2015 has been another good year for African literature as a number of outstanding books hit the shelves this year. The year has not, however, seen a large number of highly anticipated books in the way the year 2013 did – NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, We Need New Names (May 2013); Taiye Selasi’s debut Ghana Must Go (March 2013); and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (May 2013) all came out that year.
Indeed, from 2013’s regiment of African books, NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel did not only get shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize – making her the first ever Black African woman to achieve the feat – it won a long list of other prizes, from the Etisalat Prize for Literature, the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, The Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, among others.
In 2015, in terms of prize nomination and gongs, Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen has come the closest to We Need New Names. Published on April 14, the book won the inaugural FT/Oppenheimer Awards, was shortlisted for the Man Booker and Guardian First Book prize, is currently shortlisted by NAACP Awards for debut book and is long listed for the Etisalat Prize for Literature.
The Book of Memory, Petina Gappah’s second and coming six years after her short story collection An Elegy of Easterly, proves that she will do for Zimbabwean writing what Oliver Mutukudzi has done for the country’s music. The Book of Memory is not just the story of an albino character named Memory, it is also a book about the fickleness of her memory.
I will stick to debut novelists whose first books were short story collections; EC Osondu’s debut novel, This House is not For Sale, is told in linked short stories. Set around a house located in an unnamed city which however smells, sounds, looks, tastes and feels like Lagos, the stories follow various characters who come to live in this gigantic old house under the watch of the omnipresent, all powerful Grandpa. Unlike Osondu’s short story collection Voice of America, the characters in This House is Not for Sale are not necessarily living between America and Nigeria.
Talking of stories criss-crossing Nigeria and America brings me neatly to Chinelo Okparanta. Her debut novel Under The Udala Trees came out in September 2015. Her debut book, Happiness Like Water, a short story collection, contained tales about the past and future in America and Nigeria. Under The Udala Trees goes back into Nigerian history and finds a beautiful lesbian love story set during the Biafran war.
Igoni Barret is another Nigerian writer whose first two books were short story collections. Blackass, his 2015 offering, is probably the most hilarious and satirical novel of the year. Barret’s debut novel is a story of a Nigerian man who wakes up on a morning he is set to sit for a job interview and finds that he has turned white overnight. His life changes dramatically and Igoni leaves us laughing and shaking our heads at the ways in which perceptions of race inform life in Lagos. Igoni’s eye for the absurd is at work as it was in his most recent short story collection, Love is Power or Something Like That.
With these powerful novels from seasoned African writers, published in the United Kingdom and the United States, one expects that the Western world has accepted that Africans producing excellent work has become regular. The inventiveness and range of subjects explored by the novels published in 2015 also may suggest that discussions in Western media about African literature being overly political, predictable and limiting are behind us.
On the continental front, publishers have not been sleeping. The trend of short story writers putting out novels continued with Paressia releasing Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s debut novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms, in November. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s novel follows his short story collection The Whispering Trees, long listed for the Etisalat Prize for Literature; the title story was shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing.
Speaking of the 2013 shortlist of the Caine Prize for African Writing, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s fellow shortlistee that year, Elnathan John, who also got another story of his shortlisted this year, has a debut novel out as well. Also published in November, this time by Cassava Republic, Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday is said to be an extension of his Bayan Layi short story, which was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2013. The novel will come to Western audiences via Grove Atlantic in 2016.
2015 has given more shot in the arm for the trend of books getting published on the continent first, and coming to the West later. Like Elnathan’s Born on a Tuesday, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms will be published in the United Kingdom in 2016 by a publisher with roots on the continent but who is opening shop in the United Kingdom. Cassava Republic is establishing a presence in the United Kingdom and Abubakar’s novel is on their inaugural list.
Staying with books published on the continent, the Etisalat prize long list this year continued to show that South Africa is the queen of African publishing. Of the nine long listed books, six are written by South Africans. Masande Ntshanga, whose story was shortlisted for the Caine Prize this year, has a novel on the Etisalat longlist. His debut novel, The Reactive, is published by Umuzi.
Eight Most Outstanding African Books of 2015:
Chigozie Obioma, “The Fishermen”
Petina Gappah, “The Book of Memory”
EC Osondu, “This House Is Not For Sale”
Chinelo Okparanta, “Under the Udala Trees”
Igoni Barret, “Blackass”
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, “Season of Crimson Blossoms”;
Elnathan John, “Born on a Tuesday”
Masande Ntshanga, “The Reactive”
Overall, 2015 has been a year for accomplished short story writers to release debut novels and for African publishers to continue to prove that they are in publishing to do business and are ready to not only serve African markets but also share the Western market. 2016 will only get better for consumers of African fiction.