Festive Favourites: Season’s Reading from Africa in Words

It is that time of year again when the holiday spirit begins to grow. For some, it is a time to spend with family and get away from it all. For others, the holidays might just be a good chance to relax and make a dent in that growing pile of books you’ve not had chance to start yet. And, here at Africa in Words, alongside our #24Books “alternative advent” book-a-day calendar – check it out on our new Instagram page and through our Twitter and Facebook feeds – we thought we would help get you in the mood by a few suggested ‘must reads’ drawn from some of our team picks.

But we haven’t stopped there. Indeed, it is only natural as December draws in to look ahead to the New Year might have in store. So, to whet your appetite I’ve also asked everyone to recommend a few books to look out for in 2020. The result is quite eclectic. Whatever specifically interests you about African literature, I hope there is something that speaks to your tastes…

Holiday Reading and Beyond

Kristen Stern

I’ll be reading Abdourahman A. Waberi’s Pourquoi tu danses quand tu marches? (Why Do You Dance When You Walk?) (JC Lattès). This autofictional account of the writer’s journey to literature was shortlisted for the 2019 Renaudot Prize. A little girl asks her father one day, “Why do you dance when you walk?”. This innocent question prompts Waberi to launch a reflection on his handicap, his childhood in Djibouti, and the long road that brought him to being a writer.

I’ve followed Léonora Miano’s work for several years, and I’m also looking forward to catching up on her latest release from this fall: Rouge impératrice (Red Empress) (Grasset). This new novel is very much in line with recent Afrofuturist literature and pop culture releases, telling a story of forbidden love against a backdrop of a politically united African Continent about a century from now.

Ellen Addis

What I’m currently reading for Christmas is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Penguin Random House, 2017). I am reading this much-loved, battered copy, lent to me from my best friend, who has been raving about it since it came out. As most of our readers will already know, Homegoing follows the bloodlines of two sisters through several generations through the histories of Ghana and the USA, through the Middle Passage up to the twenty-first century. A debut novel, the story transports you to the hearts and minds of each protagonist and we experience their suffering throughout time. Overloaded and overwhelming at times, Gyasi threads a book to lose yourself in and to try to understand the past that has brought us to where we are today.

Publications to look forward to: 

My suggestions for 2020 are Saqi Books’ re-release in January of Nawal El Saadawi’s Two Women in One and The Fall of the Imam (#8 of our #24Books).

Joanna Woods

In July this year I happily made it to a screening of Toni Morrison’s ‘The Pieces I Am’.  As is reflected by a number of the cast and contributors in the documentary, it is a real pleasure to be in the presence of Morrison and, of course, to read her lyrical work. Along with so many others, I felt the loss of the prolific writer the following month.

During the holiday I will be reading Morrison’s last publication Mouth Full of Blood (Virago), a collection of essays and meditations that span decades and concern every one of us. Morrison comments on the political and the personal in this book, including thoughts on politics, migration, her own writing and art.  I will admit, I have dipped into this book already. Who could resist? I bought the hardback edition sometime in September and was instantly captivated by the first few essays in “The Foreigner’s Home”, one of three sections in Mouth Full of Blood. The first section is particularly political, questioning ideas/topics such as otherness, nationalism and belonging; topics well tackled by Morrison in so many of her other publications too. It is followed by “Black Matter(s) and “God’s Language.” Although its vital underpinning is history, Morrison’s latest collection of writing speaks most powerfully to the contemporary moment and, as such, is also a stirring account of what will be our future. I am very much looking forward to the time and space to engage with this wonderful woman’s words of wisdom again.

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For anyone unsure of what to read next or for other gift tips, I suggest Masande Ntshanga’s Triangulum (Umuzi). Ntshanga’s US publishers, Two Dollar Radio, describe it as “an ambitious, often philosophical and genre-bending novel that covers a period of over 40 years in South Africa’s recent past and near future — starting from the collapse of the apartheid homeland system in the early 1990s, to the economic corrosion of the 2010s, and on to the looming, large-scale ecological disasters of the 2040s … With extraordinary aplomb and breathtaking prose, Ntshanga has crafted an inventive and marvelous artistic accomplishment”. You can read an excerpt from the South African edition (Umuzi) in the Johannesburg Review of Books, June 3, 2019.

If you’re feeling academic then do please read Dan Wylie’s Death and Compassion: The Elephant in Southern African Literature (Wits UP), “the story of a developing contestation between death and compassion, between those who kill and those who love and protect”.

Publications to look forward to: 

Meanwhile, two publications in the world of African literature that I am looking forward to reading in 2020, The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi (Riverhead, August 2020).

And who can forget Romeo Oriogun’s poetry collection Sacrament of Bodies (March 2020)? Part of the University of Nebraska Press’s African Poetry Book Series, with Kwame Dawes at its helm, Oriogun’s debut collection “fearlessly interrogates how a queer man in Nigeria can heal in a society where everything is designed to prevent such restoration. With honesty, precision, tenderness of detail, and a light touch, Oriogun explores grief and how the body finds survival through migration.” (Now available for pre-order at the link above.)

Tom Penfold

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This Christmas I’m reading the latest book from Ivan Vladislavic, one of South Africa’s leading creative minds. In the most immediate sense, The Distance (Umuzi) is about the great boxer Muhammad Ali and the hero-status he required in the mind of Joe, the novel’s protagonist. We see how, as a child, Joe obsessively collected newspaper cuttings about his boxing idol. This archive is returned to some forty years later when Joe, by now a writer, is working on a book about his childhood and trying to understand the place Ali played within it. But The Distance is keen to demonstrate that the past and memory are two complex things. Despite the comprehensive nature of his Ali-themed archive, the distance of time and geography has made ‘the greatest showman of them all’ a figure of mystery all over again. Joe’s treasure-trove of clippings works to obscure the past rather than reveal it any great detail.

However, the plot line is not where The Distance’s appeal ends. For those familiar with Vladislavic’s work, the book is something exciting and new. Gone is his apparent obsession with Johannesburg. It is replaced instead by an intriguingly sketched Pretoria that mixes the old with the modern. Yet, simultaneously, The Distance is reassuring and familiar. Brank – that catch-all character from Portrait with Keys – is back as Joe’s brother and charged with the duty to remember “things as they actually were”. Moreover, this is a novel that stays true to Vladislavic in exploring the limits of language. It is fresh; it is vibrant; it has a turn of phrase that conjures so many colloquial gems we would all do well to use again.

In the New Year, I can’t wait to read Dolla Sapeta’s Skeptical Erections (Deep South), featured as our Day 5 of our #24Books alternative advent and available through African Books Collective. And if anyone is stuck for gift ideas then how about The Theory of Flight by Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu (Penguin Random House South Africa, 2018).

Katie Reid

Number 1 of my current Christmas reads is Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift (2019, Penguin Random House). As Chinelo Okparanta puts it, it’s “a dazzling genre-bender of a novel, an astonishing historical and futuristic feat, a page-turner with a plot that consistently and cleverly upends itself. Playfully poetic and outright serious at once, it is one of the most intelligent debuts I’ve read this year. No matter your reading preference, there’s something in it for you”.

So much of what’s already been said about this novel fizzes out from the start (see Salman Rushdie’s review in the NYT, for example). The Old Drift concentrates Serpell’s facility with words, gets right into the heart and soul of them, flesh and bones and meat of them, and luxuriates there. Through all the unfoldings of its titular drift, this is a wry, sceptical origin story of the nation – its timescales shifting to futuristic parable, eddying back through the roots of forgotten histories of Zambia’s ill-fated entry into the space race of the 1960s – as we are drawn through all the forward driving energies of speculation, in its variety, beauty and prodigious possibility, its stutterings and failings, its ugliness and loss – to a heaping up, gathering from one pocket of place and time to another in the backward looking bathos of that most human of qualities, to err; within those piles of mistake, misunderstanding, hubris, there’s also the gist of its quick witted play, if you can catch it; this is a super smart and funny book, an intellectual tour-de-force presided over by its chorus of zz’zz-ing mosquitoes: ‘All together at once is how a swarm sees but you humans go beginning to end’. A book about being carried – away or along – being borne aloft and swept up in narrative – self, colonial history, place, as Okparanta says, there’ll be something, in fact, plenty in it for you and yours.

And, if that has not caught your drift (ahem) or attention, you can also listen to a sample of the novel here: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/537834/the-old-drift-by-namwali-serpell/, read by Adjoa Andoh, Richard E. Grant, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.

Publications to look forward to: 

As I’m into the art (and often the strangeness, not to say the serendipity) that is collection and collecting, I’m also looking forward to Beyond Aesthetics: Use, Abuse, and Dissonance in African Art Traditions by Wole Soyinka, out in Feb 2020 from Yale UP. Soyinka, playwright, poet, essayist, novelist, and Nobel Laureate, is also a longtime art collector. This book of essays offers a glimpse into the motivations of the collector, as well as a highly personal look at the politics of aesthetics and collecting. Detailing moments of first encounter with objects that drew him in and continue to affect him, Soyinka describes a world of mortals, muses, and deities that imbue the artworks with history and meaning.

I definitely also need to mention Cassava’s graphic novel, On Ajayi Crowther Street by Alaba Onajin & Elnathan John. On Ajayi Crowther “peels back the curtains on the lives of Reverend Akpoborie and his family, to reveal a tumultuous world full of secrets and lies. His only son, Godstime, is struggling to hide his sexuality from his parents whilst his daughter Keturah must hide the truth of her pregnancy by her pastor boyfriend to preserve her and her family’s image. But it is the Reverend himself who hides the darkest secret of them all…”.

Cassava is both Xmas stocking coveted (#2 and today’s pick of our #24Books calendar) and firmly on the 2020 wishlist – watch this space for forthcoming reviews. I can say from experience, if you can splash out or share it, a Cassava Press membership subscription (Nigeria, US, Europe, and UK) and becoming a member of their growing community makes a brilliant Xmas gift, one that keeps on giving in the best of their contemporary writing, curated by the press itself. 

And on that note of stocking filler and wishlist, lastly from me: looking back and forwards are these two collections from Modjaji Books (also featuring through #24Books), celebrating twelve years of cutting-edge publishing, The Only Magic We Know and Fools Gold, the Modjaji poetry and short story anthologies, both forms championed by the press in its twelve year history. Fool’s Gold, with stories compiled by Arja Salafranca, is available from the website now; edited by Marike Beyers, the poems in The Only Magic We Know can be pre- ordered now, for early February.

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Finally, there is just time to say the most important bit of all. Thank you 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 a Happy Holidays and all the best for 2020. Let’s hope its full of books, ideas, and interesting conversation.

For more seasonal reads and gift ideas, check out our #24Books “alternative advent” book-a-day calendar on our new Instagram page and through our Twitter and Facebook feeds.



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