Read Up and Wind Down: Season’s Reading from Africa in Words

Africa in Words Book Tree 2018.
Image: Chelsea Haith

As 2018 winds down, Africa in Words is taking a small break over the holiday period to gear up for a new year full of exciting plans. As a new Associate Reviews Editor myself, I can vouch for the efforts of the reviews team and the new communications and management teams in 2018. The events, shows, conferences, festivals, performances, reviews and publications forthcoming in 2019 promise an engaging year of intellectual, emotional and even physical responses to the output of creators of art, literature, film, scholarship, and so much more from Africa and its diaspora.

A break is not a break without a book or two nearby, and so I’ve compiled for your benefit the holiday reading of the AiW team. There’s a good mix here of literature from across the continent and across the last decade or so as well. Some of us are looking ahead, to see what the diaspora has for us, while others are looking back, pondering the political state of the continent, and the literature inspired by it.

Holiday Reading 

Kristen Stern – Managing Editor 

My reading for the holidays is more focused on the diaspora, and playing around in a couple of genres and forms that are only recently in my regular rotation.

Dany Laferrière’s Autoportrait de Paris avec chat (Self-portrait of Paris with Cat) has been sitting on my shelf since last summer, and I’ve been wanting to dive into it since I first saw the cover early in 2018. A follower of the Haitian-Québécois novelist for a long time, I had to do a double take: Wait–Laferrière does the illustrations himself?! I delighted in the facsimiled pages when I could finally flip through them: the author’s own handwriting scrawls around simple sketches of people and places and authors and ideas. Graphic novels and bandes dessinées are fairly recent additions to my reading and teaching repertoires, and it all still feels fresh and new and fun. As noted on the back cover of Autoportrait, “Dessiner est une autre façon d’écrire” — Drawing is another way of writing.

I’m also planning on loading up my phone with audiobooks for the long travel hours I’ll spend getting home to see family. Tomi Adeyemi’s début YA novel Children of Blood and Bone  sounds like the perfect immersive fantasy for escaping crowded airport waiting rooms and Interstate traffic, if only in my earbuds. I’ve been looking forward to this one since hearing it mentioned (repeatedly!) on the excellent Not Another Book Podcast (they also did an extended interview with Adeyemi). Embracing audiobooks is also a new phenomenon for me, and I’m enjoying experiencing written texts in different ways.

Rebecca Jones – Editor

I’ll be reading Emmanuel Iduma’s A Stranger’s Pose and Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún’s Edwardsville by HeartBoth are works of travel writing by Nigerian writers: Iduma’s traces his travels around several African countries, while Túbọ̀sún’s is inspired by his years in the US. They epitomise the way contemporary African travel writers are enlivening the genre by playing with form and style: A Stranger’s Pose juxtaposes fragments of travel narrative with photography, recalling his travels in a non-linear manner, while Edwardsville by Heart is a poetic travelogue.

Joanna Woods – Communications Editor

This Christmas I will be reading in great anticipation for Spring! Besides the obvious reasons for such sentiment, like the coming again of warmth and daylight in the northern hemisphere, I am looking forward to Helen Oyeyemi’s forthcoming novel Gingerbread. I adore this author! Oyeyemi is remarkably creative; her prose winds exquisitely. She is the author of many a bewitching and inventive tale, and Gingerbread looks set to be just as enticing. It will be in bookstores in March!

To that end then and in order to complete my reading of Oyeyemi’s current oeuvre, during the Christmas period I will be reading the collection of stories What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, published in 2016. These short stories are crafted around the idea of keys, both literal and metaphorical. While Oyeyemi’s keys unlock physical doors in her characters’ lives, they also promise to unlock secrets of hearts and minds, opening further labyrinths and mysteries. With its dream-like quality, this collection sounds wildly unsettling and captivating for its exploration of coexisting realities and many possible answers.

Tom Penfold – Associate Reviews Editor

When this post was first discussed we were asked: “What do you want to read for Christmas?” Upon hearing that, deep in festive thought as I was, I couldn’t help but hear, “what do you want for Christmas?” And, as a child, when I was asked that I always used to come up with some rather grandiose suggestions. My parents, in all fairness, would listen. Their answer however was always the same: “Well, Tom, that depends on whether you’ve been good or bad this year?”

That final question maintains some relevance to the book I do actually want to read for over the holiday period, Jacob Dlamini’s Askari. It is not a recent book, published in 2014, but it was one of the first to ask questions that are finally gaining traction in contemporary South Africa. In it, Dlamini complicates the simple assertion that apartheid was black versus white, good versus bad. Instead he focuses on the “fatal intimacies” of apartheid; collusions and collaborations that saw Black fighters abandon the liberation struggle and instead join forces with the apartheid security forces. The focus is on Mr X1, Glory Sedibe, former member of the ANC’s Umkhonto we Sizwe turned star witness for the state’s prosecution team. As Dlamini takes us through Sedibe’s life we uncover the stresses of being a member of a banned liberation movement; the violent torture suspected ‘terrorists’ were subject to; and the difficulties that come with living a double life. What really did force ANC members to betray their comrades and their cause?

Dlamini answers this question in a manner that promotes the voices of those who took part over the archive. The result is an objective, in-depth and comprehensive study that gets to grips with the problems inherent in employing simple binaries that ignore “the taboos, the secrets and the disavowals at the core of our collective memories”. Moreover, Dlamini points towards the failing of the TRC at a time when revised histories of the Commission are promoting even more shortcomings.  Did the priority of immediate reconciliation and forgiveness actually see a refusal to fully probe, and thus cleans wounds that now openly fester?

Rodney Likaku – Reviews Editor

Like most readers, there is a place I go to in stories. This Christmas I will be in Unathi Slasha’s novella, Jah Hills. I see it now on the desk, half read, and so half-loved. People who leave books the way I have done this one annoy me—like a question waiting to be answered: wide-open and up-side down. It’s fine, the author wouldn’t mind. His narrative is about up-side worlds anyway. Spaces which subvert Nguni Folklore to write what Unathi believes is the Unlanguaged World that is South Africa today. Constantly the narrator reminds the reader that you are a voyeur in his world, and any permission granted to see the ghosts, or spirits at play, is quickly revoked with a change of tone, setting, and pace.

The reader stops to ask questions about Slasha’s mythological South Africa, after he makes it clear that he has no language for it. Written in raw township speak, almost musical—if songs in minor keys and jazz like dissonance are your forte. Mostly jarring—like the woman found dead in “some river”, and the narrator’s desire to do grown-up things to her. He stops, quickly, because this may bring the burden of “umthondo obuhlungu” he says. Don’t ask me, I don’t know either. No explanations offered. No glossary of terms, or that hand-holding footnote to explain the language to a world he does not comprehend. Doesn’t matter. After a while you recognise that words don’t always say what they mean in a functionally disintegrating society.

Chelsea Haith – Associate Reviews Editor

As I am digging into the early chapters of my PhD and taking almost no time off this year, my ‘holiday’ reading is varied and genre-crossing. I’ll be re-reading some of South African author Lauren Beukes‘s early work: Zoo City and Moxyland, set in Johannesburg and Cape Town. This is convenient as I won’t be going home to family in SA this year. If I can’t be there, I’ll read there. This is light reading with dark undertones, perfect for British winter, also known for it’s interplay of light and dark, in which there is far too little light, and much too much dark.

Filling the long dark evenings, ie. beginning mid-afternoon, I’ll also be sunk in my most anticipated read of the holiday season, and the heftiest of the lot, Marlon James’ forthcoming novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf. It is due to be published at the end of February at which point I expect to hear about nothing else for a while. James’ skill with dialogue is masterful and peeking inside I see mention of a lazy sun. I’ll take what I can get.

Katie Reid – Founder-Editor 

she_called_me_woman_frontFortunate enough to have caught the smart warmth of Chitra Nagarajan in person at the Edinburgh Books Fest this summer, She Called Me Woman (April 2018) – the Cassava Republic collection of stories about life in Africa as a queer woman that Nagarajan was an editor on, with Azeenarh Mohammed and Rafeeat Aliyu – has been calling since. In what was a generously collaborative conversation at the Book Fest with Olumide Popoola, author of When We Speak of NothingNagarajan conveyed the collective nature of the anthology and its challenges to the pre- and the newer re-conceptions that the stories making up She Called Me Woman bring forward, as well as a direct sense of what bringing the book together – its gathering and materiality in production as well as in a sense of its lives beyond its pages – offers for the making and remaking of reading practices and approaches.

screen Radio Rwanda 09 Jo Hounsome Photo

“There are three innovatively-designed ‘radiobooks’ in this first wave, each featuring the work of one writer and one artist. The accompanying podcasts act as the expanded universe of the book.”


On this note, also on my holiday reads are the innovative first three from RadioBook Rwanda, the set of the very good-looking pocketbook part of the first wave of multimedia publications from this groundbreaking collaboration between Kigali (Huza Press), Nairobi (Kwani Trust), and Bristol (No Bindings).

Kate Wallis – Founder-Editor 

After being blown away by the intimately observed writing of mother-daughter relationships when Hanna Ali read her story ‘The Story of Us’ at Africa Writes this year (hosted by the amazing Numbi Arts), this holiday I’ll be reading Hanna Ali’s short story collection of the same name. This is the first print book and the first English book to be published by Market Fifty Four and The Story of Us is also available in ebook and audiobook in Somali. I’ll therefore also be listening to the Somali audiobook alongside the stories – partly because I love that I can, and partly as a way of beginning to learn some Somali ahead of going to the Hargeysa International Book Fair in 2019!

Also on my holiday reading list is Panashe Chigumadzi’s These Bones Will Rise Again – the beautifully packaged first book to emerge from new London-based independent publisher The Indigo Press directed by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey. I started this earlier in the year and was immediately captivated by Chigumadzi’s engagement with the relationship between past and present in Zimbabwe, her confronting of ‘the answered questions of our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, friends and neighbours’ and the case made that alternative histories of this kind have the power to create ‘a radical re-imagining of ourselves and the state’. I can’t wait to have the space to get back to this.


Thank you also to our readers this past year who have loved and shared, in the thousands, the work we do at Africa in Words. We wish you all a restful festive season and a new year of books, ideas, and interesting conversation!

Categories: Reviews & Spotlights on...

join the discussion:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: