Our Favourite Reads in 2016 by Rasak-Oyadiran Opeyemi
Photo: Tee Jay Dan
2016 has been a great year for African Literature. While I cannot speak for our sister countries, I daresay in Nigeria, it is one of the few things that didn’t fail us. While there has been a dearth of other life and joy-giving resources, our African writers came to slay, okay? I mean, Naira ‘fell’, market prices skyrocketed, but when it comes to great writing, please what is recession?
And so, I got together with a couple of bibliophilic friends to make a list of our favourite of the African books we read in 2016.
Ah, what to say?
Hauwa Shafii Nuhu says ‘Homegoing opens with one of the most beautiful and powerful paragraphs I have ever read. It is not a book that overwhelms; it is an experience that happens to you.’
Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is an incredible story spanning across generations of two half sisters and how life happens to them amidst slavery and racism. To read it is to hold your breath. There is something about the beauty and depth of the language that makes you want to sing it, to make you feel held down by the burden of the stories so well crafted, to make you suddenly shut the book in the middle of a sentence and exhale. It is, like Akintunde Aiki says, reading Alex Hailey’s Roots but in a shorter and much more intimate manner.
This debut novel by Chigozie Obioma made the shortlist for the Booker prize 2015. It also wins the prize for being one of few novels this year that I read in a day. There is a piece of everyone’s childhood in the Agwu family. The most impressive thing about this book is its characters. You get so engrossed in misadventures at Omi Ala river and Abulu’s ominous prophecy that leads the family down a dark path of slow and unsteady disintegration. Noah Oladele says, for him, it’s one of the few books that allows its readers to participate in the overall interpretation of the text. Their suffering and pain is so real you can write your own book about it. And there is also the delightful understanding of how to tailor fit words to an experience, Chigozie knows this art. The Fishermen will break your heart and make you wonder if ‘you can ever truly go back home’.
Abubakar blessed the world with this book. An unusual foray into the intimate life of the North, SOCB breathes with a special kind of irreverence. Where else do you read about the sexuality of a conservative Muslim widow in her fifties and of the soft side of a young political thug with hair like anthills? How else do you understand their love? This book was a general favourite mostly because of how it dares to walk into places that are usually locked. Most cities in southern Nigeria have been romanced and given stories that now live in their walls; the same cannot be said of northern Nigeria. And Abubakar takes us on that excursion into the north with so much exquisite finesse.
This one will just leave you choking on mirth. Faithfuls of Igoni’s writing can attest to his mastery of dark humor, one only has to read his previous short story collections to be a convert. In Blackass, the protagonist’s name is Furo Wakiriboto, how is this not going to make your day? Black man wakes up to discover to his chagrin he is now white. Green eyes, reddish blond hair, the whole works. There is a robustly black ass on his white body, said body is running around confused in Lagos, has favours handed down to him like its nothing and eventually falls on the laps of a swinging Lagos babe with an heart of gold. You also get to be on Twitter in a book. There is a bit of Kafka in Igoni Barrett and its effect is hilarious but still leaves a sour taste in your mouth.
I first heard about this book from a friend who asked me to read it because CNA spoke so glowingly about it. And so, at #AkeFest2016, I joined a queue of dogged writers to purchase it for a thousand naira, courtesy of Etisalat. I’m glad I did. Jowhor Ile is a writer who after this debut novel won’t need anyone to namedrop Chimamanda to be accorded his due regard. The book which you’d expect to revolve around the disappearance of the first son of the Utus’ family strangely speaks more about the family before the disappearance of the favourite son. There is the story within a story of Ajie’s coming of age. The tussle within their village with the capitalist company that tears the communal spirit apart with oil pipes being placed in the ground and monetary compensations accompanied with cows on local festivals that come with ominous tidings. Jowhor reveals a deft narrative skill that makes the pages turn almost with a life of their own.
An American dream gone wrong, this book will remind you of sounds like expectations shattering against a wall. It will also remind you of hope. And indeed, till the last page, you are filled with hope for the Jonga family. This immigrant family who just want to be happy and together in America come for your heart, and tear ducts, and they squeeze hard. You roll your eyes and snort at the Edwards family and their petty trifles and then feel bad later because their wealth can’t buy them joy. There is empathy for every page you turn. You want to hold Jende’s hand for the way this country he loves, the greatest country in the world, is breaking him. You become Neni who ‘traveled to America only to be reminded of how powerless she was’. Imbolo steadily engages the reader on how the financial crisis of a country reaches into the lives of both the small and the mighty.
In her debut novel, Yewande Omotoso takes you through the path of tough love, superstition and sacrifices. You see a man who fell in love though he knows he shouldn’t have and a woman willing to give out her child when another yearns to have one. Finally, you meet Leke, our mysterious Leke who stalks everyone and steals the most intangible things. Bomboy is a book you’d pick and wouldn’t drop till you are done. Never mind that your coffee is getting cold. Or that you have tight deadlines.
Yes. We totally binged on Yewande Omotoso this year. In the Woman Next Door, you find two women in their eighties living and loving and gossiping and hating and crying and laughing; succeeding and failing and crushing on men; just about everything you think the old aren’t capable of. The book is at once emotive and exciting. You want to know what exactly goes on in the mind of your granny? How she sees life and people? Read the book.
Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s book is funnily entertaining and educating. It revolves around love, loss, ageing and everything that is life. How she does all these in a book is nothing short of fascinating. Another thing to note about this book are the characters. Fully fledged, natural and fun, Morayo and Sage are characters I would love to meet in real life. If this books is adapted into screen, it will break recent Box Office sales. No kidding.
In his debut novel, Leye Adenle gives us something easy to relate to and feast our imaginations on. He digs deep into prostitution in Nigeria like you’ve never seen before and shows that there is always more than what meets the eye. Curious about the oldest profession in the world? Easy Motion Tourist shows you everything. If you’ve seen Lagos in 3D and HD before, forget those experiences. This book has Lagos in IMAX. I love this book.
Yeah, we had a ball with books this year. And while I would say we have our fingers crossed for next year, I’m not even going to bother. Why? If we could have great reads like this in 2016 which hasn’t been everyone’s most amazing year, then it can only get better. 2017 is going to be lit!