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African women writers have many enriching and fascinating stories to tell. Through their work, we realise that Africa isn’t just what the world feels it is – it’s so much more.
Africa, as a continent, has for long laboured under some stereotypes – that it is all jungle, or that it is a country. In reality, Africa includes many rich and extremely diverse cultures – whether it is in terms of food, dressing, religion – or literature.
Large parts of the African continent today are heavily urbanised, even if ‘safari’ and ‘jungle’ are what many think of when they first think of Africa. At the same time, people of various African cultures continue to draw from their roots when it comes to the telling of stories. Africa, as a land itself, has so many stories to tell – home to some of the most important moments in world history such as the apartheid movement, various Independence movements, or in fact, the very beginning of mankind.
African women writers come from different parts of the continent, which is what makes their writing so interesting, and also, very important. They each have a different point of view based on their surroundings, and the cultures they come from, besides the diversity of their own voices. This is also why African literature is so rich – the diversity of the continent fuels this richness. African women have also made use of literature as a form of protest, initiative, having their voices heard and bringing about powerful change.
Here is a list of contemporary African women writers that you should definitely have a look at!
Chimamanda Adichie is a Nigerian novelist who also writes short stories as well as fiction. Born in the city of Enugu, this African writer’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003) was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction (2004) and was awarded the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book (2005). The book is set is postcolonial Nigeria against the backdrop of political instability and a broken economy. The protagonist of the story is a 15-year-old girl who is on her path to maturity while dealing with familial problems.
She has also written Americanah (2013) and a book length essay We Should All Be Feminists (2014).
Ahdaf is an Egyptian novelist, born in the city of Cairo. Along with being a novelist, Ahdaf is also a political and cultural commentator for the Guardian newspaper. She has written In the Eye of the Sun (1993), The Map of Love (1999), Aisha (1983) and Sandpiper (1996). The last two are short stories.
Her second book, The Map of Love was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Set in 1900s, Anna Winterbourne travels to Egypt and falls in love with Sharif. A century later, their descendent Isabel travels to Egypt with a family trunk full of Anna and Sharif’s secrets. This book has been translated into 21 languages and has sold over a million copies.
The next African woman writer is Yewande. She is a South-African novelist, architect and designer. She was born in 1980 in Barbados and grew up in Nigeria.
She has written Bom Boy (2011) and The Woman Next Door (2016). She has also written for and contributed poems and stories to a variety of publications such as Noir Nation, Contemporary African Women’s Poetry and The Moth Literary Journal among others.
Her second novel, The Woman Next Door is about two women – one white and one black – who live next to each other. They have spent most of their years bickering and insulting one another till a time comes where the two must come together for a greater cause. This book was longlisted for Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (2017) and was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award (2018).
Laila is a Moroccan-American novelist and essayist. She was born in 1968 in Rabat, Morocco where she was raised as well.
Her opinion pieces, cultural commentary and literary criticism have appeared in prestigious newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Boston Review and elsewhere.
Some of her notable works are The Moor’s Account (2014), Secret Son (2009) and Hopes and Other Dangerous Pursuits (2005). The last one is her debut book and is a collection of short stories.
Her third book, The Moor’s Account is a fictional memoir about Estevanico, the Moroccan slave who survived the Narvaez Expedition. He is considered to be the first black explorer of America. This book has won the American Book Award, the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award and was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Petina is a Zimbabwean lawyer and writer. She was born in 1971 in Zambia, in the Copperbelt Province. This African woman writer began writing at a very young age, about 10 or 11.
She has written An Elegy for Easterly (2010), The Book of Memory (2015), and Rotten Row (2016). An Elegy for Easterly, like Rotten Row, was a collection of stories. The book talks about what it’s like to be a Zimbabwean in today’s world. It deals with the country’s ruling, political chaos and economic instability. Along with all this, the characters also go through everyday hardships such as failed promises, disappointments, uncertainty and struggles. It was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, Orwell Prize and the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. It has also won the Guardian First Book Award in 2009.
Leila Aboulela is a Sudanese writer. She was born in 1964 in Cairo, Egypt.
Some of her notable works include a collection of short stories Coloured Lights (2001), The Translator (2006), The Minaret (2005) and Lyrics Alley (2012).
Her second novel, The Minaret was published in 2005. It talks of the journey of Najwa, a Sudanese woman who is forced to flee her home in Sudan due to the Second Sudanese Civil War. The death of her father causes her family to leave for London, leaving behind all comforts of home that she knew only to find herself again through her faith. This book was nominated for the Orange Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Award.
Maaza Mengiste is an Ethiopian-American writer and author. She was born in 1974 in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. However, her family left due to the Ethiopian Revolution and she spent the rest of her life in Nigeria, Kenya and the United States.
This African writer is the author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze which was published in 2010. It is set in 1974 Addis Ababa and looks at the Ethiopian Revolution through the eyes of a doctor’s family – him, his dying wife and their two sons. It goes through the end of emperor Halie Selassie and the beginning of the Derg’s military rule. This book was named one of the 10 best contemporary African books by the Guardian and has been translated into various languages including French and Dutch. She was a runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Price in 2011 and a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.
The next African woman writer is Yaa Gyasi is a Ghanaian-American novelist. She was born in 1989 in Mampong, Ghana. Her family moved to the United States in 1991.
Her debut novel, which was inspired by a trip to Ghana – the first since she left in 1991, was completed in 2015. The book, Homegoing, focuses on the Asante women of Ghana. It follows the descendants of Maame, beginning with her two daughters who have very different lives. One marries a British official while one is held captive in the dungeons. Each chapter following this one speaks of their children and the generation to come. The book was nominated for Centre for Fiction First Novel Prize in 2016 and it was awarded the John Leonard Prize by the National Book Critics Circle for outstanding debut novel in 2017.
Yvonne is a Kenyan writer. She was born in 1968 in Nairobi, Kenya. She has also worked as a screenwriter and an Executive Director for the Zanzibar International Film Festival.
Her 2014 novel, Dust, has received wide critical acclaims. Set in the turbulent 1950s and 1960s, a father brings his murdered son to Kenyan drylands, along with his daughter from Nairobi. As the events progress, certain secrets begin to resurface and they impact the family is ways no one would have guessed.
Kopano Matlwa is a South African writer. She was born in 1985 in South Africa. She is also a physician.
She has written two books Spilt Milk (2010) and Coconut which she completed while finishing her medical degree. Her book Coconut is about two black girls who live in the white suburbs and take on different paths to search their identities. The book focuses on the issues of race, class and colonization in modern day Johannesburg. This book has been awarded the European Union Literary Award and won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa in 2010.
Our final African woman writer on the list is Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi from Uganda. She was born and brought up in Kampala, Uganda. She is a novelist and a short story writer.
Makumbi’s form of writing is largely based on oral traditions because they are able to accommodate any form of writing – regardless of subject, form or genre. For her, oral traditions brought in depth to her writing. She draws on these as they anchor her writing in Ganda culture and also helps her put her thoughts across with confidence as she’s extremely familiar with the traditions.
She has written a novel, Kintu, which was published in 2014. Set in 1754, Kintu Kidda, belonging to the Ppookino of Buddu Province decides to pledge his allegiance to the new Kabaka (king of the Kingdom of Buganda) of the realm. On his journey, he comes across a challenge for which he makes an impulsive decision, causing him and his family to be cursed for generations. This book for longlisted for the Estisalat Prize for Literature in 2014 and is the winner of the Kwani? Manuscript Project in 2013.
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