Above: Former Brown University professor and acclaimed Ghanaian author Ama Ata Aidoo
In the wake of International Women’s Day yesterday, and the attendant tributes that flood the web, I meant to create a (well, arbitrary) reading list that highlights and celebrates women writers of note from a particular region – sub-Saharan Africa.
Reading a good book is not unlike stepping into another world, so if you can’t afford that long-planned holiday excursion to Senegal’s sandy coastline yet, or a summer of blogging-slash-backpacking in western Tanzania, make sure you add at least one of these women onto your reading list.
Also, if Africa is one of your planned future destinations (hey, maybe on a @globalconvo fellowship,) reading fiction and non-fiction works from the continent is always a rewarding and useful mental preparation.
So here we go, my random list of six African women writers of note:
Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana)
Ama spent almost seven years years at Brown, as Visiting Professor and writer-in-residence of Africana Studies and Creative Writing; her distinguished career as a novelist, poet and playwright includes stints at Stanford and as her country’s minister of education, and a plethora of awards that include the Commonwealth Prize for African Writers and a UNESCO / International award for literature.
Her book Our Sister Kill Joy is regarded as a major work on women’s experiences with self-realization and cultural changes in exile and propelled Aidoo into one of the most important feminist writers in Africa.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)
Adichie has become one of the most celebrated writers from Africa in the past decade. Her two novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun are international best-sellers and course reading in high schools across Africa. Her oeuvre also includes an equally-popular short story collection, a vast array of varied works in leading international publications, and a viral TED talk (perhaps what you should start with in getting to know her.)
Pre-eminent African author and Brown University professor Chinua Achebe is among those who have praised Adichie, who is regularly placed in the pantheon of contemporary, “post-Achebe” greats in African literature. Adichie is also praised for her excellent chronicling of Nigerian history in her work, especially the 1960s Nigeria-Biafra Civil War. Half of a Yellow Sun will be made into a Hollywood movie this year, starring, among others, the British-Zimbabwean actress Thandie Newton.
Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe)
I have spotted Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions on the shelves of the Brown Bookstore every single semester since fall 2008 – a fixture, like Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter, in the literature classes at Brown. The same is true at Maru A Pula international school in Botswana, where I volunteer (and where Dangarembga spoke last term), and many other high schools across Africa who read the book.
The novel is a classic coming-of-age tale of a girl caught in-between the worlds of colonial Rhodesia morphing into Zimbabwe, exile in Britain, family and patriarchy, and the clashes of traditional values and modernity. In two decades since publication, the book has been widely read and taken its place on the shelf of the most important works of fiction to come out of Africa.
Dambisa Moyo (Zambia)
Moyo’s writing falls in the non-fiction category, and the scope her influence of her work, while primarily rooted in sub-Saharan Africa (Dead Aid), has been global. Moyo is a Zambian-born, Oxford-trained economist who has authored two international best-selling books--Dead Aid: Why Aid is not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa and her latest offering, How The West Was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly and the Stark Choices Ahead--and spoken across the world.
Dead Aid, her debut, is becoming a seminal work for an increasingly global shift in thinking about the effects and implications of western economic aid to sub-Saharan Africa. For international political economy junkies who have any interest in emerging economies, Moyo’s books, like those of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, are mandatory reading.
I met and spoke with Dambisa when she gave a lecture at Brown last spring, and have found her two books to be provocative and highly educative.
Nadine Gordimer (South Africa)
South Africa’s Gordimer is the only African woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature (unless, of course, you count Doris Lessing as a British-Zimbabwean.) She has also picked the Man Booker Prize, in an illustrious career of writing and political activism.
Gordimer’s work mostly focuses on exile, politics and alienation – using a trademark unsentimental style – and is regarded as some of the most important portraiture of the effects of apartheid in South Africa available. The Conservationist is a great book with which to start reading Gordimer, or my personal favourite, The Soft Voice of the Serpent.
Mariama Bâ (Senegal)
If you ever wished to get into the head of a candid, strong-willed African woman as she navigates her labyrinthine world around patriarchy, male domination, and feminism, look no further than Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter. The book fascinates readers because it was penned – if you have ever seen this before – as one long letter from a Senegalese widow to her childhood friend who has moved to the US.
It is thus a no holds barred, heart-to-heart outpouring of the narrator’s experiences which bares Bâ’s ferocious intellect and profound understanding of the feminine experience in her part of the world. The book is also one of the texts that perennially furnish the Brown Bookstore, so if you haven’t read it for a class already, it is a must read.
Bâ's was a prominent Senegalese writer and feminist whose work is widely read today, over thirty years since she died.