Africa is a Country Recommends its 2016 book list

We’re a bookish bunch at AIAC, and once a year we like to share some of our favorite reads from the year just gone. It always feels like there’s too much to read, because there is. But one can always read more! So here’s some more to add to your reading pile for 2017.

Wangui Kimari

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence (Picador, 2016): I was bracing myself for another Michela Wrong type narrative – Africans deep in the abyss of every kind of darky maelstrom. But the intricate and vibrant portraits painted here of Dadaab’s people making life amidst the violent encampments of Kenya’s self-interest, humanitarian inconsistency, Al-Shabaab, and the many structural and intimate manifestations of this, are very moving.

Chika Unigwe

Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John (Grove Press, 2016): relevant, insightful, timely and beautiful prose. Dantala, John’s protagonist, is a compelling character who stays with you long after you’ve turned the last page.

Zachary Levenson

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Penguin/Random House New York, 2016). When a friend recommended this historical novel about the Gold Coast slave trade, I was skeptical: Gyasi is younger than I am, and how many historical novels have been written about slavery? Wrong. This book is phenomenal from start to finish. A progression of short stories about characters from two family lines in Ghana, Gyasi’s book demonstrates how the intimate life of the slave trade transforms understandings of race, power, and social structure in both Ghana and the US. For a book that only treats each of its characters briefly, the degree of character development is remarkable.

Gabeba Baderoon

Pumla Dineo Gqola’s Rape: A South African Nightmare (Jacana, 2015) shows how the extraordinary scale of sexual violence in South Africa became ordinary and invisible. The grave reality has begun to change, with students in the fees movements refusing to accept that sexual violence is a necessary price of struggle.

Neelika Jayawardane

Mr. Loverman, by Bernardine Evaristo (Penguin, 2013). Barrington “Barry” Walker, a Caribbean transplant to Stoke Newington, has been playing the field on the Down Low all his adult sexual life. At 74, he is still not ready to come out because…well, his wife, Carmel, is a fine cook (I mean, what man could reproduce her fried plantains or her stews?!). And he likes his house, and the social role he plays in his community as a three-piece suit wearing dapper gent with “a certain je ne sais whatsit” who built a not-inconsiderable real-estate business.

It’s the “What would people say” about him being a “Buggerer of men” and the fear of resulting social death that stops him from being out in the open about his life-long love – whom he followed, from Antigua, all the way to Great Britain – the long-suffering Morris de la Roux. Although the novel revolves around Barry and Morris, and the “will they or won’t they” question, part of the fun of reading this book is in that Evaristo is grounded in post-colonial criticism.

She does not reduce Carmel’s character to a devout Christian who may be using her hellfire and brimstone church morality to mask her own loneliness. We get to question Carmel’s own reasons for wanting to immigrate to Britain, though she came from a wealthy, landowning Antiguan family. In her youthful projections of escape, romantic love and desire for freedom from an abusive father are conflated with images of an idealized, pastoral England (even though Evaristo is careful to note that the actual Antiguan scenery around her is luscious – there’s even a hummingbird buzzing around as she dreams of the glories dear old England will offer).

We see how Britain has carefully constructed and projected itself as the place in which ideal love, beauty, and fulfillment exists – through everything from images on teacups, popular narratives and the novels that Carmel reads. Needless to say, when she gets to London with Barry, she finds neither romantic love nor self-actualization. Even her skin looks like shit (happily restored, however, when she returns to Antigua). Through Carmel’s disappointing journey, we re-evaluate our own romance with the vestigial remnants of the British Empire.

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By Elliot Ross