African Literature: The Ones to Watch

Category: Reading

This month, the Book Talk focus has been 'Lyrics Alley', a novel by the Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela set in 1950's Sudan and Egypt. One of her short stories was recently featured in 'The Granta Book of the African Short Story' alongside a selection of the new guard of writers from all over Africa.

Described as 'a fascinating picture of a new and more liberated Africa', the collection is edited by Helon Habila, a Nigerian writer and Caine Prize winner himself who occasionally reviews African literature for the Guardian.

As well as the Granta collection itself, there are a string of interesting and vital books by the writers included in the collection. Here is a guide to some of that writing and a few of the authors who are tipped as the ones to watch.

Aminatta Forna was born in Glasgow in 1964, but spent her young life shuttling between Sierra Leone and the United Kingdom.  Her father became involved in the politics of Sierra Leone and was arrested and executed when she was 11.  Aminatta ended up in London where she spent 10 years working as a radio and television reporter for the BBC before she took up the mantle of a writer.

Her first publication, The Devil that Danced on the Water, is a memoir about the arrest and death of her father, her search for the truth, and the events that followed.  It was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2003, chosen for the Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers series, and serialised on BBC Radio.  Not to be outdone, her debut novel, Ancestor Stones, picked up both the 2007 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the 2008 LiBeraturpreis in Germany. 

This was followed by her second novel, The Memory of Love, which was also an award winner, attaining the 2011 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best Book and being shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. In addition, her articles and essays, on topics ranging from insomnia to politics to dogs, have appeared in Granta magazine, The Economist, The Observer, and several other publications.

Both of Aminatta’s novels and her memoir deal with the aftermath of civil war and the effect it has on people and relationships. This is not, however the only thing she is interested in writing about.  In 2002, after a visit to Rogbonko, the village founded by Aminatta’s grandfather, she helped build them a primary school, but she didn’t stop there.  Aminatta has also taken the time to deliver 900 Harry Potter books to children in Sierra Leone.  She sits on the advisory committees of the Royal Literacy Fund and the Caine Prize for African Writing.

The verdict?

"The Memory of Love had me ignoring children, skipping meals and sneaking an extra half hour during my lunch break so I could spend more time with the characters."

Ellah Allfrey, Amazon Reviewer.

Alaa Al Aswany is one of Egypt's foremost writers, who's novels The Yacoubian Building and Chicago have already attracted worldwide attention and praise, with the former being adapted into a feature film of the same name.

In addition to writing, which he balances with a full-time career as a dentist, Al Aswany is a vocal and insightful political activist who has been named this year as one of Foreign Policy magazine's Top 100 Global Thinkers. A prominent critic of Mubarak's regime in a column for an Egyptian daily newspaper, at the outset of the protests in Cairo, he released a collection of writing On the State of Egypt; What Caused the Revolution, a convincing account of popular and growing support for democracy in Egypt. There are numerous fascinating interviews with Al Aswany by The New York Times, National Geographic and others which give us an insight into Alaa Al Aswany; the reasoned voice of new Egypt.

Al Aswany has some new and hotly anticipated novels in the pipeline to be published by Canongate here in the UK. 

Our verdict?

"Chicago was one of the best novels I have ever read and I was hooked from the first page, I couldn't stop recommending it to people for at least a year. Reading it, you feel that you are in the hands of a masterful storyteller who is completely in control." 

Claire Stewart, SBT Marketing Coordinator.

More about contemporary African writing this coming Friday, as well as some historical context for Lyrics Alley, coming up here on the Love to Read blog.