The 20th Century
Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)
"one of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised."
Considered the father of modern African literature, Achebe (1930-2013) wrote about Igbo traditions, the clash of Western and traditional African values, the effect of Christianity on society, and the social and political problems facing newly independent African states. An active voice in Biafran and Nigerian politics until its corruption left him disillusioned, Achebe, who wrote in English, chronicled the continent's tumultuous history. Things Fall Apart (1958), perhaps the most widely read novel in African literature, depicts the life of a local leader and wrestling champion in a fictional Igbo village grappling with changes brought by British colonialism; No Longer at Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964) are sequels. In A Man of the People (1966), a school teacher enters a corrupt political system in a country resembling postcolonial Nigeria, and in Anthills of the Savannah (1987; * BOOKER PRIZE FINALIST), set in a West African country newly independent from British rule, a brutal military dictatorship takes over.
Ousmane Sembene (senegal)
"Real misfortune is not just a matter of being hungry and thirsty; it is a matter of knowing that there are people who want you to be hungry and thirsty."
Born in Ziguinchor, Senegal, to a Lebou family, Sembene (1923-2007) is a seminal figure in African literature and film, primarily for his exploration of the cultural practices surrounding African women (including female circumcision). Along with his films, Sembene, who attended both French and Islamic schools and wrote in French, is best known for his second novel, God's Bits of Wood (1960), about the Senegalese and Malian response to colonialism in the 1940s, as well as for the novella Xala (1973), adapted to a film of the same name in 1975 and featuring a businessman in Senegal cursed with impotence upon his wedding to his young, beautiful third wife.
Wole Soyinka (Nigeria)
"The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism."
Soyinka, born into a Yoruba family in Abeokuta, Nigeria, in 1934, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 and remains one of the most prominent voices in and from Africa (though he has taught in the United Kingdom and the United States). Like many of his fellow Nigerian writers, Soyinka was outspoken on the Biafran War and called for a ceasefire in 1967. He recounts his subsequent imprisonment in his memoir, The Man Died: Prison Notes (1972), and much of his work deals with oppression. Although most notable as a playwright and a poet, Soyinka is also an acclaimed novelist. In Season of Anomie (1973), he retells the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice-in the Nigerian context, particularly the chaos that led to the Biafran War.
Ayi Kwei Armah (Ghana)
"Alone, I am nothing. I have nothing. We have power. But we will never know it, we will never see it work. Unless we come together to make it work."
Descended from a royal family in the Ga nation in Ghana, Armah, who was born in 1939 and educated at Harvard and Columbia University, wields fiction to criticize a country overrun by nepotism and corruption. Armah's best known novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968), echoes the French existential tradition as its Ghanian protagonist, a railway freight clerk, tries to make sense of both his life and his nation following the betrayal of Ghana's dreams of independence. Armah followed this classic text of Western African literature with other works, including Why Are We So Blest? (1972), The Healers (1978), Osiris Rising (1995), and The Eloquence of the Scribes (2006).
Mariama Ba (senegal)
"The flavour of life is love. The salt of life is also love."
Born in Dakar, Senegal, in 1929, into a well-to-do, educated family, Ba was raised as a Muslim. Preoccupied with gender inequalities in African and Islamic cultural traditions, she struggled to gain an education, eventually attending a teacher training college. After she was left to care for her nine children following her divorce from a Senegalese member of Parliament, she started to write in French. Her first novel, So Long a Letter (1981), a key feminist text written as a letter from a Muslim widow to a childhood friend in the United States, expresses the frustration with the fate of African women. Ba's second novel, Scarlet Song (1986), which also gained international attention for its exploration of intermarriage between a Senegalese Muslim man and a European woman, was published after her death in 1981.
Amos Tutuola (Nigeria)
"Hard to salute each other, harder to describe each other, and hardest to look at each other at our destination."
Amos Tutuola (1920-1997), a Nigerian contemporary of Achebe's, based his books on Yoruba folk tales. The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), the novel that earned him international acclaim, draws on the West African oral folktale tradition; Tutuola, who trained as a blacksmith, had scant formal education and wrote in broken English. The novel describes the fantastical odyssey of a palm-wine drinker who enters the land of "Deads' Town," a world of magic, ghosts, and supernatural beings. Tutuola followed this metaphorical novel with My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954), which explores the fate of mortals who reside in the world of ghosts-the heart of a tropical forest.
Buchi Emecheta (Nigeria)
"God, when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody's appendage? she prayed desperately."
Emecheta (born in Lagos in 1944, educated in London, and currently living there) has influenced the newest generation of West African female writers, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (see below). In more than 20 books, including In the Ditch (1972) and Second-Class Citizen (1974), Emecheta explores the struggles of Nigerian women and children. She once described her work as "stories of the world ... [where] ... women face the universal problems of poverty and oppression, and the longer they stay, no matter where they have come from originally, the more the problems become identical." Emecheta left Nigeria at age 16, when she married a man who moved to London to study, and had five children; at age 22, she left her abusive marriage. Her other novels, including The Slave Girl (1977) and The Joys of Mother-hood (1979), examine the ways in which writing can become a mode of resistance within a largely patriarchal culture.
Ben Okri (Nigeria)
"I grew up in a tradition where there are simply more dimensions to reality: legends and myths and ancestors and spirits and death. ... Nobody has an absolute reality."
Born in Minna, Nigeria, in 1959, Okri is a postmodern poet, novelist, and essayist. After a childhood in London,Okri returned to Nigeria; he now lives in England. The Famished Road (1991), the first in a trilogy, won the Booker Prize. A work of magical realism, it chronicles the life of a spirit-child narrator, Azaro, as he experiences the violent turmoil of a country resembling Nigeria. Songs of Enchantment (1994) and Infinite Riches (1999) continue the story.
THE CONCUBINE (1966) [pipe] ELECHI AMADI (NIGERIA)
Ngugi wa Thiong'o (Kenya)
"our lives are a battlefield on which is fought a continuous war between the forces that are pledged to confirm our humanity and those determined to dismantle it."
Born into a peasant family in Kenya in 1938,Ngugi is a celebrated intellectual, playwright,journalist, novelist, and social activist who currently teaches at the University of California,Irvine. British rule, the Mau Mau struggle for independence in the 1950s, and neocolonial Kenya influenced much of his writing. Ngugi's first major play, The Black Hermit (1962), and his first novel Weep Not, Child (1964), the first postcolonial novel about the East African colonial experience, established his reputation. His second novel, The River Between (1965),involves two villages separated by different faiths during the uprising; his third, A Grain of Wheat (1967), explores the state of emergency in Kenya's struggle through multiple narrators and story lines. Ngugi 's criticisms of postcolonial Kenyan society's injustices led to his imprisonment in 1977, an experience reflected in his memoir Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary (1982). In 2004, Ngugi's fantastical novel Wizard of the Crow, set in the imaginary Free Republic of Aburiria, brought him further international acclaim.
Nuruddin Farah (somalia)
"Somalia is no longer what it was. It's past reconstruction. How can you reconstruct a country that's self-destructing continuously?"
Based in Cape Town, South Africa, but born in Somalia in 1945, Farah fled his native land in 1963, three years after Somalia's independence and following violent border conflicts. After studying in India, Farah began writing novels, plays, and essays about his native country, from which he was unofficially exiled after the publication of A Naked Needle (1976), about postrevolutionary Somali life in the mid-1970s. His three trilogies, concerning the paternalistic social dynamic of oppressions, form the core of his fiction. Perhaps the best known is Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship, comprising Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), Sardines (1981), and Close Sesame (1983), which offers a quasi-Orwellian portrait of life under autocratic rule.
NERVOUS CONDITIONS (1988) [pipe] TSITSI DANGAREMBGA (ZIMBABWE)
GOING DOWN RIVER ROAD (1977) [pipe] MEJA MWANGI (KENYA) THE IN-BETWEEN WORLD OF VIKRAM LALL (2003) [pipe] M. G.
Nadine Gordimer (south Africa)
"Writing is making sense of life. You work your whole life and perhaps you've made sense of one small area."
Nadine Gordimer (1923-), who received the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature, has long addressed moral and racial issues, particularly in apartheid South Africa. The daughter of Jewish immigrants and activists, Gordimer grew up surrounded...