Book Reviews & Recommendations of Books from Africa and the Diaspora
Darkowaa is a Ghanaian-American, currently living where her heart feels most at home - Accra. She doesn't like to call herself a 'bookworm', but rather prefers to call herself an African Book Addict! Books by BLACK writers (or writers of African descent in Africa and the Diaspora) excite her the most.
Below is my annual collage of new books to anticipate this year. I’ve compiled 102 new African, African-American, Black-Brit and Caribbean books that look very promising. Please note – this list/collage is just a snippetof books by Black authors 2023 has to offer!
An enthralling and original first novel about exile, diaspora, and the impossibility of Black refuge in America and beyond.
In the morning, I received a phone call and was told to board a flight. The arrangements had been made on my behalf. I packed no clothes, because my clothes had been packed for me. A cararrived to pick me up.
A man returns home to sub-Saharan Africa after twenty-six years in America. When he arrives, he finds that he doesn’t recognize the country or anyone in it. Thankfully, someone recognizes him, a man who calls him brother—setting him on a quest to find his real brother, who is dying.
In Hangman, Maya Binyam tells the story of that search, and of the phantoms, guides, tricksters, bureaucrats, debtors, taxi drivers, relatives, riddles, and strangers that will lead to the truth.
It is an uncommonly assured debut: an existential journey; a tragic farce; a slapstick tragedy; and a strange, and strangely honest, story of one man’s stubborn quest to find refuge—in this world and in the world that lies beyond it.
This incendiary debut of linked stories narrates the everyday lives of Soweto residents, from the early years of apartheid to its dissolution and beyond.
Imbued with the thrilling texture of township language and life, and uncompromising in its depiction of Black South Africa, Innards tells the intimate stories of everyday folks processing the savagery of apartheid with grit, wit, and their own distinctive, bewildering humor.
Magogodi oa Mphela Makhene—who was born in apartheid-era South Africa—plunges readers into an electrifying first collection filled with indelible characters. Meet a fake PhD and ex–freedom fighter who remains unbothered by his own duplicity, a girl who goes mute after stumbling on a burning body, and twin siblings nursing a scorching feud. Like many Americans today, Innards’ characters mirror the difficulty of navigating the shadows of a living past alongside the uncertain opportunities of the promised land.
A work of intelligence and vision—flush with forgiveness, rage, ugliness, and wild beauty—Innards heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.
WOMB CITY imagines a dark and deadly future Botswana, rich with culture and true folklore, which begs the question: how far must one go to destroy the structures of inequality upon which a society was founded? How far must a mother go to save the life of her child?
Nelah seems to have it all: wealth, fame, a husband, and a child on the way. But in a body her husband controls via microchip and the tailspin of a loveless marriage, her hopes and dreams come to a devastating halt. A drug-fueled night of celebration ends in a hit-and-run. To dodge a sentencing in a society that favors men, Nelah and her side-piece, Janith Koshal, finish the victim off and bury the body.
But the secret claws its way into Nelah’s life from the grave. As her victim’s vengeful ghost begins exacting a bloody revenge on everyone Nelah holds dear, she?ll have to unravel her society’s terrible secrets to stop those in power, and become a monster unlike any other to quench the ghost’s violent thirst
With the opening line of Silver Sparrow, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” author Tayari Jones unveils a breathtaking story about a man’s deception, a family’s complicity, and the two teenage girls caught in the middle.
Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s two families—the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode. This is the third stunning novel from an author deemed “one of the most important writers of her generation” (the Atlanta Journal Constitution).
Review –★★★★ (4 stars)
Wow. There is a special place in hell for this James Witherspoon character, with Raleigh (James’ right-hand man) following right after him. Just, wow.
I enjoyed Dana’s chapters way more than Chaurisse’s chapters. Since the book starts off with Dana’s chapters, I really wanted to give this book 5 stars. But as we transitioned into Chaurisse’s story, I started to not really care about her self-deprecating, under-achieving demeanor. Also, some bits of the story felt overly dramatic and almost unrealistic when we were approaching the climax of the nonsense James orchestrated.
I did love how with each of the girls’ chapters, we are taken through their parents’ past. The way James and Laverne (Chaurisse’s parents) met and settled down was so different from how James and Gwen (Dana’s parents) met and ‘settled down’. Raleigh’s past had my heart sooooo heavy, whew! Even though we are introduced to Miss Bunny briefly, I really loved her! What a woman. A true, selfless MVP.
If I had read this book when I was in my teens or 20’s, I would have judged Gwen and Dana so harshly. But since I read this while in my 30’s, I somewhat appreciate Gwen’s decisions and understand her. There is a lot of pain in this book. There are no winners or losers in this story… oh wait – James is definitely a loser in this story. There is absolutely no way that anyone can make me sympathize with such a wicked, heartless, confused, selfish man, ei! It’s so interesting how James actually thinks he’s a noble man, full of integrity because he honored both women by marrying them ; but he didn’t treat both families equally at all. How he treated Dana, especially at the end when she reveals to readers her last encounter with him was terrible.
Silver Sparrow is a really complicated 1980’s story about family, secrets and sisterhood. Social class and privilege more layers of complexity to the story. The way Tayari Jones writes about her hometown – Atlanta, and the South, shows her immense love for the region. I’m trying to understand why hair played such a large role in this book; there are many scenes in Laverne’s hair salon and Chaurisse often compared her meagre hair to Dana’s luscious mane. There seemed to be a stark juxtaposition between the girls’ level of privilege with the abundance of their hair. I found that weirdly interesting.
Tayari Jones is an author I’m really beginning to love. I gave An American Marriage 5 stars back in 2020, and I do see her growth as a writer in that book.
In exactly 1 week, the 2022 AKO Caine Prize winner will be announced!
For those who are not familiar, the AKO Caine Prize(formerly as the Caine Prize for African Writing), which was first awarded in year 2000, is an award open to writers from anywhere in Africa for work published in English. It’s focus is on the short story, reflecting the contemporary development of the African story-telling tradition.
The AKO Caine Prize for African Writing is a registered charity whose aim is to bring African writing to a wider audience using the annual literary award (source).
Some notable winners of the Caine Prize include (click on links to my reviews):
Leila Aboulela, from Sudan (2000) – author of novels Minaret,The Translator,Lyrics Alley, among others.
Binyavanga Wainaina, from Kenya (2002) – founding editor of Kwani?, author of memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place and the essay How To Write About Africa found in various literary magazines. *sigh* Rest In Power, Binya!
Yvonne A. Owuor, from Kenya (2003) – author of the novel, Dust.
Previously shortlisted writers include: (2001) Mia Couto from Mozambique, (2002) Chimamanda Adichie from Nigeria, (2006) Laila Lalami from Morocco, (2013) Chinelo Okparanta from Nigeria, (2013) Pede Hollist from Sierra Leone, (2014) Tendai Huchu from Zimbabwe, (2013 & 2015) Elnathan John from Nigeria, (2021) Doreen Baingana from Uganda, among others!
The AKO Caine Prize and the shortlisted stories play huge roles in the authors I read from Africa and the Diaspora. Many AKO Caine Prize winners and shortlisted writers have found great success and I’ve reviewed a good number of these writers’ work here on African Book Addict!
This year, the AKO Caine Prize shortlist comprises of five talented writers with stories showcasing the “vibrancy, variety and splendor of creative talent among writers of African descent” – Okey Ndibe; (left to right):
Another year where women dominate the shortlist – I love to see it. And FINALLY, Ghana is well represented on the shortlist! I never thought I would see the day where Nigerians, Kenyans and South African stories did not dominate haha.
When A Man Loves A Women by Nana-Ama Danquah is a well-paced story that turns pretty dark by the end. I think this is expected, as the short story was originally published in the Accra Noir anthology (via Akashic). The story centers a loving Ghanaian couple from the US who later relocate to Cantonments, Accra. Kwame and Adwoa were high school sweethearts and are now well into their 50’s, dealing with various ailments that normally afflict the body in middle-age. Kwame is diagnosed with cancer and it seems the couple’s normal routine of coping with their marriage is disrupted. The story is quite simple… almost predictable, but not in a bad way. I’ve always found Danquah’s writing to be very accessible and digestible. If you remember my 2018 book review of her memoir – Willow Weep For Me, you’ll understand my love of her ability to aptly capture the realities of life.
A Double-Edged Inheritance by Hannah Giorgis was an enjoyable read for me! I’m pretty fond of Giorgis’s writing in The Atlantic, where she covers (pop)culture. I had no idea she wrote fiction as well, so it was a nice surprise to see her on this shortlist. A Double-Edged Inheritance was originally published in the Addis Ababa Noir anthology (via Akashic) so I expected some level of darkness in the story. The only issue I had with the story was that it had waaay too many characters and it was hard to track who was who sometimes. The story moves from Addis Ababa to the US and back to Addis, where readers are acquainted with a few heroines – Tigist, Almaz and Meskerem. Meskerem – who is the daughter of Tigist (now dead, thanks to the man she fell in love with) is an Ethiopian-American who is on a quest to find her roots in Addis. Her grandaunt – Almaz (who I think is the MVP of this story) is the glue that holds all the characters together, thanks to her wealth, social currency and resilience. The story turns dark when Meskerem is on holiday in Addis Ababa and she eventually meets her father, unintentionally. It’s hard to summarize this story, as it has so many characters and sub-plots. But I would love to see this story turn into a full-fleshed novel!
But ooooooooooh, my! Five Years Next Sunday by Idza Luhumyo will definitely win the AKO Caine Prize this year. What a beautifully magical story! I’m now a fan of the main character of Five Years Next Sunday and Idza, the writer! This mythical story follows a young girl, Pili, whose hair-which is in the form of luscious locs, is a god of the land. Her hair grows beautifully and attracts lots of attention to her poor family. Her family later becomes wealthy, thanks to her hair, as it attracts the likes of white people who fetishize it. But as her hair is growing and becoming a main attraction, the land is parched, as it hasn’t rained in five years. Cutting her hair would signal the clouds to finally let out rain; but cutting it would also banish her to “the quarter of witches, where all women who have the rain are sent”. Honey, white woman who is jealous of Pili’s attention, feigns connection with Pili, only for Pili to mistaken this connection for desire and later make the choice of cutting her locs.
My summary of this story does NOT do it justice. The beauty of the story is in the sublime, engaging, light writing! The story holds deeper meaning, depending on how intently it is read. On the surface, I loved how the nature of a Black woman’s hair was being revered. Hair was the source of life for a group of people – which is akin to water. On a deeper level, the story touches on themes such as – the environment, nature, womanhood, colonization, fetishization, desire, destiny and ancestral connections. Five Years Next Sunday was the winner of the Short Story Day Africa Prize in 2021. This story also deserves to win the 2022 AKO Caine Prize!
Which story is your favorite? Who do you think will win the AKO Caine Prize this year?
The winner will be announced on Monday 18th July 2022. Good luck to all the shortlisted candidates!
You can also check out my past commentary on the AKO Caine Prize below:
From the award-winning author of Under the Udala Trees and Happiness, Like Water comes a brilliant, provocative, up-to-the-minute novel about a young white man’s education and miseducation in contemporary America.
Harry Sylvester Bird grows up in Edward, Pennsylvania, with his parents, Wayne and Chevy, whom he greatly dislikes. They’re racist, xenophobic, financially incompetent, and they have quite a few secrets of their own. To Harry, they represent everything wrong with this country. And his small town isn’t any better. He witnesses racial profiling, graffitied swastikas, and White Power signs on his walk home from school. He can’t wait until he’s old enough to leave. When he finally is, he moves straight to New York City, where he feels he can finally live out his true inner self.
In the city, he meets and falls in love with Maryam, a young Nigerian woman. But when Maryam begins to pull away, Harry is forced to confront his identity as he never has before—if he can.
Brilliant, funny, original, and unflinching, Harry Sylvester Bird is a satire that speaks to all the most pressing tensions and anxieties of our time—and of the history that has shaped us and might continue to do so.
Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)
Sigh. Where do I even begin with this book???? There are so many layers to this satire, and I have so many complaints and questions! Chinelo Okparanta really had the gall to portray the life of a white boy / man, as a Black African woman writer and I deeply admire her for that. Reading Harry Sylvester Bird was mind-boggling and mortifying as hell, but I’m always down for an original, chaotic read by an author I admire (my book review of Okparanta’s 2013 collection – Happiness, Like Waterthoroughly celebrates my love for her storytelling).
Harry Sylvester Bird is a coming-of-age novel that takes readers from Edward Pennsylvania, Centralia Pennsylvania, New York City, Ghana (Cape Coast, Aburi, Afajato) and back to New York City, spanning the years of 2016 to 2026. Harry’s stalk is extremely racist, but he does everything in his power to distance himself from the burdens of his personal and racist family history.
Once I finished reading this book, I concluded that my dear Harry, is a sick man. I don’t know whether he has a white savior complex, body dysmorphia, obsessive-compulsive disorder or all three – but the man is… strange. I found Harry to be adorable yet repulsive, timid, lonely, calm, selfish, confused, weird and inherently racist as fuck – through no fault of his own.
While reading, I kept wondering whom Okparanta wrote this novel for. I can’t wait to attend her virtual book tour to hear her talk about this book! Surely, I can see sensitive white readers hating this novel. Harry loathing his whiteness will definitely make white readers uncomfortable. Black readers may be baffled and annoyed as hell at this novel, because Harry seems to be reminiscent of Rachel Dolezal – just Google her, if you’ve been living under a rock. Harry believes he is a Black man in a white body, but in my opinion, his belief holds no grounds! I wouldn’t even call him an ally… he’s just a lonely white person who is a product of his abandoned, white supremacist upbringing. Harry never engaged actively with Black culture or Black folks, besides Maryam – a Nigerian young woman at his college who he was deeply fond of. The only engagement Harry had with Black ‘culture’ was his family trip to Tanzania in 2016, which was the epitome of of micro-aggressions, fetishization and a weird admiration for the locals.
This book has a lot of great characters besides Harry. Maryam added a nice twist to Harry’s coming-of age-story. I was worried that the introduction of a Black African woman character would turn the book into a love story. But Maryam’s existence in the novel only unravels Harry’s true-blue being (pun intended). At certain points in the novel, I felt Maryam’s embarrassment, annoyance and shame for engaging with Harry, as she slowly realized the man he truly was. Okparanta did a good job portraying Chevy and Wayne as well. They are an insane pair with lots of depth with respect to their eroding relationship – you’d have to read the book to find out who these two are. And brace yourself!
Memory plays a huge role in Harry Sylvester Bird. Harry is the sole narrator of this coming-of-age novel, which is a first-person narrative. As readers go through his life in 10 years, we only rely on his flawed recollection of events. Many happenings in the book are hence exaggerations of reality/the truth, as we see life through Harry’s insecure, troubled lens. While I found it fascinating reading Harry’s voice and inner thoughts, again, I really wonder how other readers would take to this novel. Some happenings are far-fetched, some happenings are hilarious and others are simply perturbing. As we move passed 2022 and into the future, I loved Okparanta’s take on how the future – sans the pandemic would be. I especially liked her depiction of Ghana – it felt accurate and even hopeful (with respect to Ghana’s use of energy and transportation).
This satire aims at questioning the evolution and limitations of identity and race. Obviously, our identities are ever-evolving, as long as we are alive. But can our race evolve? Is it possible to be phenotypically white but feel as if you’re Black within? Black folks who pass as white may battle with this, but in Harry’s case, he’s genotypically and phenotypically a white boy/man who adamantly believes that he’s a Black man. Once you finish the novel, you begin to question whether dear Harry is actually well mentally, especially as his love for the Black race seems to originate from micro-aggresssions and terrible stereotypes.
While this book is hilarious, it explores various political stances that may be uncomfortable to imbibe. I just want to know why Okparanta chose to write this story. Authors are free to write what they like – duh. But was she trying to humanize racist white men? Was she trying to expose racist white people? Was she indirectly celebrating the gloriousness of our Black race? Was she trying to open up the dreadful trans-racial conversation? Was she trying to flip the white gaze? I have soooo many questions! Nevertheless, Okparanta did a damn good job with this original novel. Dear reader, please remember that this novel is a SATIRE – lighten up! Harry and this glorious mess of a novel will be on my mind for a long time.
Below is my annual collage of new books to anticipate this year. This year I’m not doing the most by highlighting 99 books like I did last year. I’ve compiled just 69 new African, African-American, Black-Brit and Caribbean books that look very promising.
Please note – this list/collage is just a snippetof books by Black authors 2022 has to offer!
What new releases are you excited about? Please do share!
Long time, no blog! It’s been a while since I posted a book review or book chat… or content, in general. It’s crazy how I started this book blog when I commenced dental school in 2014 and I’m now a Dentist working at a major teaching hospital – praise God! Life is very different now – it’s mostly filled with me looking in peoples’ mouths, making diagnoses, admitting patients with head/neck injuries or infections to the hospital, in the operating room (theater) assisting in head & neck surgeries, extracting, restoring and cleaning teeth.
When I was a dental student, I succeeded in reading for about 40 minutes a day prior to studying. Nowadays after work, I’m usually very tired and resort to watching a TV series or YouTube, instead of reading and finishing books I start.
Reading while I was in dental school was a huge coping mechanism for me. Now, indulging (heavily) in TV shows, making and receiving music playlists, reading short pieces online + magazines and napping bring me joy as well. But in general, it’s been really challenging to read during this pandemic (especially during the lockdown period), and I know I’m not alone. So many other readers have been finding it difficult to focus on their hobbies and some readers are now finally getting their reading groove back. In an effort to get my reading juices flowing again, I joined two book clubs this year: Ghana Must Read Book Club (where we read Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami) and Harare Book Club(where we [re-]read So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ).
Do book blogs/websites still exist?? With Instagram (or Bookstagram – the section of Instagram dedicated to ALL things books) taking everyone’s attention nowadays, does the average reader even take the time to peruse their favorite bookish websites and engage with the content that book bloggers painstakingly create? Some of the thoughtful book blogs by Black readers/writers I’ve loved since 2014/2015 haven’t been updated in a looong time. Some of these book blogs are/were: Incessant Scribble, Kinna Reads, Mary Okeke Reviews, Reading Pleasure, Bookshy, Brown Girl Reading, The Storyscape, Rowena (on Goodreads), Lynecia (on Goodreads), Reading Has Purpose by Shannon, Folklore and Literacy by Leslie Reece etc. These Black readers/writers have either moved on (to Bookstagram, TikTok or BookTube) or just haven’t found the time or interest to frequently post content on their sites. But I know about 80% of them are still reading and engaging with books in their own private spaces, just not as publicly as before. Very few of my favorite literary sites/ book blogs are still going strong, like Zezee With Books, Paperback Social, K E Garland, JHOHADLI.
It’s really interesting to see how the book review/book blogging sphere has ‘evolved’. Now with influencer culture being so prevalent, the number of followers on your social media (especially Bookstagram) determines your relevance or importance. Receiving physical advance review copies (ARCs) of books to be published is now a super-duper badge of honor. This new influencer culture around books creates a hierarchy of importance amongst readers and book bloggers, and alienates a lot of people who lack access to popular books of the moment. It’s wild how this influencer culture can easily cause burnout too, with Bookstagrammers working so hard against the algorithm to be seen! You want your photos on Bookstagram to get the most likes and you want your follower count to rise so that publishers can start noticing you and you’re eligible to receive ARCs – which will enable you to flaunt on the ‘gram to let your peers know you’re ‘important’. It’s so easy to get sucked into this rat race when your hobby of reading was primarily soothing and free of this anxiety around reading socially.
The new influencer culture looks fun for those who love the challenge of constantly creating content to stay relevant, but it has created a foul competitive nature to blogging, which is tiresome – in MY opinion. Obviously, not everyone on Bookstagram strives to be an ‘influencer’ (by the way, I hate that word), but it’s disheartening for some readers who post compelling captions/reviews and don’t receive meaningful engagement because their follower count is low (I know ‘low’ is relative, please ooo). Don’t get me wrong- the community of readers who avidly read socially is pretty amazing; real friendships have been born out of our shared love (or hate) of certain books… but sometimes I almost miss the days where reading was a bit more intimate without the noise of social media, the hype reviews and the constant need to keep up with new releases.
Another layer to my fatigue is how readers on the continent of Africa aren’t really part of the global reading ecosystem. Readers in Africa don’t push sales for (Western) publishing houses, so we aren’t a priority. I only have access to popular books from publishers because they are delivered to my homes in the US and the UK. But what about other readers who live in countries in Africa that don’t have addresses outside of the continent? Publishers rarely mail books to my address here in Accra; the only times I received books here in Accra were because the authors pushed for them to be sent directly to me- thank you Zinzi Clemmons, Ayesha Harruna Attah and Maame Blue.
It’s mind-boggling how publishing houses want select African book bloggers on the continent to market their books, yet they can’t make any accommodations in their budgets to mail at least 20 physical ARCs of interest to book bloggers on the African continent (apparently this excludes South African book bloggers[?]). I know the lack of vibrant publishing houses here in Ghana has a role to play in this issue. But besides access to ARCs, it’s rare that book bloggers here on the continent are included in certain book campaigns and paid promotions of popular books by our Black writers. Buying new books is also expensive here in Accra – you need at least GH₵ 100 to purchase a book, and it won’t even be a hardback. So for me, all of these things culminated together have dimmed my fire a bit. Obviously, I’ll always be a reader. I’ll continue to post my book reviews and discuss literary happenings on my platform. But these blatant inequalities in the global reading ecosystem have been quite disappointing.
In August, I had the privilege of moderating a wonderful reading event with three brilliant Ghanaian women writers – Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, Nana Oforiatta Ayim and Ayesha Harruna Attah. It was a dream come true to be in the midst of Ghanaian women writers that I admire and have loudly celebrated on this platform (via #ReadGhanaian) since 2017. The event was held at Studio 189 in Osu, with an audience of about 50 people in total. The venue was cute and the event was pretty rich and vibrant.
After the event, I realized how starkly different it is to discuss books with writers versus readers. When I’m discussing literature with writers, it’s usually in the presence of an audience, in a Q & A format. There is some level of performance on my part, as I try and ask questions that would give the audience context to the books being discussed, while avoiding spoilers as much as possible. Unless I’m out to dinner with a writer, I don’t feel like I’m able to truly be myself because of the audiences’ presence and my nerves acting up as I try to sound intelligent in keeping the conversation flowing spontaneously.
On the other hand, discussing literature with fellow readers feels more laid-back. I’m able to divulge my truest feelings when discussing books/characters/storylines; and just fellowshipping with other readers without an audience feels comfortable and less performative. Two weekends ago, I had a virtual discussion with some readers on Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah’s debut collection, and it felt wholesome! About fifteen womxn RSVP’d, but only five showed up – which was still great. While some readers were not able to finish the book, it was still an eye-opening, nuanced conversation. When I was in dental school, I didn’t have the luxury of time to join book clubs, as I had to focus on school material. And when I was in college (Middlebury College, VT), discussing Black books felt anthropological, so my African American literature class discussions tended to feel flat and very academic. Joining the Ghana Must Read bookclub allowed me to really enjoy discussing books with a group of people who came into the discussion with different perspectives. Maybe I should start a bookclub?
I’ve read some timeless gems this year. The best book I’ve read thus far is The Sex Lives of African Women by Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah. I might have a review up soon – even though I really don’t have the words to do that collection justice. I’m currently reading fellow Ghanaian-American Zeba Blay’s debut – Carefree Black Girls: A Celebration of Black Women in Popular Culture – which is radically vulnerable and honest, in all the good ways. I’ve attended a couple of her virtual conversations on her book tour and I truly appreciate her deep thought and her love for Black womxn. I’m also finishing up Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism: Notes From the Women White Feminists Forgot on Audible – which is sooo smart, thorough and relevant. I have a true understanding of Black feminism, thanks to Mikki Kendall.
Has anyone read The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw? Jouelzy’s #SmartBrownGirl book club raved about it in September, so I just had to get a copy! I’m excited to get to it soon.
Last but not least, here’s a music playlist that I’m most proud of. It’s a long-form mélange of: Indie Soul, Neo-Soul, Indie R&B, Jazz, Funk & J Dilla inspired Hip hop. 118 songs for a duration of 8 hours : 30 minutes. Enjoy this playlist with some Palm Wine!
A Spotify Playlist: PalmWine Seltzer, by me. Enjoy
Written by award-winning African novelist Mariama Ba and translated from the original French, So Long a Letter has been recognized as one of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century. The brief narrative, written as an extended letter, is a sequence of reminiscences—some wistful, some bitter—recounted by recently widowed Senegalese schoolteacher Ramatoulaye Fall. Addressed to a lifelong friend, Aissatou, it is a record of Ramatoulaye’s emotional struggle for survival after her husband betrayed their marriage by taking a second wife. This semi-autobiographical account is a perceptive testimony to the plight of educated and articulate Muslim women. Angered by the traditions that allow polygyny, they inhabit a social milieu dominated by attitudes and values that deny them status equal to men. Ramatoulaye hopes for a world where the best of old customs and new freedom can be combined.
Considered a classic of contemporary African women’s literature, So Long a Letter is a must-read for anyone interested in African literature and the passage from colonialism to modernism in a Muslim country.
Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)
Everybody and their grandma has read So Long A Letter. The first time I read this classic, it was assigned reading for an Anthropology class I took when I was a junior in college, back in 2011. I recently re-read this classic 10 years later and I still give the book the same rating this time around, because of the poignant writing.
Senegalese patriarchy, Islam, the male ego, mid-life crisis, greed, loneliness, mother-daughter relationships, feminism, sisterhood, courage vs cowardice, poverty, modernity vs tradition, colonialism, death, misogyny and family customs, all take center stage in So Long a Letter.
I looooved how Ramatoulaye’s mother judged her daughter’s suitors by their teeth! According to Ramatoulaye’s mother, the wide gap between Modou’s [who she ended up marrying] upper incisors was a sign of ‘the primacy of sensuality in the individual’; Closely set teeth (of Daouda, one of Ramatoulaye’s suitors) won her mother’s confidence. As a Dentist, these peculiarities in teeth alignment being equivalent to promiscuity and character of potential suitors was hilarious and fascinating to me!
After re-reading this classic, I’ve been over-thinking the friendship Ramatoulaye and Aissatou shared. They were best friends/basically sisters. They shared the same plight, but each dealt with the fragmenting of their family units differently – Ramatoulaye stayed and endured, while Aissatou moved towards complete independence and advanced in her career. I really wish Bâ gave Aissatou more of a voice in the novel – besides her brilliant, fierce break-up letter to Mawdo, her ex-husband. I wanted to know if Aissatou was okay with Ramatoulaye recounting her (Aissatou’s) difficult situation with her ex-husband, Mawdo – I personally hate when friends rehash my plight when they complain about their own; I wanted to know if Aissatou was actually not bothered with Ramatoulaye still having a relationship with Mawdo – Aissatou’s ex-husband, as he was still Ramatoulaye’s family doctor and he was still a part of her family’s life; I wanted to know if Aissatou felt frustrated and/or disappointed at Ramatoulaye’s decision to stay with Modou, who turned out to be scum of the Earth once he stepped out of his marriage. I can’t help but wonder all these things because I often feel frustrated and disappointed when a friend complains to me about a man who treats her badly and she chooses to endure nonsense. While I know Ramatoulaye wrote the long letter to Aissatou while in isolation when she was mourning her late husband, I just wish Aissatou’s voice was heard with regards to everything Ramatoulaye divulged in the letter.
The only issue I had with this classic was Ramatoulaye’s slight misogynistic views on women’s sexuality and pleasure. I wasn’t super surprised with her conservative views, especially given this character’s overall way of life and the setting/timing of the story, but I couldn’t help but feel that those sentiments were Bâ’s as well. Some of the conservative views on women’s sexuality had me wondering why So Long A Letter has been hailed a beacon in African feminist text… However, I now understand that the conservative stances Ramatoulaye wrestled with really portrayed how women during that time were grappling with the challenges modernity brought – and this is especially evident in contrasting Ramatoulaye and Daba’s (her eldest daughter) realities, with respect to marriage and gender roles.
There’s so much more that can be said about So Long A Letter! This classic is best enjoyed if you’re reading it for a class or book club, as there is so much that can be dissected and discussed. I had the privilege of re-reading it for a virtual book club discussion with The Harare Book Club, last month.
★★★★★ (5 stars) – Amazing book, I loved it. Absolutely recommend!
Below is my annual collage of new books to anticipate this year. I’ve compiled 99 new African, African-American, Black-Brit and Caribbean books that look very promising. Please note – this list/collage is just a snippet of books by Black authors 2021 has to offer!
Hover over the images to read the blurbs and/or to pre-order the books.
Fifteen-year-old Mack is a hopeless romantic – he blames the films he’s grown up watching. He has liked Karim for as long as he can remember, and is ecstatic when Karim becomes his boyfriend – it feels like love.
But when Mack’s dad gets a job on a film in Scotland, Mack has to move, and soon he discovers how painful love can be. It’s horrible being so far away from Karim, but the worst part is that Karim doesn’t make the effort to visit. Love shouldn’t be only on the weekends.
Then, when Mack meets actor Finlay on a film set, he experiences something powerful, a feeling like love at first sight. How long until he tells Karim – and when will his old life and new life collide?
An unsettling tale of murder in a country whose dead slaves are shackled with stories that must be heard.
The Year of Return, linked to the 400th anniversary of slaves landing in the US, memorialised the many who died during the slave trade in Ghana, particularly at Elmina Castle, while encouraging members of the African diaspora to visit.
As Black diasporans around the world make the pilgrimage to West Africa, three African-American friends join in the festivities to explore Ghana’s colonial past and its underground queer scene. They are thrust into the hands of two guides, Kobby and Nana, whose intentions aren’t clear, yet they are the narrators we have to trust. Kobby, a modern deviant according to Nana’s traditional and religious principles, offers a more upscale and privileged tour of Ghana and also becomes the friends’ link to Accra’s secret gay culture. Nana’s adherence to his pastor’s teachings against sin makes him hate Kobby enough to want to kill.
Carefree Black Girls is an exploration and celebration of black women’s identity and impact on pop culture, as well as the enduring stereotypes they face, from a film and culture critic for HuffPost.
In 2013, Zeba Blay was one of the first people to coin the viral term “carefreeblackgirls” on Twitter. It was, as she says, “a way to carve out a space of celebration and freedom for black women online.”
In this collection of essays, Blay expands on that initial idea by looking at the significance of influential black women throughout history, including Josephine Baker, Michelle Obama, Rihanna, and Cardi B. Incorporating her own personal experiences as well as astute analysis of these famous women, Blay presents an empowering and celebratory portrait of black women and their effect on American culture. She also examines the many stereotypes that have clung to black women throughout history, whether it is the Mammy, the Angry Black Woman, or more recently, the Thot.
Michael decides to flee to America and end his life once all his savings run out. JJ Bola’s second novel is a story of millennial existential angst told through the eyes of a young Londoner who seems to have it all – a promising future, a solid career, strong friendships, a blossoming love story – but it’s the unbearable weight of life that leads him to decide to take his own.
As he grapples with issues bigger than him – political conflict, environmental desecration, police brutality – Michael seeks to find his place within a world that is complicated and unwelcoming.
Although he finds solace in the people that surround him, he alone must decide if his life is worth living.