My holiday reading begins with The Merciless Ones, the second young adult novel by Namina Forna. It’s the middle volume in a speculative fiction trilogy that follows the journey of an army of near-immortal young women battling ancient gods. Forna is writing in a burgeoning genre of African sci-fi that draws on the cosmologies and storytelling traditions of African cultures and religions. One of the most exciting debut writers I’ve come across recently.
Namwali Serpell’s new novel, The Furrows, shows this prize-winning author’s range and abilities. A sister mourns the loss of her sibling in a gorgeously crafted, compact story of love, family and the unreliability of memory as grief writes and rewrites the moment of loss. Fans of Serpell’s debut will recognise her idiosyncratic approach and her masterly control of plot and prose.
In My Pen is the Wing of a Bird, Lucy Hannah of Untold Narratives has worked with female Afghan writers to produce an anthology that is powerful in its impact and admirable in the quality of the prose. This is a powerful reminder that there is no such thing as “the voiceless” – in bringing these stories together, Hannah and the writers she collaborated with over two years challenge us to listen carefully, and not to forget.
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah
Yewande Omotoso writes older female characters with such incredible nuance, and she did so beautifully in her latest novel, An Unusual Grief, which details a mother grappling with the loss of her child while also coming to terms with her own long-repressed sexuality. I’m a big fan of work that explores sexuality from the perspective of older women, and this book does so incredibly well.
I wholeheartedly recommend listening to Eloghosa Osunde’s Vagabonds!– her book has been getting rave reviews, and rightly so, and the incredible audio narration of these interlinked stories of spirits and queer people – Vagabonds – in Lagos takes it to the next level.
From my own country, Ghana, Ama Asantewa Diakahas created a poetic tour de force in her debut, Woman, Eat Me Whole, a series of poems about identity, bodies and the entire spectrum from girlhood to womanhood. One of her poems, A Utopia for Black Girls, should be an anthem for black girls all over the world.
Paula Ihozo Akugizibwe’s essay, You look Illegal, represents to me one of the best ways of writing beautifully about a devastating subject, racism. I was moved and inspired by the power of her words.
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah is the author of The Sex Lives of African Women
Nearly All Men in Lagos are Mad by Damilare Kuku is a study of Lagos as a city of romance. The 12 stories in the collection capture the experience of navigating the strange and wondrous world of love and intimacy in Africa’s most enigmatic city. Kuku is a studious writer who leans into humour, satire and astute observations. She channels the complexities of Lagos as a chaotic but alluring world of dreams and tragedies, desire and heartbreak into characters who find that love or the search for love is the way to survive the stark contradictions of life in the city. Lagosians will easily recognise the swashbuckling lovers and heartbreakers in the stories. Outsiders will find them entertaining. The stories are quick reads, great for a lounge at the beach where it’s OK to laugh out loud. Kuku’s stories are delectable and fun, but they also reveal the ridiculousness of gender expectations and the sexual politics that assign men and women rigid roles in intimate relationships.
The former is the first in a series and is a fun fantasy story set in a post-catastrophe Scotland and featuring a brash and bright teenage Zimbabwean protagonist, Ropa, who makes a living communicating with spirits. We follow as she gets sucked into a mystery to save missing children. The story is full of offbeat characters and the mix of Zimbabwean and Scottish magic and culture is fresh.
The latter is the author’s second novel and is deeply rooted in revolution. From the point of view of three characters (Graham, a South African journalist; Lizzie, his wife; and Art, an American water resources officer), it extrapolates the inequalities and politics of today into a future where climate-catastrophe has created a world where even water is scarce. Yet the book is one of hope – of building new communities and systems, of learning, of family, of new forms of consciousness and of how we, and the world, can change.
“Elikem married me in absentia; he did not come to our wedding.” Is there an award for best opening line? Because I think there needs to be. And Peace Adzo Medie needs to win for the opening of her debut novel, His Only Wife. We start the story at an unusual wedding ceremony of Afi Tekple, a young seamstress, and her mystery husband, Elikem Ganyo. As the story moves between the Ghanaian city of Ho and the country’s capital, Accra, we quickly discover that there’s another woman – a woman the Ganyo family disapprove of – and Afi has been set the herculean task of winning Elikem back on their behalf. As she contends with mounting pressure from her powerful in-laws, Afi’s journey from compliance to defiance doubles up as a fresh examination of womanhood, marriage and societal expectations. Laced with humour, and paired with her breezy writing style, Medie’s unputdownable novel proved to be an instant cure for my dwindling attention span.
Khadija Abdalla Bajaber’s The House of Rust is the story of Aisha, a girl living in present-day Mombasa who, after her father goes missing in the ocean, sets sail one night after him. With her is a talking philosophising cat that guides her in her quest. Bajaber is a witty and exciting writer, and her book is speckled with images of Mombasa’s oral tradition, from talking cats and crows, to a serpent god of war, to the king of sharks, to djinns and spirits. I loved Bajaber’s characters, who battle in Kiswahili proverbs and riddles, and Aisha, a free spirit trying to find her lost father, and in doing so, also find herself.
Equally enjoyable is Okwiri Oduor’s Things They Lost, which is heavy on sparkling sentences and deep dives into Kenya’s colonial and post-colonial history.
Carey Baraka is a Kenyan writer living in Nairobi
Yejide Kilanko’s novel, A Good Name, tells the story of Eziafa and Zina, an immigrant couple in a difficult marriage, and how their diverging desires pull them apart. The sharp emotions Kilanko evokes with her simple and accessible writing are leavened by humour. But not even laughter can take from the fact that the story is heartbreaking.
Nikki May’s fast-paced debut novel, Wahala, is aptly named (wahala, in Nigerian Pidgin, means trouble). The close friendship of three women begins to crack when a fourth woman joins the group and sows chaos. The book is being adapted into a six-part TV series by the BBC.
A Broken People’s Playlist by Chimeka Garricks is a heartwarming short story collection inspired by music. It reminds me of Mitch Albom’s The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto, as Garricks’ storytelling is just as magical. For a more memorable experience, listen to the songs that accompany each story.
Joy Chime is a managing editor of Wawa Book Review, a site focusing on work from African publishers
Imagine two Colombian adolescents as the only guests in a Communist party foreigners’ hotel in China. Juan Gabriel Vásquez is a Colombian writer with the talent to keep a magician’s equilibrium between reality and fiction. In Retrospective, Vásquez takes the real life of his compatriot, film director Sergio Cabrera, and weaves it into a fascinating piece of writing, a factual novel about the children of Fausto Cabrera, a man obsessed with revolution who sends his son and daughter to China to be indoctrinated as Maoists and then join the Colombian guerillas. The strange existence they live in China where they join the Red Guards, and their harrowing experience as guerrillas in the Colombian jungle are told alongside the story of the father, a seductive, fanatical character the children despise and love at the same time. The novel relies on facts researched by the author, through long interviews with the protagonists, but the seamless narrative filled with the ebbs and flows of dramatic tension give the story the gripping quality of fiction. Through incisive observation he conveys the father’s relationship with his children and their process to break with their past and construct a normal life for themselves. Beautifully written and gripping, the novel was nominated for the Booker prize.
Gioconda Belli is a Nicaraguan poet and novelist. Her memoir, The Country Under my Skin, is published by Bloomsbury. She lives in exile in Madrid
Mateo García Elizondo
Julián Herbert’s Tomb Song is a semi-autobiographical memoir and a funerary love song to the narrator’s mother, a sex worker dying of leukaemia, while he recounts his childhood moving from town to town across Mexico with her and his half-siblings. Through the tale of caring for his mother in a provincial hospital, Herbert builds a portrait not only of his dying parent, but also of a decadent motherland (what do you call a decadent country that was never glorious to begin with?). He manages to find dark, tender humour in the family’s fight against cancer, and he expounds glorious snippets of wisdom gleaned from the depths of his own cocaine habit. I loved Tomb Song for being a ballsy and honest account of a life that isn’t only well told but actually worth telling, full of contained sadness, self-deprecating humour and indefatigable tenderness.
Mateo García Elizondo is a Mexican writer. His latest novel, Una cita con la Lady, will be published in English by Charco Press in 2023
The book I’d like to share is Here Be Icebergs, by Peruvian author Katya Adaui, one of the most talented and singular voices to come out of the country in decades. Exquisitely translated by Rosalind Harvey, this is a beguiling collection of stories that take a brutal yet lyrical look at the complexities of family relationships and how we survive them. It will leave you asking for more.
And, if you haven’t yet read Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro, translated by Frances Riddle, I suggest you find yourself a copy. A compelling, political crime novel, Elena Knows is more than a book, it is a powerful, timely experience.
Carolina Orloff is an award-wining translator and co-founder of Charco Press, an independent publisher of contemporary Latin American fiction
KR Meera’s novels, many of which have been translated from Malayalam into English, are almost always fiery testaments to the independence of women, which her characters fight for. When I picked up one of her recent novels, Qabar (The Grave), translated into English by the writer Nisha Susan without changing the title, I was expecting a similarly powerful statement. What I got, instead, is a tender love story featuring a female lower court judge and a male litigant, effortlessly combining desire, family legends, women walking out of their husbands’ lives – and a larger backdrop of communal unrest in India, captured neatly in a symbolic court case. I was utterly lost in the unravelling of this slim novel, travelling through its shimmering spaces of longing and hard spaces of conflict, collisions and contests, all seen through the eyes of the female protagonist. A reminder once again of how fiction can take us to a version of the world that we could live in for ever, if only someone allowed us.
Two books that I recently enjoyed are Mira Sethi’s Are You Enjoying? and Jahnavi Barua’s Undertow. Both books raise questions about the consequences of what happens when women make their own choices in a society grappling between the modern and the traditional.
From Marianne, the American diplomat who lives a secret life, to the story of Zarrar and Asha who marry each other in order to hide their sexualities, Are You Enjoying? exposes us to an urban Pakistan free from the stereotypes we often see in the media. Sethi portrays her characters with wit and an exacting attention to detail.
Barua’s third novel is set in Assam and follows a young woman who has been cast out of her family for marrying outside her religion and race. I loved not only the portrayal of the family dynamics in the book, but also the exploration of the landscape and culture of a north-eastern part of India.
A friend in India gave me Pebble Monkey by Manindra Gupta a few months ago. It’s 124 pages – slim enough to fit into a pocket – a perfect travel companion. I read it on the plane back to the UK and I’ve read it again since. Manindra Gupta was born in Barishal in 1926, in undivided Bengal, and is probably best known for his memoir Akshay Mulberry. Pebble Monkey is an original, quirky, thought-provoking fable, first published in Bengali in 2016 and now translated into English by Arunava Sinha. High above the Himalayan snowline, an ibex dislodges a pebble, that turns into a monkey. Sinha’s masterly translation takes us on a surreal journey with “Pebblemonkey”, who meets an assortment of characters, offers us climate insights, and challenges us with big philosophical questions. It’s never too serious, and it’s peppered with Pebblemonkey’s quick-witted one liners. A lively, surprising read that propels you into a dreamlike world and back again, feeling all the better for it.
Jamil Jan Kochai’s latest collection of short stories, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak, is set between, and stitched together by, spaces in the Afghan diaspora in America, and contemporary Afghanistan. The characters in these stories are constantly confronted with the spectres and landscapes of war. In the opening story, Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the protagonist is transported to Logar in eastern Afganistan, and to his father’s early experience of tragedy, through a video game. The second story, Return to Sender, has two parent-doctors worrying incessantly about their child’s safety against a backdrop of bombings and kidnappings.
The length of the stories ranges from flash fiction (A Premonition; Recollected) to novella (The Tale of Dully’s Reversion). The author is most notable, though, for how he plays with punctuation, and therefore, pace. Here’s a story told in paragraph-long sentences; there’s another, with words separated by commas or semicolons in quick succession. Kochai teases tragedy, builds suspense, withdraws, then offers closure. Most significantly, however, his short fiction defies expectations – readers’ expectations of what a story should look like, and the story of a nation often told reductively and exclusively through media headlines.
Sana Goyal is deputy editor of Wasafiri, a magazine for international contemporary writing