Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
How do you speak when you speak of our literature? Do you say “African-American authors” and leave out the brilliant work of Zadie Smith, Helen Oyeyemi and countless others who are African but not American? Do you say “writers of African descent” and ignore the legacy of Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, Tiphanie Yanique and other writers from the Caribbean? Do you say “black authors” without pause to think about how this term relates to authors from Mexico, Brazil and other Latin American countries who are black but who identify as Latino?
Any terminology is inherently flawed, just as any “best of” list is inherently flawed, by necessity forcing unequal comparisons and leaving out beautiful, important voices. There were many impressive books written by our people this past year, but here, from a list of more than 200 novels, we highlight 15 books that stunned for specific reasons of their own.
Song of the Shank, by Jeffery Renard Allen
Allen’s fourth book and second novel is extremely ambitious, and it succeeds in its ambitions. Based on the real-life story of Tom, a blind slave who was also a musical prodigy and toured the world, Song of the Shank Is an epic exploration of black genius and of slavery—of love and family, identity and agency. The language is as inventive as Virginia Woolf’s, the structure as inventive as James Joyce’s. One cannot help making comparisons to Ulysses. But this hero is American. This novel is American. Thus, comparisons to Toni Morrison, too, are also inevitable. But Song of the Shank is its own singular work of brilliance, and it sets Allen firmly among the best novelists of our time.
All Our Names: A Novel, by Dinaw Mengestu
In All Our Names, MacArthur “genius”-grant recipient Mengestu has created a riveting portrayal of friendship during the revolutionary unrest of postcolonial Uganda. Here we have the story of two friends, each seeking a safe haven at their university in Kampala—one determined to enter the bloody, high-risk world of politics; the other vowing to study literature. Intercut with the story of immigration to the American Midwest and a new life in the present, All Our Names unfolds across time in energetic, elegant prose to plumb the depths of survival, loyalty and freedom.
An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay
In her powerful, sensitive prose, Gay delivers the suspenseful tale of Mirelle Duval Jameson, a young wife and mother kidnapped on a visit to her Haitian homeland and held for a ransom that her wealthy father refuses to pay. Here, Gay looks unflinchingly at the violence inflicted on women’s bodies that are used as pawns in the games of men. How does one recover after an act of such brutality, asks An Untamed State? How does one balance the lightness of life before trauma with the weight of life afterward? A necessary, important read.
Hiding in Plain Sight, by Nuruddin Farah
In Farah’s Hiding in Plain Sight, jet-setting, internationally acclaimed artist Bella is one of the last to hear of her brother’s death. She was on a magazine photo shoot and only happened to read the newspaper account of the suicide bomber and ensuing gun battle that took her brother’s life—and the lives of 20 others—days afterward. She immediately puts her own life on hold and returns to Nairobi, Kenya, to take care of her niece and nephew. But with the return of the two children’s long-absent mother, the lines of duty and family become volatile. A tale of family, loss and redemption from one of the most distinguished and prolific novelists of our time.
Foreign Gods, Inc., by Okey Ndibe
New York City cabdriver Ikechukwu Uzondu, “Ike for short,” has resolved to steal the ancient statue of the goddess Ngene from his Nigerian hometown and sell it for what he hopes is an ungodly amount of money to the glitzy Manhattan art dealership Foreign Gods. What follows is an entertaining, witty adventure embedded with Ndibe’s insightful social commentary on the American commercialization of the “exotic.” Foreign Gods, Inc. is an intelligent, satirical novel that comes highly anticipated and does not disappoint.
Ruby: A Novel, by Cynthia Bond
It is 1963, and it is a gray-haired, defeated Ruby who returns to Liberty, Texas, instead of the irrepressible town belle who left for New York City, seeking her mother and adventure. The debilitated, broken-down Ruby is equal parts an object of ridicule by the men of the town and one of charity by the women. But to Ephram Jennings, Ruby is still the first woman he loved, the first person who truly saw him for who he was. This stunningly lyrical debut novel is a beautifully crafted tale of the many hurts and small kindnesses that make up their two lives—and the unbreakable connection between them.
Every Day Is for the Thief, by Teju Cole
To read Cole is to be swept away by the language of a master wordsmith. In Every Day Is for the Thief, the PEN/Hemingway Award winner turns his considerable talents to the character of the expatriate, a young Nigerian medical student living in New York City who returns home to Lagos for a short visit. In his adventures wandering the town, reflections on the Nigerian homeland and the self-as-outsider arise. This work was originally published in Nigeria in 2007, four years before the release of Cole’s novel Open City, but was not available in the U.S. until now. We are thankful that non-Nigerian readers can now enjoy Cole’s first novel.
A Brief History of Seven Killings: A Novel, by Marlon James
This third novel by Jamaican-born James centers on the 1976 attempted assassination of Bob Marley, the patron saint of his homeland and of many socially conscious justice seekers worldwide. In an effort to do right by Marley’s far-reaching influence, A Brief History of Seven Killings stretches from an examination of Jamaican politics, race and class issues, and ghetto gang wars to the niceties of U.S.-Caribbean relations, including the role of the CIA in overthrowing the Jamaican government in the 1970s while flooding the black-populated inner cities in the U.S. with crack. Epic in scope and detailed in execution, this novel is a scintillating, postmodern masterwork.
Land of Love and Drowning: A Novel, by Tiphanie Yanique
Euona Bradshaw is the favorite daughter of wealthy Virgin Islands shipping captain Owen Bradshaw. She has been groomed to be a desired debutante, married to another wealthy man. But she has a secret: Her whole life, she has been the recipient of her father’s sexual attentions. And with her parents’ death, teenage Euona must somehow find a way to take care of her younger sister and half-brother. With underpinnings of magical realism, The Land of Love and Drowning sprawls into an exquisitely multilayered epic novel told with Yanique’s trademark attention to the fine details of character.
Boy, Snow, Bird: A Novel, by Helen Oyeyemi
Winner of the Somerset Maugham Award and Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and most recently named one of Britain’s best young novelists by Granta magazine, Oyeyemi explores both colorism and the legacy of light-skinned African Americans passing as white in Boy, Snow, Bird. It is the story of Boy, a young girl who runs away from her abusive father and then marries Arturo Whitman, becoming stepmother to his daughter Snow. But when Boy gives birth to a dark-skinned daughter named Bird, secrets about past and ancestry come to light. This midcentury haunting revision of Snow White floats to brilliance in Oyeyemi’s ethereal prose.
Saint Monkey: A Novel, by Jacinda Townsend
Townsend’s Saint Monkey is the story of two young girls coming of age in the 1950s Jim Crow South, split between the perspective of the one who got out—scooped up by a talent scout to play piano in Harlem—and the one who did not. But it is, ultimately, the story of the very human quest for “something better.” Townsend manages the rare feat of depicting the racism of the time while letting the story and characters sing unsuffocated. An impressive and brave debut novel establishing Townsend as a master storyteller.
The Secret History of Las Vegas: A Novel, by Chris Abani
Conjoined twins, nuclear testing, a vaudevillian sideshow, an assassin and a psychiatrist make up The Secret History of Las Vegas, Nigerian-born Abani’s fourth novel. Here, vivacious language, intrepid characters and careful plotting mix with the surreal to give rise to a genre the New York Times dubs “international noir.” Abani weaves a storyline of South African apartheid with his off-kilter interpretation of Las Vegas in a powerful juxtaposition rivaling the best of Kurt Vonnegut, Jorge Luis Borges and Thomas Pynchon. A deeply unique tale from one of our most inspiring writers.
Radiance of Tomorrow: A Novel, by Ishmael Beah
Beah made a name for himself with his debut, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, detailing the atrocities of the Sierra Leone civil war, which he experienced firsthand when forcibly conscripted by the government at 13 years of age. In Radiance of Tomorrow, his sophomore effort, Beah meditates on the return home after the war, and the mourning and rebuilding. Led by village elders Mama Kadie and Pa Moiwa, the survivors attempt to identify and bury the bodies of their dead, restart the education system and create new lives after the gunshots have ended. A remarkable depiction of survival, resilience and hope.
Into the Go-Slow, by Bridgett M. Davis
Davis’ sophomore novel centers on Angie Mackenzie’s desperate search across Nigeria—the place of her older sister Ella’s death—to understand what happened during her sister’s last days. In trying to find a connection with Ella, Angie explores Afrocentric politics and culture both in her hometown of 1987 Detroit—ravaged by Reaganomics, drugs and disease—and abroad. But at its core, Into the Go-Slow is a heartfelt story of sisters and family, speaking to the larger connection of the family of Africans and African Americans.
The Orchard of Lost Souls: A Novel, by Nadifa Mohamed
In 1986, with the outbreak of civil war in Somalia, Mohamed and her family were exiled to England. In The Orchard of Lost Souls, Mohamed revisits this violent history through the experiences of three diverse women witnessing the war: the soldier Filsan, pregnant Kawsar and 9-year-old refugee Deqo. This second novel from the winner of the Betty Trask Prize (Black Mamba Boy) is a stunning depiction of the human face of the Somali conflict and real casualties of war.