/ 3 December 2021

The Portfolio: Celebrating a great year in African writing

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Tableau: Dr Ainehi Edoro, professor of African literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the founder and publisher of literary platform Brittle Paper, hopes the list of 50 Notable African Books will inspire readers to read more books from writers on the continent. (Photo: Nicole Bitonti)

Damon Galgut remarked in his Booker prize acceptance speech, “This has been a great year for African writing.” Perhaps, he had in mind Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Nobel literature win. He could also have meant the abundance and variety of books by African writers published this year, as is evident in this list of 50 Notable African Books. 

Since 2018, Brittle Paper has curated an annual list of the most impactful African books. The knowledge informing our selection derives from our extensive year-round book reportage, as well as keeping a meticulously detailed database of African books published in a given year. The list was inspired by the need for a pan-African end-of-year retrospective that represented the wealth of literary works from the continent and the diaspora.

A lot goes into deciding which books make the list. As you might expect, we include books that made the biggest splash in the global literary scene. Wole Soyinka’s Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth — his first in 48 years — and Nadifa Mohamed’s Booker-shortlisted novel The Fortune Men fall into this category. 

But we are also fiercely committed to making space for less splashy books. For example, we look at small presses on the continent. TJ Benson’s The Madhouse, published by Masobe Books in Nigeria, shows the kind of stunning discoveries that are possible by small presses. 

Thirdly, we consider books from under-represented demographics. The Actual True Story of Ahmed and Zarga by Mohamedou Ould Slahi is an example. Thanks to Slahi, many readers will encounter Mauritanian literature for the first time, through his immersive desert adventure story. This year, we saw an increase in books translated from French and Arabic. These books expose anglophone readers to previously unexplored imaginative worlds. 

We also include books about important issues. Buki Papillon’s An Ordinary Wonder features an intersex character in a moving coming-of-age story, thereby making space for important conversations about queer African experiences. Lastly, we include books that push the boundaries on formal experimentation. Véronique Tadjo’s In the Company of Men and Fiston Mujila’s The River in the Belly create beauty by breaking the rules of literary form. 

What we have here is a literary tableau enabling us to see in one quick sweep an array of genres, writing styles and national traditions so that, like Galgut, we can say, “This has been a great year for African writing.” 

It is an honour to co-publish this year’s list with the Mail & Guardian, a stalwart advocate of pan-African literary culture. Thank you to The Africa Center in New York City for sponsoring the project. We hope the list inspires book lovers to read more African books.