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Seven Francophone African writers to read this year

They want us to develop an Africa-conscious imagery. They break the barrier between music and literature, and as for being Francophone, what does that even mean? Edwige-Renée Dro introduces some of the Francophone African writers setting the literary scene alight this year.

Felwine Sarr

The name of this publisher, writer, economist, professor and musician has been on everyone’s lips since 2016 with the publication of his fourth book, an essay titled Afrotopia. ‘Afrotopia’ is a word he coined to mean ‘an active utopia with the goal to bring out the vast spaces of the possible in the African reality in order to fertilise them’. For Sarr, Africans need to recover their lost self-esteem by drawing from their cultural references the things that make them African.

‘Talk must precede action’ could be the motto of this Senegalese intellectual and Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Management at the University of Gaston Berger in Saint Louis. He is the co-founder, with fellow writers Boubacar Boris Diop and Nafissatou Dia, of Jimsaan, a publishing house that has published writers like Léonora Miano and Achille Mbembé.

In 2012, he was one of the leaders of Devoir de Résistance, a movement of academics opposed to the constitutional coup by the then Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade.

Last October, in co-operation with Achille Mbembé, he organised Les Ateliers de la Pensée, a three-day workshop that gathered writers and academics like Alain Mabanckou, Souleymane Bachir Diagne and Nadia Yala Kisukidi, to think together about the future of Africa and its relationship with others.


Max Lobe

This young Cameroonian writer – he was born in 1986 – has always featured his native Cameroon in his books. For his fourth book, however, he decided to go in search of the history of Cameroon, a country he left when he was 16 years old in order to pursue his studies in Switzerland.

Why did that country have to be called prawns? That question was the starting point for Max Lobe to probe both his origins and the origins of a country that Portuguese navigators decided to call ‘The River of Prawns’. How did his people mark their resistance to colonialism? The writer uses the old woman Ma Maliga, his narrator, to address such concepts as independence and freedom. According to him, “[Francophone] African nations are not free; they are liberated in a perimeter that is well defined by France”.

He is not shy about making his opinions known. The writer, who cites Calixthe Beyala as being among the writers who inspire him, called for African publishers to think global, in a letter published in Le Monde in 2015.


Gael Faye

Petit Pays – Little Country – is how Faye affectionately refers to Burundi, where he was born and which he left at the age of 13. This is a touchingly nostalgic book in which the narrator, Gabriel, takes us through his childhood in Burundi: the friends with whom he goes mango-stealing, the discovery of the world of reading thanks to a neighbour, but also the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda, which affects him on a personal level because his mother is Rwandese. For the first time, he is confronted with the question of whether he is a Hutu or a Tutsi. And so, just like Faye, Gabriel leaves Burundi for France at the age of 13.

Faye is adamant, however, that the novel is not autobiographical. The rapper and songwriter won the 2016 FNAC Novel Prize, and he was shortlisted for the Goncourt Prize. He also won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens and the Prix du roman des étudiants France Culture Télérama.

Faye returned to live in Rwanda in 2015 and now wants to translate Petit Pays into Kinyarwanda and Kirundi in order “to get the views of people from different social backgrounds”.


Richard Ali A. Mutu

He was revealed to an Anglophone readership through the Africa39 project in 2014. Last December, Richard Ali published, with Phoneme Media, Mr Fix-It, the first novel to be translated from Lingala into English.

Explaining the decision to write Ebamba, Kinshasa Makambo (the original title) in Lingala, Richard Ali is surprised that such a question should be asked at all. “Would you ask a Francophone Belgian writer, ‘What motivated you to write in French?’ or to an American, ‘Why do you write in English?’”

Although he deplores the fact that such a question is only ever directed at an African writer, he explains writing in Lingala by the fact that he simply loves the language – but also that it is the language of his primary readership.

“Would you ask a Francophone Belgian writer, ‘What motivated you to write in French?’ or to an American, ‘Why do you write in English?’” – Richard Ali A. Mutu

Richard Ali, who was a laureate in 2009 of the Mark Twain Award, published a first novel, Le cauchemardesque de Tabu (Tabu’s Nightmares) in 2011 in French. However, a “taste for adventure” is what pushed him to write in Lingala, a language spoken by almost every one of the 70 million inhabitants of the DRC.


Marie N’Diaye

Winner of the Prix Fémina in 2001 and of the Goncourt in 2009 with Trois femmes puissantes (Three Strong Women), Marie N’Diaye (she insists that the first two letters of her surname be written in capital letters) has more than 20 works of literature to her name.

In October last year, she published La Cheffe, roman d’une cuisinière (The Chef, a Novel of a Cook). The chef, to whom N’Diaye does not give a name, is a woman who loves cooking and feeding, but detests all the effusive praise that people lavish on chefs. This is another novel from this Franco-Senegalese writer depicting a powerful woman and how she relates to food, but also to her family. Family is a recurring theme for N’Diaye, who justifies her choice by the fact that ‘it is the only material she has to work with’.

Leïla Slimani, Paris, 2015. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Leila Slimani

Her first novel, Dans le jardin de l’ogre (In the Garden of the Ogre) about a nymphomaniac middle-class Parisian, was published to critical acclaim in 2013. Last November, the former Jeune Afrique journalist, who hails from Morocco, scooped the Goncourt for her second novel, Douce chanson (Sweet Song), which was inspired by the case in the United States of the nanny from the Dominican Republic, who was accused in 2012 of killing the two children in her care.

Even before winning the Goncourt, Douce chanson had already conquered the French readership, with 80 000 copies sold, and there  is talk that the book will be turned into a movie.

The writer is bringing out a collection of short stories and an essay titled Sexe et mensonges: être jeune au Maroc (Sex and Lies: Being young in Morocco) in the first half of this year.

This first novel, which none of the big publishers wanted to touch before it landed on the desk of an editor five years after Zamir wrote it, has been winning all the prizes

Ali Zamir

Anguille sous roche is a French expression that can be translated as “I smell a rat”. The title of this novel, however, should best be translated as ‘Anguille under a rock’. It is the story of Anguille, a young girl who is drowning in the waters between The Comoros, where the writer hails from, and Mayotte. The novel consists of 318 pages and is written as just one sentence, with only commas as punctuation. Zamir says he did that to express the urgency of death.

The writer, whose literary idols range from Victor Hugo to Cheick Hamidou Kane, Ahmadou Kourouma and JM le Clézio, has become the unexpected sweetheart of Francophone literature.

This first novel, which none of the big publishers wanted to touch before it landed on the desk of an editor five years after Zamir wrote it, has been winning all the prizes: the FNAC Novel Prize, the Senghor Prize for Francophone Literature, and the Stanislas Prize for the First Novel.

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