Readers' Top Ten as a continue my Readers' Top Ten to introduce to readers of this blog the rich literature the continent has to offer and to move beyond the 'one-novel' representation of African literature. Submission was sporadic and so I have not been consistent with the posting. However, the session is still on and any who want to share could. Today, the Cameroonian reader and writer Nkiacha Atemnkeng shares his top 10 African books, per his reads*.
About Nkiacha: Nkiacha Atemnkeng is a young Cameroonian writer. His work has been published in four literary online journals: Malawi Write, The New Black Magazine, Africa Book Club and Munyori Literary Journal. He was shortlisted for the 2013 Mardibooks short story competition in London and was a finalist for the month of October 2013 at the Africa book club. His musings and book reviews can be found at writerphilic. A holder of a Curriculum Studies and Biology degree, he works as a Swissport Customer Service agent at the Douala International Airport.
1. We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo [Zimbabwe]. My favourite African novel of the moment, the funniest African novel ever written, the first black African woman to get shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize. Please give it up for this violet lady from Bulawayo, even though she says she’s got “no violet”. I think she’s been unfairly labeled a poverty pornstar and wrongly accused of writing her stunning novel in a CNN treatise of Africa, including a string of clichés about African suffering. A little research about Zimbabwean politics will help the readers of this book. Zimbabwe went through four phases, the pre-colonial one, the colonial one called Southern Rhodesia, independent one called Zimbabwe which was thriving and the collapsing Zimbabwe of the lost decade (2000-2010). This novel is set in the lost decade Zimbabwe only and she goes on to illustrate in her US setting that human hardship can actually be a universal issue. What I also love about this contemporary novel is its beautiful prose poetry, techie exploits (there’s facebooking, texting and skyping in it), lovely language and humour. If you have a quarrel with your spouse, here’s some advice. Get two copies of this book and make sure you both read, by the time you’re in the middle you’ll be laughing so hard, you’ll forget the quarrel.
2. Happiness, like Water, Chinelo Okparanta [Nigeria]. My best short story writer from Africa at the moment. The book is a collection of ten short stories written through the eyes of a child and generally young women. Unlike the title, there’s not much happiness in the pages of these well crafted stories. The characters are always seeking fulfillment in various ways in these stories. Chinelo’s prose is very grim but she also handles her dense subjects in a light and fresh manner. It’s a poignant collection with female characters who are either under pressure to get married, to abandon their gay relationship, to get documentation in the US, under the pressure of parental abuse etc. In fact, the characters always have one wahala or another. And yes, there’s a brilliant short story in it titled Wahala too. And yes, one of the stories in the book, America was shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize for African writing. And yes, her New Yorker November 2013 published short story Benji is even more impressive. One of the reasons why I love the book so much is because it is my very first book which the author sent to me herself. Last year, I read a lengthy seven page interview of hers and was so impressed with her thoughts that I wrote her a crazy adoring fan message which spurred her to send me the book.
3. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe, [Nigeria]. He just had to be on the list right! The Michael Jordan of African literature who needs no introduction. Do I really need to say anything about him and the book again? No. On a personal note, I studied it as an examination text when I was in secondary school (Form Three) and without any boastfulness came second with an A-grade in the Things Fall Apart based Literature exam. My very first literary work which got published out of my country even, is my short essay about his legacy on malawiwrite.org when he died. May his soul rest in peace. So that may probably give you an idea how much he means to me.
4. The Icarus Girl, Helen Oyeyemi, [Nigeria]. This wonderful childlike magical realism novel was written by this very talented author when she was just eighteen and diligently studying for her Advanced level examination in London. That’s just pure genius. Let the age not fool you. I enjoyed her prose more than some novels written by some fifty-year-olds. It’s about an eight-year-old biracial girl, Jessamy Harrison living in London who befriends an estranged, ragged little girl called Tilly Tilly during a visit to Nigeria. The way Helen brilliantly blended Greek mythology and Yoruba folklore and shaped her two main characters and their downward spiraling relationship right to the breathtaking finale at the end moved me to the point of utmost admiration. I can only describe Helen Oyeyemi in one word - precocious. The novel even received positive reviews from Oprah’s book club.
5. Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, [Nigeria]. This one had to wrestle hard with the equally impressive Half of a Yellow Sun before making it into my list. As much as I love HOAYS because of the way she honestly confronts ethnicity in Nigeria and her very powerful evocation of the Nigerian civil war which she didn’t even experience, Purple Hibiscus struck my chord more because of its character Eugene. I’ve never hated any character in a book like I hate Uncle Eugene. If he materializes in front of me I will probably kick his stomach open with my big toe. Every time I came across him he always succeeded in making me angry. His religious fanaticism and domestic repression in the name of “not sinning” went to the point of absolute senselessness. It even made me develop empathy for his wife when she poisons him. The series of events that occur after Uncle Eugene dies haunted me a lot too. And I also love the book for its very fresh perspective. But seriously Chimzi nno, why did you damn the Caine Prize like that? Remember they helped you find a publisher for this novel when you’d had dozens of rejections!
6. The Crown of Thorns, Linus. T. Asong, [Cameroon]. A writer every Anglophone Cameroonian knows but is probably unheard of by many of my non Cameroonian friends, largely because he self published all his ten novels in Cameroon. (This particular one was published in 1990.) And he wasn’t lucky with global shine too. “Achiebefuo rose, coughed and cleared his throat…” that’s the famous opening of the novel we had always been reciting since our infancy. It starts from somewhere in the middle and then deep into the novel, rewinds to the real beginning, exactly what Chimamanda did in Purple Hibiscus. It’s about a Chief who never wanted to be Chief. He is forcibly enthroned. So in disappointment, he disagrees with all the village elders at every point where disagreement is possible. The greedy D.O of that village, known as Goment (mispronunciation of the word government by the villagers) hatches an evil plan to sell the stature god, Akeukeur of Nkokonoko Small Monje village as a mere artifact to America. But the kingmaker, Ngobefuo discovers the theft and rallies the other elders to find out what happened. They dethrone their unhappy Chief who they discover was complicit in the god selling affair. Even though the stature is later returned to the village from abroad, the elders reject it because it is already defiled. Next, they launch into their punishment, killing their Chief and even Goment that sparks government military reprisals. The novel was examination text for prose at the Cameroon G.C.E Ordinary Level examination for over fifteen years and is also being studied at my former school, the University of Buea.
7. Mission Terminée (Mission to Kala), Mongo Beti [Cameroon]: Francophone Africa’s response to Chinua Achebe. I can already picture Nana mumbling “Ahmadou Khourouma!” Mongo Beti published over half a dozen critically acclaimed novels. On a funny note, Ahmadou Khourouma worked for an insurance company in Cameroon in the seventies. He shut his mouth whenever he met Mongo and whenever Mongo spoke (Mongo was highly critical with very strong opinions.) His pen name means “son of Beti”. Beti being the tribe where he hails in Cameroon’s Centre Province. His novel Mission to Kala is probably his best known work and I like it a lot. He wrote a beautifully woven tale with such chic artistry. Having failed his exams, Medza returns to his village in anxiety. But to his surprise he finds out that as a scholar (even a failed one) his prestige is immense. A young woman runs off with a man from another tribe. So Medza is entrusted with the delicate task of retrieving her. When he reaches her village he has to wait for her to return from another adventure, so he stays with his uncle, who passes him off as a great phenomenon of learning. Medza is entertained, loaded with gifts and consulted like an oracle. But his stay in Kala has to come to an end and he returns to his part of the country only to find himself unable to come to terms with his family and their way of life.
8. Ten Years of the Caine Prize for African Writing Anthology, Various Authors [Africa]. In 2009, Africa’s most prestigious literary award, the Caine Prize for African writing celebrated its tenth year of existence and also published the ten winning short stories of those years in an anthology to commemorate the event. Now put together ten award winning Caine Prize short stories, plus three bonus short stories by the three African winners of the Booker Prize, Ben Okri, Nadine Gordimer, and J.M. Coetzee. You’ll obtain such a diverse literary feast of banging writing from Cape to Cairo and Kenya to Nigeria, completing the four cardinal points of African writing. The stories’ setting in the book range from Parks in South Africa, a giant tent in a village, a museum in Scotland, a prison cell in Nigeria, a malfunctioning chemical plant in Cape town etc. You’ll come across a non French speaking man trapped in Rwanda without documentation, a castigated lesbian girl in Uganda, a woman fleeing a poisonous gas cloud in Cape town and orphaned children in a refugee camp somewhere around Nigeria. The approaches are so varied. Some are written in great style, some flaunt their beautiful language, others have fragmented narratives/diary entries and yet another is written in a memoir-like manner and classifies as creative non-fiction. It’s a helluva book.
9. So Long a Letter, Mariama Ba [Senegal]. The female Leopold Sedar Senghor. She deserves the nickname, this fearless lady from Dakar. The very brief novel is written in the epistolary mode. It is a very long, very beautiful letter by the main character, Aissatou to her close friend, Ramatoulaye in the US. In her letter, Aissatou talks about all the issues plaguing her after the death of her husband. Firstly, she talks passionately about him when they started dating and got married. Then the relationship goes turbulent when her husband decides to marry her daughter’s friend. And Ba goes on to reveal that Ramatoulaye had actually divorced her own husband and left for the US after a similar thing happened to her. The narrative goes poignant when Aissatou’s children begin to suffer. But they strive to regain their lost rights. This is one of the first African novels that succeeds in addressing women’s issues and advocates for the rights of women.
10. The Narrow Path, Francis Selormey [Ghana]. I read this beautiful book when I was a child, nine, maybe ten and I haven’t reread it since so I’ve forgotten all the character names and most of the plot. But I still remember generalities and how moved I was by its end even at that age. It’s about the relationship between a Ghanaian father and his son. In typical African father style, he cautions his son with an iron fist and the cane whenever he falters. I remember I thought that father really hated his son as I was reading the book. But as the son prepares to go to secondary school in Kumasi and his belongings are being assembled, I was shocked and very impressed by the way Francis Selormey ended the novel, “…There were tears in my father’s eyes.” If you ask me how We Need New Names or Happiness, like Water, books which I read just last year, ended I won’t even remember. But I still vividly remember how The Narrow Path ended. It was with that last sentence that I knew that, the father loved his son. He only punished him to make him a better person. Personally, I endorse the controlled use of the cane, (My father had me spanked too when I was a child and it helped me a lot). I disagree with the west on their zero caning dogma. What makes caning bad is the senseless beating of children out of fiery anger to the point of injury and bleeding. That’s when it becomes parental abuse.
* I have linked some of the titles to posts within ImageNations, where such reviews are available. Note that my views on these books may differ from Nana Yaw's and so this must be borne in mind when reading them.