Africa has a rich and sprawling literature—historical fiction included. Chinua Achebe's writing forms an important pillar in the the African canon and features frequently here; other firm Five Books favourites include Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose 2022 novel Afterlives is set in what is now Tanzania during the era of German colonial rule, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose Women's Prize-winning novel Half of a Yellow Sun is set during Nigeria's Biafran War.
You may also be interested in reading the interview with Zimbabwean novelist Tendai Huchu, who recommended his personal historical fiction highlights. As a genre, he notes, African historical fiction can play an important role in emphasising pre-colonial history: "Africans were supposed to have been timeless: they never developed, they never advanced, they never had any ideas until the Europeans came along. And then they started imposing. History really starts when the Europeans conquer Africa." But, as many of these enchanting books make clear, this insidious narrative was never true.
Afterlives, written by Nobel Prize winning Abdulrazak Gurnah, opens in the early years of the 20th century, during Germany’s brutal colonial rule in East Africa.
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“This novel from a decade ago should be read by every American interested in immigration. While it deals with a lot of medical details, the essence of it is about urban life in developing countries and about the immigrant experience. It is both moving and thought-provoking.” Read more...
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“I particularly like this book because of how it moves over a very long time span. We have two wars—World War II and then the Zimbabwean war for independence—somewhere in there. It shows really well how history isn’t just a static force. You can’t just say that stuff happened and then it’s over and it’s gone. The effects of these things that happened long ago still reverberate today. And I think, for me, that is why I had to choose this novel.” Read more...
The Best Historical Fiction
“Waiting for the Barbarians was the Coetzee book that I was always most attached to – I think it’s the Coetzee book that most South Africans are attached to. Coetzee takes the mood of the 1980s state of emergency – when people were being detained and disappearing and there was a fear of communist or black madness on the borders – and he makes it more interesting by creating this partial allegory of some unnamed empire…It’s about a magistrate. He works for the empire, you don’t know what the empire is and you don’t know what century it’s taking place in. The magistrate is trying to administer law and order, he’s trying to be a figure of some kind of justice. And all the time there’s fear that the barbarians are about to invade and take down the empire. All sorts of draconian measures and violations of decency are carried out in the name of emergency. Needless to say, it ends unhappily.” Read more...
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The most celebrated of a new generation of Nigerian novelists bravely and brilliantly tackles an event that still seems to whisper in the heart of the country’s affairs perhaps more than any other: the devastating civil war of 1967-70.
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“It almost feels like a cliché to say that this is one of my favourite books. But there is no way you can escape this book. It is such a part of African literature. It is an inescapable classic. It is a brilliant feat of storytelling, the economy of it, the brevity, the imagery, the ear he has for the traditional language.This is the story of Okonkwo, one of the chiefs in the village who rose from poverty and becomes one of the leading figures. He is a leader and local wrestling champion in Umuofia, a fictional group of nine villages in Nigeria, inhabited by the Igbos. He tries to stick to the tradition that he knows and is hopeless when confronted with the modern. He cannot wrap his mind around change in the form of the British and the missionaries and ultimately he is destroyed by that. Even though it is a tragic story you are still captivated by it.” Read more...
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