These Novels Are Asking You to Read More, and Read Better

By Jeanne-Marie Jackson

Everyone is saying it: 2021 was the year for African literature. Writers from the continent scooped the Nobel, Booker, Goncourt and Camões prizes. And these honors — arguably the highest-sheen literary awards in the world — do not make up even half the list. The Neustadt, or “American Nobel,” and International Booker Prizes went to Senegalese writers, and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade to a Zimbabwean one.

In light of this sweep, it’s fair to ask what the African books and writers feted last year by Western nations have in common. The best answer is simple: very little. The novels honored last year run a very wide gamut, of genre and style and political outlook, as well as more obvious things like nation, race and ethnicity.

That’s a good thing. While Africans don’t need to be told that no one person or book can represent a huge, culturally and linguistically diverse continent, readers from Western countries have been slow to grasp that fact. The sheer diversity of last year’s winners — from Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize-winning South African farm novel “The Promise” to the Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah’s subtle examinations of emigrant Zanzibari life — puts the point beyond any doubt.