Five of my all-time favourite African novels (well, six)


Ever since I took a world literature class in university, and loved pretty much every book we read that term, I've been reading more world than 'conventional'/'mainstream'/out-of-this-world? literature. Yes, sometimes these terms get out of control. To be clearer, I've dedicated most of my reading effort towards reading literature from the so-called developing world and particularly, from Africa and its diaspora. It's been especially enriching for me for a few reasons: providing me with the vibrance I remember from home, while I live abroad (i.e. it's comforting); learning about places and cultures that I might not otherwise have been exposed to (I find literature an invaluable source for learning about history – even though the specific story may be fictional or representative); it makes me feel more at home in the world by weaving an intricate tapestry of diversity. 

So, preamble out of the way, below are five of my favourite African novels. This is not an exhaustive list!

Butterfly Burning by Yvonne Vera
This book is like a little gem: delicate, diminutive in length yet so generous in expression. Yvonne Vera became my hero after my first reading. A true craftswoman, there are no 'spare' sentences in the book – each one is perfectly put together and poetic. Simultaneously the story of a woman's self-discovery and a nation's self-discovery, it crescendos to a striking powerful end. One of my favourite lines: "How does a woman claim a piece of time and make it glitter?" Context is everything so, check the book out.

Our Sister Killjoy by Ama Ata Aidoo
Ama Ata Aidoo is one witty woman. Apparent in the books and stories I've read of hers, as well as plays I've watched. Our Sister Killjoy was my first. Unique in integrating poetry and prose, she chronicles the experience of a young Ghanaian woman who goes abroad to study. It's an experience that more and more of us out of the continent can resonate with. The sassy protagonist voices all those questions and observations that you've probably had yourself. 

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 
This woman is my inspiration! Down to the fact that we share a guilty pleasure – Essence magazine. Her spunk and confidence is evident in her writing and, even though this particular novel is a tale weaved around the historical events of decades ago, her writing is fresh, signaling indeed a new wave of African writers, after the Ayi Kwei Armahs and Ngugi Wa Thiong'os paved the way. 

Waiting for an Angel by Helon Habila
I bought this book on a whim at a book fair years ago. Habila himself was selling them and although I hadn't at the time heard anything about him or his work, I thought I'd give it a try. Again, a relatively slim novel with amazing punch! I read through it in one weekend it was so captivating. Several stories collide in the final event, revealing their interconnectedness all along. His second novel, Measuring Time, has a really different pace which initially threw me but, after all is said and done, it is just as masterful and satisfying.

I was debating between the two aforementioned fathers of African literature for the fifth book but I couldn't quite decide so… this is now the post about six of my all-time favourite novels 🙂

Matigari by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o
A representative tale of the fight for freedom from colonialism in Africa. The story is told in a very interesting way combining prose and poetry as well a lot of questioning and repetition, common in African oral traditions. The king of satire, Ngugi makes you laugh, wince and shake your head, in recognition of characters and institutions that even today, over 20 years after the book was written, ring true.

The Beautyful Ones are not yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah
Another freshly post-colonial tale, Armah's novel exposes the dirt and decay that mars the promise of independence. The protagonist, the seemingly only upright man in Ghana, is increasingly frustrated by the filth and tempted to succumb to it. The novel follows his internal battle, while vividly illustrating the pervasiveness of the decay of place and person.

I know some of you already recommended your favourites on the facebook page and on twitter â€“ I would love to hear more. Happy reading!

7 thoughts on “Five of my all-time favourite African novels (well, six)”

  1. Have not read three of these but judging from Matigari, The Beautyful Ones and Half of a Yellow Sun being included in the list, I have placed orders to rectify that immediately.
    Three of my all time favourite books those! Matigari is brilliantly crafted.

  2. Selali, I’m so excited you’re going to check them out – I think you definitely will enjoy them. Apart from being great stories, they are all AMAZINGLY crafted. Let me know what you think.

  3. I read them and they were truly AMAZING.
    Vera blew me away (maybe more of a rapid fluttering). Reading her was like a vivid kind of dreaming, that section in the book about a woman coming into her own…sublime.
    Habila has such a beautiful mind, each story moved me, I sent the book off to another someone who I think would also appreciate his amazingness.
    And as for Aidoo, being partly Ghanaian myself, I have resolved to meet her someday. Every page in Our Sister KillJoy seemed to be screaming a relentless, resounding tone in my own head (I live in the States).
    Thank you so much, for the reccommendations. Have you read Nervous Conditions? Zenzele? Tropical Fish?

  4. I’m so happy you enjoyed them! Reading your reactions is making me want to re-read them (for the nth time!).
    I know the exact Vera passage you’re talking about – if ever I have daughters, I will read that part to them until they can’t stand me anymore. Please take me with you when you go to meet Aidoo. And definitely check out her other works.
    I’ve read Nervous Conditions and the sequel, The Book of Not (the first left me with high expectations that the second fell short of). Haven’t read Zenzele and Tropical Fish so they’re going on my list (
    Read on sister!
    And check out Kinna Reads (

  5. But how could I not?! When all these beautiful pens continue their labours.
    Oh no, sorry about forcing you to lengthen your reading list, but I do believe that you will enjoy the books. 🙂
    Is this ‘Kinnareads’ the same Kinna as in Aidoo’s daughter? Thanks for another great rec.

  6. Lovely choice. I also really like ‘The Abyssinian Chronicles’ (Moses Isigawa)and ‘The Wizard of the Crow’ (also Ngugi wa Thiong’o. ‘Purple hibiscus’ was also excellent. But I could go on and on… So much great writing.

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