As society adjusts to living in a rapidly changing, often technologically-driven world, one thing remains steady: the power of a great book and all of the many layers that make up a universally loved story. Behind these words are an even more incredible set of authors, who have established their unique voices through their writing.
In a continent as diverse as Africa, it would be impossible, to define the African experience by aging history textbooks, news articles, and a small number of popular novels. Drawing on their backgrounds and experiences across Africa and the diaspora, a new generation of talented African writers have used historical fiction and non-fiction, along with many other literary mediums, to paint portraits of more diverse and multi-layered African experiences.
Though writer A. Igoni Barrett’s path took him down a rather winding road to literature, works like 2015’s Blackass, a satire of magical realism reminiscent of Franz Kafka's book The Metamorphosis, demonstrates the undeniable strength of his voice. Helen Oyeyemi and Masande Ntshanga likewise explore the ambiguous space between fantasy and reality through their inventive yet compelling storylines of “magical realism.”
Writers such as Chimamanda Adichie and Abi Daré have brought fresh voices and outspoken commentary on women’s rights to their works. The success of authors such as Teju Cole and Yaa Gyasi Adichie has parlayed them into becoming some of the most well-known African literary figures. Both authors explore the themes of dual identity through their cross-continent experiences.
Together, these authors reveal their unique relationships to their home countries and explore personal themes relating to self-discovery and identity. Their captivating writing and powerful voices easily draw the reader in, making it all the more clear why they are regarded among the greatest voices of our time.
Discover The Folklore's list of ten contemporary African writers to know below. If you choose to engage with any of these authors and their titles, we encourage you to purchase their work from a Black-owned bookstore like Uncle Bobbies or The Key Bookstore.
A. Igoni Barrett
Nigerian author A. Igoni Barrett is one of the most talked-about contemporary African writers of today. The author's 2015 novel Blackass has been widely praised and even compared to Franz Kafka’s classic novella, Metamorphosis. Set against the vivid backdrop of Lagos, Blackass is a modern satire that tells the story of a Black Nigerian man who wakes up one day to discover that he is now white. Prior to Blackass, his first collection of short stories, From Caves of Rotten Teeth, was published in 2005, and his second collection, Love Is Power, or Something Like That, was published in 2013. Both of these collections explore themes surrounding life in present-day Africa from Barrett’s highly observant and often humorous perspective.
London-based Nigeria writer Abi Daré is one of the most talked-about authors of 2020, following the release of her debut novel, The Girl with the Louding Voice. Struck by her own young daughter’s privileged perspective of housework, she grew curious about the domestic slavery occurring in her home country of Nigeria, especially among young girls around her daughter’s age. In The Girl with the Louding Voice, Daré tells a story of a 13-year old protagonist, Adunni, suffering under the dehumanizing conditions of domestic work in a wealthy Nigerian household. Despite the cruelty, Adunni is subjected to, she holds on to her strong-willed nature and remains determined to gain the education she so deserves and succeed in life.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Born in Enugu, Nigeria in 1977, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has become a globally sought-after literary figure whose success goes far beyond her incredible body of work. Adichie published her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, in 2003, a highly lauded book that follows the story of a privileged teenage girl growing up in Nigeria whose life is dramatically changed when the country undergoes a military coup. Adichie has subsequently published books such as Americanah (2013) and We Should All Be Feminists (2014). Adichie’s mainstream success has drawn a hoard of aspiring writers to her frequent writing workshops, and she has also seen great visibility through her popular TED Talks. Her 2009 Ted Talk, “The danger of a single story,” emphasizes the necessity of sharing a wide range of cultural voices, and has been viewed over 22 million times.
In 2012, Nigerian author Elnathan John quit his job practicing law to pursue writing full-time, a major career switch that certainly proved to be the right move. He first drew attention for his satirical writing and cultural commentary, which has been published in The Economist, Financial Times, The Africa Report and The Guardian. Two of his short stories, “Bayan Layi” (2013) and “Flying" (2015), were shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing, a coveted literary award out of the United Kingdom that recognizes the best original short story by an African writer. John’s first novel, Born on a Tuesday, debuted in 2015 and follows the coming-of-age journey of a young boy as he examines his own relationship to religion and politics while attempting to survive in a country showing signs of rupture.
At just 18 years old, Helen Oyeyemi published her first novel, The Icarus Girl, while a student at the University of Cambridge, and her literary career has blossomed ever since. Born in Nigeria in 1984, Oyeyemi moved to England with her family at the age of four, and as a teenager found books, and then writing, as her refuge from the outside world. After being dubbed a literary wunderkind of sorts, Oyeyemi launched a highly successful writing career, noting that each of her books represents a different stage of her life as her writing continues to evolve. Now living in the Czech Republic, her work spans novels, short story collections, and plays. Her most recent work, Gingerbread, is a suspenseful, fairy-tale inspired book involving a teenage girl and a missing person close to her whose true background and past begins to unfold over the course of the novel.
Taking into account her own experiences as an immigrant, Imbolo Mbue’s 2016 debut novel Behold the Dreamers catapulted her into literary fame upon its publication. Born in Limbe, Cameroon, Mbue moved to the United States to complete her undergraduate degree and then began a job working in New York City, which she subsequently lost during the 2008 financial crisis. As she observed the class differences in New York, which were magnified by a global recession, she began writing Behold the Dreamers. The novel follows the stories of an immigrant family from Cameroon and their wealthy New York employers. It explores the falsehoods surrounding the ideal of the American dream from intersecting perspectives. Mbue’s compassionate yet honest storytelling has been widely praised, and for the novel, she received the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2017.
Masande Ntshanga’s debut 2014 book, The Reactive, was proclaimed one of the breakout novels of the year in his home country of South Africa. Set in Cape Town, the story follows a young man who is HIV-positive as he grapples with guilt surrounding his brother’s death. Ntshanga’s fresh perspective, command of language, and powerful storytelling have been universally praised by readers and critics alike. His highly-anticipated sophomore novel, Triangulum, was published in 2019, and also met with high praise. Though its foray into science fiction represents a dramatic shift away from The Reactive, Ntshanga continues to explore coming-of-age themes set against the backdrop of South Africa and its complicated history. In a highly original plot set in the future, a mysterious package arrives containing the memoirs of a woman claiming the world will soon end.
Author, artist, professor, and former photography critic of The New York Times Magazine, Teju Cole is an acclaimed contemporary African American voice. Cole was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1975 but spent the majority of his childhood in Lagos, Nigeria, before returning to the United States at the age of 17 to complete his degree. He published his first book, Every Day Is For the Thief, in 2007. This was followed by Open City in 2012, a critically acclaimed novel that follows the life and travels of a young Nigerian man over a year from a first-person perspective. Formally trained in studio art and art history, Cole also published a book of photographs entitled Blind Spot in 2016. Cole currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and teaches Creative Writing at Harvard University.
As a young child born in Zimbabwe, author and lawyer Petina Gappah witnessed firsthand a country fighting for and eventually winning its independence. Although her education and career have taken her all over the world, the influence of her Zimbabwean roots is evident. It could be argued that Gappah fully came into her own as a writer upon the publication of her 2019 novel, Out of Darkness, Shining Light, a book 21 years in the making. Following years of painstaking research on Gappah’s part, the novel recounts the journey of nearly 70 workers in the late 19th century as they transported the body of explorer David Livingstone from Africa to England. Prior to the publication of Out of Darkness, Gappah published several other works, including her first novel, The Book of Memory.
Yaa Gyasi is a rising Ghana-born author whose 2016 debut novel, Homegoing, has been met with enormous popularity and literary acclaim. Gyasi was raised in the small town of Mampong in Ghana and moved to the United States as a young girl when her family relocated for her father’s teaching career. After returning to Ghana for the first time in 2009 on a research grant, she took a chance day trip to the Cape Coast Castle, which is a former British slave fort. She set out to conduct further research and write a novel exploring the realities and emotional trauma of Ghana's colonial experience. Homegoing tells a powerful story taking place between Africa and the United States over several generations, with a focus on two separated sisters living through wildly different circumstances. Her readers can excitedly look forward to her sophomore novel, Transcendent Kingdom, which is set to be released in September.
Words by Olivia Starr