Purple Hibiscus brought me to tears, but not as much as her portrayal of the Biafran War (another history lesson glazed over by US schools) in Half of a Yellow Sun. So yes, those are must-reads, but my official recommendation is a book I just finished - and no, it's not a small press book, and it has already been reviewed by some big wigs, but I'm going to recommend it anyway because African literature itself is underrepresented:
The glowing reviews speak for this book already. But let me say a few timely things about it. These past several months, in light of the Eric Garner and Michael Brown jury decisions and other tragic deaths, our country has been tense and forced into important discussions. These events brought a lot of unpleasant truths into the light where mainstream society can't turn a blind eye anymore. I have followed these cases and protests closely, and when I read people's arguments about this or that (or witness the painful arguments of family, friends, or worse…Facebook acquaintances), I am reassured of one thing only: White people, particularly of the middle and above income brackets, are out of touch with the experiences of black Americans. It doesn't matter what you believe about the Garner-Brown cases because this truth still stands. A large portion of debates are occurring because people don't see eye-to-eye in terms of their personal observations; they aren't willing to listen or believe that someone could have different experiences in this "land of the free." I can speak to this, having grown up in one of the most de facto segregated cities in America - Buffalo, NY.
Americanah is a must-read for mainstream society to better grasp the concept of race in America. Told through the vantage point of a Nigerian ex-pat, the novel shows how race plays into everyday interactions with Americans. I admire Adichie's bold observations about our culture - things that perhaps only someone from an outside culture would see. At times it's preachy and sometimes the author's voice takes over; it is more of a cultural commentary than an immersing story, the way I found Purple Hibiscus. But regardless, I think what the author has to say is important to hear, and the medium of the novel has broadened and diversified her audience.
Here comes another dose of honesty, this time on Western influence in colonial conditions. Tsitsi Dangarembga (pronouncing this is not so hard - as Adichie wrote in Americanah, We've learned the names of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, so why is an African name so difficult?) paints a hard-hitting picture of life in Rhodesia, what is now known as Zimbabwe.
Dangarembga is from Zimbabwe, a country that was colonized by Britain and not recognized as independent until 1980. So she writes from experience, plunging into your heart with truth. As the book follows the coming of age of a teenage girl as she tries to understand herself in the context of her culture - a culture that is continuously deemed lacking and uncivilized by her Western educators. This is an intense and thought-provoking look at life for Africans in colonial times, and a glimpse at what still remains in this post-colonial era.
Sembene Ousmane writes about a railroad strike in 1940s Senegal - but touches on so much more. In this 1960s novel, he weaves through the motif of coexistence amidst hatred. The story is based on historical events and artfully portrays the cultural values of that place and time - values of human rights that make this novel timeless and noteworthy.