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Focus: African Literature

Focus: African Literature

Eight years ago, the Book Fair in Göteborg – with an average of 100 000 visitors – announced its theme as “Africa”. Critics raised their voices at the treatment of Africa as a country rather than a continent. Supporters saw it as an opportunity to highlight the authors of the whole region. No matter your opinion, it was a great boost for African literature and one of the most distinguished visiting authors, Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, said:

“I don’t know why anyone should criticise the African focus. In terms of publishing houses there is far less on the continent of Africa than in Europe. And it is wonderful to see a country in Europe focusing on our continent and our writers.”

During the four-day-long festival, some 70 African authors from 28 African countries had the opportunity to meet with their readers, old and new ones. Gordimer was thrilled at what she saw: “To my amazement this is not just a small gathering, this is like a huge fun fair.”

One of the debutants at the fair, South African Kopano Matlwa said:

“We are all from the same continent but with completely different stories and completely different realities and if you are aware of that, then the theme “Africa” is fine.”

Belonging to the new generation of authors, she believed that that there is no longer the same responsibility to write on the mandate of educating people about what’s happening on the continent.

“I think we, the young generation, have less of a burden of having to be the voice of the continent or the voice of a country. We can write a little bit more freely and we can allow us to be more introspective and self-indulgent.”

That was in 2010 and yet, most African authors are still fairly unknown outside their countries. As summer is at its height in Europe, and the holidays are upon us, here comes my suggestions for a good African read.

Let’s start in the north. Moroccan-born Tahar Ben Jelloun is often mentioned as a Nobel laureate candidate (whenever that Prize will re-appear no one knows) and his stories about life in Morocco – and life for immigrants in France – are beautifully written. Another African often mentioned in connection with the Nobel Literature Prize, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, is one of few Africans that has opted not to write in English or French (often the official languages of the old colonies). His books are translated from Swahili and centres around the colonial times.

If you haven’t read my favourite Nigerian authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, you’re in for a treat. Learn about the middle class and what was really happening when Biafra tried to go for independence. Half of a Yellow Sun has become a modern classic. Let the book be followed by Purple Hibiscus and Americanah.

From Congo-Brazzaville you will get to know ordinary life through Alain Mabanckou’s novels (realism, comic and dark humour) and from Zimbabwe Petina Gappah’s voice has become one of the most well-known. Her debut short story collection, Elegy for Easterly , won the Guardian First Book award.

In South Africa Kopano Matlwa has made a name for herself as one of the young contemporary authors, Spilt Milk focuses on the so called born free-generation and Coconut addresses issues of race, class and colonisation in modern South Africa.

Marlene van Niekerk writes books full of pain about the South Africa shortly after the fall of apartheid Triomf and Agaat. On a lighter note, try the crime novels set in Karoo by Sally Andrew the South African version of The Lady Detective No1 in Botswana (written by a Scot). And if you like crime novels. Deon Meyer is the international best-seller who brings you not only a crime, but an insight to contemporary South Africa.

Happy read!



Görrel Espelund

Journalist, author and Africa guide. Read more about Görrel here.