25th Cascade Festival of African Films

African Literature Reading List

Introduction To African Literatures

Compiled by Mary D. Holmström


MINE BOY. Xuma faces the complexities of urban life in Johannesburg. This was one of the first books to draw attention to the condition of black South Africans under apartheid. Abrahams also wrote A Wreath for Udoma, Wild Conquest, The Path of Thunder, and Tell Freedom, a moving account of growing up in the black slums of Johannesburg.


THINGS FALL APART. This classic novel tells the tragic story of the hero Okonkwo and his village Umuofia at the end of the 19th century and the dramatic changes that are ushered in with the arrival of European missionaries and colonialists. This is probably the most beloved and widely read of all African novels. Achebe’s other novels are No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, A Man of the People, and Anthills of the Savannah. Achebe is known as the “father of contemporary African literature in English.”


HALF OF A YELLOW SUN. Heralded as “the 21st-century daughter of Chinua Achebe,” Adichie re-creates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra’s impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria in the 1960s. Her other works include her debut novel Purple Hibiscus and the short story collection The Thing around Your Neck.


CHANGES: A LOVE STORY. Esi, a beautiful, well-educated woman who seems to have everything, is dissatisfied with her life in modern-day Accra. The changes that come into her life – divorce and remarriage as the second wife of a polygamist husband – are more than she bargains for. This is an entertaining novel full of biting social satire and commentary. Aidoo is also a poet, playwright, and short story writer. No Sweetness Here is her best known collection of short stories, and The Dilemma of a Ghost and Anowa are two of her best known plays.


THE BEAUTYFUL ONES ARE NOT YET BORN. A railway freight clerk in Ghana tries to hold out against the pressures both in his family and his country which impel him towards corruption. Armah’s other novels include Fragments, Why Are We So Blest and Two Thousand Seasons.

MARIAMA BÂ (Senegal)

SO LONG A LETTER. An intense, beautiful novel in the form of a letter written by Ramatoulaye to her friend, Aissatou, this work is a cry of protest against the practice of polygamy in Islamic Senegalese society.

MONGO BETI (Cameroon)

MISSION TO KALA. In this comic and funny novel, Jean-Marie Medza, a young student who has failed his school exams, is sent off to retrieve a villager’s wife who has run off with another man.


THE SUN HATH LOOKED UPON ME. Set in the grim world of urban prostitution, this novel gives voice to the multitude of women trapped in African ghettos. Caught between traditional values, male demands, and the need to survive, Ateba seeks to end the tyranny of men whom she holds responsible for her own and her friends’ suffering.

J. M. COETZEE (South Africa)

(Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003)

DISGRACE. This novel, which won the Booker Prize in Britain in 1999, is set in post-apartheid South Africa. An incident of unimaginable terror and violence forces David Lurie and his daughter to confront their strained relationship – and the equally complicated racial complexities of the new South Africa. Other novels are Waiting for the Barbarians, In the Heart of the Country, Dusklands, and Life and Times of Michael K, which won the Booker Prize in 1983.


NERVOUS CONDITIONS. This is both a moving story of a girl’s coming of age and a compelling narrative of the human loss involved in the colonization of one culture by another.


TALES OF AMADOU KOUMBA. Originally told to Diop by his family’s griot (traditional storyteller/oral historian), these brilliant tales compare with the fables of Aesop and La Fontaine.


FANTASIA: AN ALGERIAN CAVALCADE. This stunning novel intertwines the history of Algeria with episodes from the life of a young girl stretching from the French conquest in 1830 to the War of Liberation of the 1950s. Djebar also wrote the equally compelling A Sister to Scheherazade.


THE FALL OF THE IMAM. A tale of women suffering under harsh Islamic rule, this novel is poetic, hypnotic, and tragic. Other works include Woman at Point Zero, Death of an Ex-Minister, The Hidden Face of Eve, and She Has No Place in Paradise.


THE JOYS OF MOTHERHOOD. This remarkable novel poses many questions about marriage and the position of women in Nigerian society. The main character Nnu-Ego devotes her life to her children, but she does not experience much joy in the process. Among Emecheta’s other novels are The Slave Girl, The Bride Price, and Kehinde.


EQUIANO’S TRAVELS: THE INTERESTING NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF OLAUDAH EQUIANO OR GUSTAVUS VASSA THE AFRICAN. Published in 1789, this is Equiano’s own account of his life. Captured by slave traders at the age of ten, he was taken to the southern states of America and later to the West Indies. At the age of twenty-one, he bought his freedom, sailed on various naval expeditions, and became an ardent member of the Anti-Slavery Movement. His autobiography is a work of great literary and historical importance.


SWEET AND SOUR MILK, SARDINES, AND CLOSE SESAME (VARIATIONS ON THE THEME OF AN AFRICAN DICTATORSHIP). Beautifully written and constructed, the novels comprising Farah’s trilogy inform readers of what it is like to live under the intolerable pressures of a tyrannical regime. Farah’s most recent works include another trilogy of novels, Maps, Gifts, and Secrets. Farah won the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1998, the first African writer to win the prize.


(Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991)

CRIMES OF CONSCIENCE. This powerful collection of short stories reveals Nadine Gordimer’s outstanding ability to pierce the core of the human condition of those, both black and white, living under apartheid in South Africa. She has published many volumes of short stories as well as novels, among them The Conservationist, Burger’s Daughter, July’s People, and My Son’s Story.

BESSIE HEAD (South Africa and Botswana)

THE COLLECTOR OF TREASURES. These superb short stories focus on the position of women in Africa. Bessie Head is also an important novelist. Her novels are The Cardinals, When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru, and A Question of Power.


AMBIGUOUS ADVENTURE. Sambo Diallo finds his situation is ambiguous: while he has become estranged from the Muslim faith of his people in Senegal, he is unable to identify with the soulless material civilization he finds in France where he is sent to learn the secrets of the white man’s power.


COMING HOME AND OTHER STORIES. This collection of nine stories paints a haunting and captivating picture of South Africa. Daughters of the Twilight and A Shattering Silence are also highly recommended.


FACING MOUNT KENYA. Jomo Kenyatta, first president of independent Kenya from 1963 to 1978, studied anthropology at the University of London in England and wrote this seminal book about Gikuyu culture in 1938. This classic work helped build the case for Kenyan human rights and freedom and inspired the imaginative writing of such writers as Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

MAZISI KUNENE (South Africa)

EMPEROR SHAKA THE GREAT. Mazisi Kunene has rendered the story of Shaka in English. This great epic tells the story of Shaka, the Zulu empire, and its conquests. He is also the author of Zulu Poems and Anthem of the Decades.

ALEX LA GUMA (South Africa)

IN THE FOG OF THE SEASONS’ END. This novel is about people in Cape Town organizing underground opposition to apartheid. In all his works La Guma chronicles the black experience in South Africa in straightforward and revolutionary terms. His other works include A Walk in the Night, The Stone Country, and Time of the Butcherbird.


THE AFRICAN CHILD (first published in French as L’Enfant Noir and sometimes published in English as The Dark Child). This memoir of Laye’s childhood in his home village in Guinea has become a well-loved classic. Laye also wrote The Radiance of the King, A Dream of Africa, and The Guardian of the Word, a version of the Sundiata epic related to the author by the famous Malian griot Babu Condé.


LIVING, LOVING AND LYING AWAKE AT NIGHT. This collection of short stories brings to light a full range of South African women’s experiences. Sindiwe Magona has also received critical acclaim for her autobiographical works, To My Children’s Children and Forced to Grow.


(Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988)

THE BEGINNING AND THE END. This novel is a masterpiece of human compassion, reflecting the material, moral, and spiritual problems of an Egyptian petit bourgeois family confronted with poverty during the Second World War. Among Mahfouz’s other outstanding works are his Cairo Trilogy, which includes Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street, and his vivid and compelling novel, Midaq Alley.

ZAKES MDA (South Africa)

WAYS OF DYING. Toloki is a “professional mourner” in a vast and violent city of the new South Africa. Day after day, he attends funerals in the townships to comfort the grieving families of the victims of the city’s crime, racial hatred, and crippling poverty. At one of the funerals, Toloki is reunited with Noria, a woman from his village. Together they help each other to heal the past. In this novel Mda creates a brutal, magical, funny, and painful picture of South Africa today. He is also well known for his novel The Heart of Redness. Mda, who is also a playwright, is considered the most acclaimed South African writer of the independence era. He recently published a memoir, Sometimes There Is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider.


DOWN SECOND AVENUE. Both an autobiographical novel and a social commentary on a childhood in the crowded back streets of a ghetto area in Pretoria, South Africa, this work is a brilliant contribution to the new genre of the autobiography as a vehicle of protest. He has also written short stories, novels, memoirs, and literary criticism.


STRIVING FOR THE WIND. Set in Kenya, this novel is a hilarious, yet subtly disturbing, portrayal of post-colonial decadence. Other notable novels are Kill Me Quick and Going Down River Road.


FOOLS AND OTHER STORIES. This is a taut, lyrical, and compelling collection of stories, vividly bringing to life the black urban locations of apartheid South Africa.


WEEP NOT, CHILD. This is probably the best known novel from East Africa. It is set before and during the Kenyan people’s struggle for independence from Britain in the 1950s – the uprising known as Mau Mau or the Land and Freedom Movement. Ngugi’s other important novels include The River Between, A Grain of Wheat, Petals of Blood, Devil on the Cross, and Matigari. Ngugi is also a playwright – The Black Hermit, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (with Micere Mugo), and I Will Marry When I Want – and a powerful essayist and social and political critic – Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Culture and Politics; Writers in Politics; and Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms.

D. T. NIANE (Mali)

SUNDIATA: AN EPIC OF OLD MALI. The great epic story of Sundiata, founder and hero of the Mandingo (Mali) empire in the 13th century, has been preserved and passed down through the ages by griots, West Africa’s hereditary oral historians and storytellers. D. T. Niane recorded this version of the Sundiata epic from the griot Mamadou Kouyaté and has written it in the form of an historical novel. As many as 40 other versions of the epic have been recorded and published, among them John William Johnson’s translation, The Epic of Son-Jara, with text provided by the griot Fa-Digi Sisòko.


EFURU. The first novel to be published by a woman writer in Nigeria, this book tells the story of Efuru, a good and beautiful woman who is badly rewarded by fate. Other works include Women Are Different, One Is Enough, Never Again, and This Is Lagos and Other Stories.

BEN OKRI (Nigeria)

THE FAMISHED ROAD. Set in the Nigeria of his early years, Ben Okri tells the colorful and evocative story of a magical child, an abiku, with mischievous links to the spirit world who leads his parents into unrest and danger. This novel won Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize in 1991.


HOUSEBOY. Written in the form of a diary, this novel describes Toundi Joseph’s experiences as a steward in the household of a French District Commissioner in Cameroon and his wife. It presents a critical and satirical view of colonial administrators and Christian missionaries.

SOL T. PLAATJE (South Africa)

MHUDI: AN EPIC OF SOUTH AFRICAN NATIVE LIFE A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. The first novel in English by a black South African, Mhudi was written in 1917 and published in 1930 in South Africa. It tells the story of Mhudi, a woman of endurance and courage, who saves her future husband. Plaatje also wrote Native Life in South Africa and Mafeking Diary: A Black Man’s View of a White Man’s War, his diary of the Boer War. He was a founder of the African National Congress (ANC).


DISTANT VIEW OF A MINARET AND OTHER STORIES. In her short stories Alifa Rifaat lifts the veil on what it means to be a woman living within a traditional Muslim society. Her writing articulates a subtle revolt against, and a sympathetic insight into, the place of women in the essentially male-dominated Islamic environment.


SEASON OF MIGRATION TO THE NORTH. This extraordinary novel is both a powerful and a poetic examination of the mental anguish and psychic torment that are the consequences of the colonial contact between North and South. He also wrote The Wedding of Zein and Other Stories.


GOD’S BITS OF WOOD. In 1947-1948 the workers on the Dakar-Niger railway came out on strike. Sembène, in this vivid, timeless novel, evinces all the color, passion, and tragedy of those formative years in the history of West Africa. Other works include Black Docker, Xala, and Tribal Scars and Other Stories. Sembène was also one of Africa’s best known filmmakers.


LÉOPOLD SÉDAR SENGHOR: SELECTED POEMS. Senghor was a poet, professor, philosopher and statesman who became the first president of Senegal when it gained independence from France in 1960. He served as president of Senegal until 1980. He was the chief theoretician of négritude, or “blackness,” his definition for the common culture and spiritual heritage of the black peoples of Africa. His poems, among them “Totem,” “New York,” and “Prayer to Masks,” still resonate today.

SIPHO SEPAMLA (South Africa)

A RIDE ON THE WHIRLWIND. Set during the 1976 June uprising in Soweto, this novel provides a powerful and moving account of the tensions and turbulence, intrigue and confusion which enveloped the township and rocked the nation. Sepamla is also a fine poet.


TO EVERY BIRTH ITS BLOOD. In this novel, set in Alexandria Township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, the reader meets people at different periods in their lives. The links that bind people are gradually uncovered, in friendships, gangs, and political groups. Serote is also a well known poet.


(The first African writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986)

DEATH AND THE KING’S HORSEMAN. This remarkable play tells how a well-meaning British District Officer tries to prevent the ritual suicide of a Yoruba chief – a sacrificial suicide demanded by the death of the king – and the devastating repercussions which follow. Among his other plays are The Lion and the Jewel, Dance of the Forests, Trials of Brother Jero, Kongi’s Harvest, and Madmen and Specialists. In Aké: The Years of Childhood, Soyinke wrote the story of his boyhood, before and during World War II, in a western Nigerian town called Aké. Wole Soyinka is also a brilliant poet, novelist, essayist, literary critic, and theatre director.


SEVEN SOLITUDES OF LORSA LOPEZ. This biting, burlesque fable offers a surreal portrait of a despised and incompetent regime and is reminiscent of the epics of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in tone and lyricism.

MIRIAM TLALI (South Africa)

MURIEL AT METROPOLITAN. Banned when it was first published in South Africa, this novel describes the daily experiences of the black accounts typist, Muriel, who works in a bustling furniture and electronics store catering for poor whites and blacks. The novel’s wit, humor, social commentary, and wealth of detail reveal the paradoxes, absurdities, and injustices of the apartheid world.


THE PALM-WINE DRINKARD. This adventurous and folkloristic tale draws heavily on the Yoruba oral tradition. It describes the main character’s journey into “Deads’ Town,” a never-never land of magic, ghosts and demons, unknown creatures and supernatural beings. Other works include My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and Feather Woman of the Jungle.

ZOË WICOMB (South Africa)

YOU CAN’T GET LOST IN CAPE TOWN. This collection of short stories portrays a woman coming to terms with her rejected racial inheritance. Wicomb’s long-awaited second work of fiction, David’s Story, is a mesmerizing novel set in South Africa at the moment of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1991.

D.M. ZWELONKE (South Africa)

ROBBEN ISLAND. This novel is set in the stone-breaking harshness of South Africa’s island prison by a South African writer who was imprisoned on Robben Island.