10 Young African Writers You Should Know

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The winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing will be announced today, and one writer from a list of five worthy candidates will be recognized by a committee of judges (led by Hisham Matar) as the most promising young English-language short story writer on the continent. In preparation for the announcement, we’ve created a list of 10 contemporary African novelists who you should be aware of, since they’re all doing great things right now. While we realize that it’s a ridiculous endeavor to attempt to list ten authors from the 54 countries and disputed territories that make up current day Africa, we also like to be a little ridiculous sometimes, so bear with us as we recognize a group of young authors who are deserving of your attention. As always, suggestions from you are much appreciated in the comments.

Olufemi Terry

Terry was born in Sierra Leone but has lived in a number of countries since then; he currently resides in Germany. He was last year’s Caine Prize winner and his short stories have been featured in Guernica and New Contrast, among others. He’s currently at work on his debut novel.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Photo credit: The New York Times

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria but left to study in the United States. The New Yorker named her one of their “20 Under 40″ novelists last summer, and her short story,”Birdsong,” was featured in the September 20, 2010 issue. Her collection of short stories is The Thing around Your Neck , though she has also written two novels: Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun .

Ahmed Alaidy

Alaidy is a poet and the author of Being Abbas el Abd, a novel which distilled the anger and frustrations of young Egyptians into something tangible, years before the revolution. It’s a book about insanity, but it’s also about a young misanthrope who is dealing with life in the Middle East after the Israeli victory in 1967. As he says in the novel, he’s a member of the “I’ve-got-nothing-to-lose-generation.” Post-revolution, we’re curious as to what Alaidy will do next.

NoViolet Bulawayo

Bulawayo, née Elizabeth Zandile Tshele, is a Zimbabwean writer who is on this year’s shortlist for the Caine Prize. She’s currently enrolled in the MFA program at Cornell, and is working on her first novel. We featured her story, “Hitting Budapest,” in our favorite short stories post in May.

Aminatta Forna

Forna grew up in Sierra Leone, though she was born in Glasgow and spent a good chunk of her life in the UK. She won the Commonwealth Prize this year for her second novel, The Memory of Love, and was short-listed for the Orange Prize this year as well. Her memoir about her dissident father, The Devil that Danced on the Water , investigates the troubled history of Sierra Leone as it becomes a dictatorship in the years following independence, with Siaka Stevens at the helm.

E.C. Osondu

Osondu won the 2009 Caine Prize and his debut story collection, Voice of America, centers on contemporary life in Nigeria with an eye on a distant, mythical land of plenty — a land that provides t-shirts branded with funny slogans, a good education, numerous swimming pools, and the promise of a way out for those feeling trapped in Africa. This fall, Osondu will be the guest editor of Sentinel Literary Quarterly‘s “Identity” issue, which will include a previously unpublished story by the Nigerian-born author. (If you’d like to submit to the issue, there’s still time: the deadline is September 30th and details are here.)

Leila Aboulela

Aboulela is a Sudanese writer and playwright who is now living in Qatar. Her latest novel, Lyrics Alley , details the life of a well-to-do family in northern Sudan in the 1950s. In an interview with The Guardian, she says, “The more writers tackle minority issues, the easier it becomes for others to join in because people are more informed.”

Uwem Akpan

The author of Say You’re One of Them, an Oprah’s Book Club pick and winner of the Commonwealth Prize, is a Jesuit priest who was born and raised in Nigeria. In 2005, The New Yorker published his story about a family living on the streets of Nairobi; an interview with Akpan about “An Ex-Mas Feast” is available here. Three years later, The New Yorker published his story, “Communion,” and last year, they ran “Baptizing the Gun,” a story about a Catholic priest on a bus trip in Nigeria.

Chika Unigwe

Photo credit: The New York Times

We know that this is the third Nigerian author on the list, but can you really blame us? Unigwe’s first English novel, On Black Sisters Street, has been receiving rave reviews, and for good reason. In it, four African sex workers occupy a section of Antwerp’s red-light district called “Zwartezusterstraat,” or Black Sisters Street, and learn to use their bodies to survive in a country that offers rich food, nice clothes, and the ability to send money back home. And yet, even their survival instincts are not enough. Fernanda Eberstadt her The New York Times review writes about “the accumulated disappointments that can grind even the most determined soul into defeat.” It’s a harsh, funny novel, and it brings to light serious issues about immigration, sex, and money.

Phaswane Mpe and Kabelo “Sello” Duiker

So this is actually a list of eleven authors. You caught us cheating, didn’t you? Well, this is only because we couldn’t decide between two writers who both had their careers cut short by tragedy.

Mpe was the brazen author of Welcome to Our Hillbrow , which is set the crime-ridden neighborhood in Johannesburg where he once lived. The New York Times writes, “Everything is there: the shattered dreams of youth, sexuality and its unpredictable costs, AIDS, xenophobia, suicide, the omnipotent violence that often cuts short the promise of young people’s lives, and the Africanist understanding of the life continuum that does not end with death but flows on into an ancestral realm.” Mpe died in December 2004, of an unknown illness that many believe was AIDS.

Duiker was a young, promising South African novelist and author of Thirteen Cents, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize back in 2001. His second novel, The Quiet Violence Of Dreams, was the winner of the 2002 Herman Charles Bosman Prize. Much of the novel revolves around a gay massage parlor in apartheid-era South Africa, although the novel is really about how young South Africans adopt global culture and make it their own, while worrying that this act will be viewed as selling out. The protagonist asks, “Isn’t sticking to your own culture ruthlessly a kind of stagnation, a type of incest?” Yet feels like an Uncle Tom all the same. Duiker committed suicide a month after Mpe, in January 2005.