African Literature – what should you read?

Before we begin, an apology. We are all aware that there are far too many of these types of Internet articles, which command us, in various guises, to read or include certain African writers on our summer/autumn reading lists. The largely imaginary risk of non-compliance is exclusion from a tightly bound community of Africa’s literary elite endorsed by Western publishing houses.     What is the objective of these lists? Is it to promote certain African authors who have been overlooked by the literary cognoscenti; both domestic and international?


Is the purpose to highlight African literature in a crowded publishing market where Chimamanda Ngozie Adicihie must compete with James Patterson? Or, is the simplest answer the most plausible, i.e. that the people producing these lists of African writers (which are proclaimed as the “top ten” or “rising stars” of African literature etc.) are ultimately only regurgitating their own literary tastes for the wider public.The answer to the question, “who should you be reading?”, is surely, whoever you damn well like. But, and there is always a “but”, in order to determine what you like, you need as much exposure to different writers, genres and markets so that the choices you arrive at are not just subjective, but informed.

My only advice is to take exactly the same approach with African literature that one would with any other type of literature (irrespective of its geographical origins). In short, do your due diligence, read the excerpts and reviews on conventional and new media and make your own decision. The starting point being, do you want the classics or the new girls and boys? Assuming you want a mixture of the two, my own personal view is this is what is on the table:

  •  Chiuna Achebe, Ben Okri,  JM Coetzee, Wole Soyinka and Aminatta Forna are mandatory, simply mandatory;
  • read all of of the Caine Prize nominees and tack onto that the princes and princesses of African literature, Chimamanda Ngozi Adicihie, Noviolet Bulawayo, Chibundu Onuzo, Teju Cole and Taiye Selasi, they set the pace for modern African literature; and
  • finally, look out for new African writers  published by  African publishing houses (all of which, think outside of the box)

To avoid reinventing the wheel, the following site noted below provides an noteworthy list of some of the best offerings from the African continent in the last century.

Read and enjoy, but remember your literary appetite is your own, its tastes and flavours guided by no-one other than you.