Back by popular demand after last year’s blockbuster, we’ve surveyed our trove of editors, contributors and co-conspirators to bring you a round-up of the books we most savored in 2015. Some people love end-of-year book lists, others hate them. Our is here to offer a small corrective to the tide of Big Media lists that champion a small and predictable group of authors who together give at best a limited Eurocentric view of our world. For example, the UK Guardian’s dismal list features just one African author, and multiple recommendations for the usual crusty Important White Male suspects: Jonathan Franzen (who wrote a famously terrible book this year), Julian Barnes, Michel Houellebecq etc. Even TS Eliot got in, and he’s been dead for yonks.
So here’s our alternative list, which we hope can broaden those horizons a little. Enjoy, and don’t forget to check out Africa is a Country’s very first print book (not the last though!): Apartheid Israel: The Politics of an Analogy.
Tendai Huchu – The Hairdresser of Harare, was first published in 2010, but only became available in the US this year, courtesy of Ohio University Press. The action takes place in a hair salon, frequented by Harare’s female politicians and male politicians’ mistresses alike. The narrator is Vimbai, a young mother who is financially and socially on her own. Zimbabwe is a country that requires help from extended family and connections in order make everything from a bottle of cooking oil to petrol to materialise itself. Enter Dumisani, the well-heeled son of a wealthy, politically connected family – not as a customer, but as a fellow hair stylist. Although Huchu does not overtly critique the easy paths that Dumi opens for Vimbai, there are other social strictures that his writing addresses, albeit subtly. Hairdresser was a perfect end of summer read; my book was sticky from sweat and sugary from bubbling peaches that went into the pies and preserves I was making – a delicious hair-salon-gossip kind of novel about minding, mending and maintaining social mores. It is a novel about hearbreak, but more seriously, it is also about the inevitable breaks that happen in one’s psyche, sometimes accompanied by injury to the physical body, when one’s community disciplines in order to reinforce its social and sexual expectations.
Aditi Surie von Czechowski
Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings. I won’t do James the injustice of calling A Brief History “brave,” but it is indeed epic. It deserves all the blurb-y praise, but more importantly it deserves to recognized for its serious political engagement and for making other worlds imaginable and relatable. And by the way, it’s way less violent than American TV.
I especially enjoyed reading Kintu – the novel by Ugandan writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. She seams together shredded pieces of tragedies into the larger motif of an old curse that has plagued a Ganda family for several generations. It was great to read a new novel that seemed old (it reminded me of Ben Okri’s – Famished Road) in its style and intentions. To tell a story that is so particular to a certain place and therefore whose audience was not global, that is not painfully committed to the labours of whatever new writing styles that take over the actual story telling, that took as real a curse without defending why, and that remained poetic, beautiful, harrowing and even politically important in understanding uganda today.
I have flicked through What Will People Say (2015) by Rehana Rousouw and could see from the terse, yet vivid and humorous prose why it is getting great reviews. Set in the Cape Flats in the late 1980’s its a great reflection of the period.
A little late on this one, After Freedom: the rise of the post-apartheid generation in democratic South Africa, (2014) by de Lannoy and Newman was a great, wide, anthropological/socio-logical reflection on different circumstances of young people growing up in the democratic period.
Jacob Dlamini’s Askari (2014) was by far the most challenging, riveting book I have read all year. Cast from sparse prose, the book circles vertiginously around questions of morality, loyalty and truth without ever really going over the edge. An unsettling, rewarding read.
Some bias here, but I am reading my supervisor Birgit Meyer’s latest book, Sensational Movies: Video, Vision and Christianity in Ghana, (2015) which was just released by California. It looks at the workings of religion in the Ghanaian domestic film industry, its transformations, near death and recovery in the period of neoliberal democracy. Great book for anyone working on the anthropology of film and those looking for a foil to material on Nigeria.
The one book that stood out for me this year was Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History. The book makes the very compelling argument that the rise of capitalism in the West was aided in no small way by the cotton industry — plantations in the American South and processing plants in Britain. Prof. Beckert shows how cotton, the 19th Century’s equivalent of oil, was grown largely for free by about a million African slaves at its height and then shipped right across the world to the cotton processing plants of Manchester. After reading the book, you are left to wonder why popular accounts of the rise of the West leave out this rather important fact.
While I give many sweet potato offerings to the ancestors for Isabel Allende’s Island beneath the Sea and Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Matigari the book that really warmed my heart is Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo. It is at once Senegalese folklore, mixed up temporalities, tricksters, Caribbean idiosyncrasies and Saki-like English. Pure magic.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. At the end of his life, Reverend Ames composes a letter to his son. I don’t know how this novel came to my shelf. I frowned when I found it there. But I savoured this portrait of life, faith and death. It has lingered with me ever since.
I read Fran Ross’ Oreo this year (as part of DJ /rupture’s book club) and loved it. It came out in the 70’s, however in the current climate of the online identity politics wars and real life facist cells sprouting up around the world, it’s particularly biting and relevant. Fran Ross was a writer on the short lived Richard Pryor show, and only wrote this one novel. Written from the perspective a Black-Jewish teenager from Philadelphia, It takes the piss out of everyone and everything, and makes all conservative identity politicians seem like a bunch of bickering adolescents.
Category: academic. Postcolonial Modernism by Chika Okeke-Agulu, an art historian at Princeton. Okeke-Agulu’s book is published by Duke University Press and it’s BEAUTIFUL – well over 100 full color images, with equally luminous text exploring the evolution of a particular variant of modernism among a small group of artists during the late 1950s until the mid-1960s. Just a great and in many ways a tragic story.
Category: everything else. Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor asks what would happen is first contact with aliens came in Lagos. A rollicking good sci-fi read, with a cast including a Pentecostal preacher, a marine biologist, a Ghanaian hip-hop star, an incorruptible soldier and a heroic turn by the president of Nigeria.
I only read classics this year! And my fave was Fahrenheit 451. Not only because it’s a very defensive formation with a stacked midfield, but because Bradbury made me restless to start writing again with his simple and ordered yet explosively creative off-the-cuff style. So, like 451, with one player in a free role. Also, there’s an empty decadence to our modern lives that he prophesied in the book. Maybe we’re already living in someone else’s dystopia?
Abdi Latif Ega
Hisham Aidi’s Rebel Music is a dazzling study of the Afro-diasporan music and its political impact around the world; this book spans the globe from Sao Paulo to Algiers to Pakistan – looking at impact of jazz, hip hop, gnawa, etc; and most interestingly how the Black Muslim archive as the author calls it is today inspiring new art forms and cultural movements among the urban beleauguered — from Europe’s ethnic enclaves to South America’s favela – among various marginalized groups – Afro-Latinos, indigenous, but especially among young Muslims caught between surveillance states and xenophobic movement. This book offers the soundtrack of our era!
Anne Maria Makhulu’s Making Freedom: Apartheid, Squatter Politics, and the Struggle for Home. This work is based on long-term field work by Makhulu in formal and informal settlements around Cape Town, South Africa. It examines how black South Africans have navigated the violence and inequalities of apartheid and post-apartheid life by focusing on how people creatively navigate the built environment. It is beautifully written, elegantly embedding theoretical concerns with land and labor and a critique of liberalism within a broader historical geography of Cape Town.
[Plug! This year Jesse published his own book, highly recommended: Trickster Theatre: The Poetics of Freedom in Urban Africa — Editor]
In 2015 I really went hard exploring the graphic novel genre. I also stepped out of my comfort zone. My 10 year old, Rosa, has a great collection and I borrowed some of her good ones. I particularly liked, Ghostopolis, about a boy who has to find his way home from the spirit world. A few others get a notable mention: Verso Books’ new Red Rosa the “graphic biography” of the early 20th century Polish radical, is an education; the older Skim by the cousins Mariko and Jillian Tanaki about teenage troubles in Toronto suburbs (I think Camilla Houeland got me onto this one); and, finally, March, Book One and March Book Two, about the early life of civil rights leader and veteran US congressman John Lewis.
Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. Passionate, engaging, deeply personal and precise analysis of modern feminism and its place within pop culture.
My favorite book this year is a brilliant short book by Negar Mottahedeh called #iranelection: Hashtag Solidarity & the Transformation of Online Life. It is at once a riveting account of the 2009 pro-democracy protests in Iran and an analysis of the ecology of social media and online life. Highly recommended!
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin. Beautifully written. Powerful. Shoneyin manages to tell the difficult story of the subjugation of women under oppressive patriarchy with humour and most importantly without ever losing sight of the socio-political circumstances—financial stability, abuse, social status—which bring the wives (Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi and Bolanle) to patriarch Baba Segi. The result is a rich complex tale of betrayal, lies, negotiations, strategic alliances and love. A must read.
Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World, Gary Wilder. Along with the work of philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Gary Wilder’s Freedom Time has helped revolutionized our understanding of Négritude, especially the thinking of Léopold Sédar Senghor. Long buried under one-liners extracted from Sartre and Soyinka, Senghor’s thinking emerges here as a pioneering effort to unify ethical collectivity, planetary life, and aesthetic practice. Most importantly, Senghor’s work created a space for thinking self-determination apart from and against the logic of state sovereignty that triumphed at the moment of decolonization. Flawed, inherently fragmentary, and of its time, Négritude–in Wilder’s account–remains a powerful invitation to develop a postcolonial African political philosophy.
Listen Yankee: Why Cuba Matters by Tom Hayden. This is a good book to learn many unknown facts about the relations between the U.S. and Cuba, and why these two countries started talking again. For example, Hayden writes about Castro’s meeting with Malcolm X in New York, and the importance of the Cuban revolution among American intellectuals like poets Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, and CLR James. He also goes into the details on how right wing Cubans living in the U.S. spoiled relations with Cuba during the Clinton years. Obama is not getting now as much opposition from U.S. Cubans according to Hayden, since the Cuban diaspora has significantly changed with the arrival of working class black Cubans. But the new opposition now comes from right wing Venezuelans in the United States. If you want to learn more, here is a review I wrote for The Huffington Post in this book. Very fun read, I highly recommend it.
Nkosinathi Sithole’s Hunger Eats a Man is a beautiful and devastating statement on contemporary South Africa. It is a novel of family, generation, class, and community—of relationships between Father Gumede and his talented son Sandile, between white farmers and black laborers, between the poor and the black middle class, and between neighbors of the village of Ndlalidlindoda. Sithole’s depiction of everyday love, life, and dignity in rural KwaZulu-Natal rivals that of Lauretta Ngcobo.
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking. I tend to re-read books I love, and so even though I had read TYOMT before this year, I re-discovered it on my shelf this year and read it several times. It is a passionate, honest account of love and loss and grief.It is also utterly brilliant!
The book that captivated me this past year is Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates’ book is a small bundle of fiery power. It is refreshing to read an author who rises and says I’m a black man in America. I don’t have the power to secure the safety of my black body. But I have the power to say to America, you won’t enroll me in this lie that is the Dream, you won’t make me part of it.
My critique of Coates is his romanticization of Paris, which has a long history of being viewed as a redeeming place for African American cultural icons, from Baldwin to Nina Simone, and now to Coates. Hopefully in the future Coates will realize that the struggle of US racial minorities must be linked to that of the globally disenfranchised. Baldwin must meet Fanon.
I did not read Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I will Write about this Place; I saw it. Wainaina’s memoir turns his characters, encounters, family and friends alive and then parades his memories with them in the reader’s imagination. As Wainaina narrated, I watched.
The narrator’s confessed deep addiction to reading is contagious to his readership. Once picked up, the autobiography takes the reader to several places, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, and weaves in several stages of Wainaina’s quest to be who he is. The novel tells a complex story with several layers of complications but it tells it in a straightforward, sometimes even raw, way. For word-lovers, Wainaina’s writing satisfies every crave; humor, complexity, and wittiness. At an early point in the novel, Wainaina says that words “must be concrete things.” They truly are concrete in this novel. I picked up his book as I migrated back to my hometown for the summer after my academic year ended. Somehow in my journey between the two impossibly parallel places, I felt in the right place reading Wainaina’s memoir.
I read Ben Okri’s Dangerous Love only last week. In detailing the improbable, tragic love affair between a young artist and a married teenager, Okri is a master observer of the poverty of body and spirit. The setting is a ghetto in a Nigerian city. I couldn’t—still can’t—shake off the intense desperation of the protagonists, the “infinite permutations of resilience and suffering.” Yet in their despair, all hope is not lost.
I spent the early months of the year reading through Saidiya Hartman’s work: her scholarly study Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, numerous excellent critical essays, and her memoir Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, which is probably the book I’ve recommended to friends more than any other this year. I also followed Julianne Okot Bitek’s recommendation on last year’s edition of this very list, and read Yvonne Owuor’s debut novel, Dust. Actually, I read it three times and then interviewed Owuor herself! Finally, a word for Cedric Nunn’s Unsettled: The 100 Years War of Resistance By Xhosa Against Boer and British, a photo book which introduced me to the genre of “deep aftermath” photography and helped me begin to imagine that massive anti-colonial struggle visually, through Nunn’s lens, a nice alternative to narrative history written from the archive.