Last December, precisely on the 17th of December 2015, I opened an online book kiosk. The idea of the kiosk at that time was supposed to help a few writers I know sell their books. However, the shop morphed and took a life of its own. At some point in 2016 I wanted to walk away from it all. To just shut down the kiosk and move, because I had jumped into the deep end of a pool I did not even know how to swim in. I have never been taught in business, I had no background in books other than the fact that I loved stories and for the life of me, I had no connections with book distributors anywhere. These are struggles and fears not many people know about – as far as the public is concerned, I was doing just great. Trying to keep calm above surface like a duck, but underneath the beautiful, I was paddling crazy. How we have survived till now, I do not know. What I know is that we have had a number of victories and a number of losses.
When, after less than a year, we got reviewed in The NewYorker, which also happens to be one of my favourite online magazines ever, my heart was warmed. As in, how? You know? But then something interesting happened. Some people on The New Yorker’s Facebook page said that our store was racist for only stocking African authors. It shocked me, at first, that someone would imagine that Africa only has black people. Then it hurt me that they equated my efforts to those responsible for dehumanization of other human beings, mass murder and hatred. Then it reminded me why I started this store in the first place, and why I insisted on only selling African authors; because the world needs to know our stories. Regardless of whether it is written by Africans living on the continent like Elnathan John, or multinational Africans like Zukiswa Wanner, or Africans in diaspora like Nansubuga Makumbi, or those who have long since left like J.M Coetzee or those who are not really Africans but have told the African story like James Fox.
Still, it has been a year, guys. Looking at reports from our performance this past year revealed to me statistics I did not expect. Like how West Africans are dominating the East African space with regards to book sales. Kwanza the Nigerians. How North Africa is so silent these sides. How female authors are continually on the rise. How poetry still needs crutches to move. How Swahili literature is in an even worse state, consumption-wise. And just how popular self help books are, though not the ones by local authors!
I put together the list below. It is basically the list of books that have been highly sought after this past year. I asked some of my most loyal readers what their prominent books of the year have been – akina Troy Onyango, Abigail Arunga, Zukiswa Wanner, Patricia Kahura, Rookie, Kiprop Kimutai – and compared their suggestions to the my sales stats.
In no particular order, these are the titles that reared their heads the most;
by Yaa Gyasi
Stretching from the wars of Ghana to slavery and the Civil War in America, from the coal mines in the American South to the Great Migration to 20th-century Harlem, Yaa Gyasi’s novel moves through histories and geographies and captures – with outstanding economy and force – the troubled spirit of our own nation. She has written a modern masterpiece.
2. SEASON OF CRIMSON BLOSSOMS
by Abubakar Ibrahim Adam
[Winner 2016, NLNG Prize for Literature]
An affair between 55-year-old widow Binta Zubairu and 25-year-old weed dealer Reza was bound to provoke condemnation in conservative Northern Nigeria. Brought together in unusual circumstances, Binta and Reza faced a need they could only satisfy in each other. Binta – previously reconciled with God – now yearns for intimacy after the sexual repression of her marriage, the pain of losing her first son and the privations of widowhood. Meanwhile, Reza’s heart lies empty and waiting to be filled due to the absence of a mother. The situation comes to a head when Binta’s wealthy son confronts Reza, with disastrous consequences. This story of love and longing – set against undercurrents of political violence – unfurls gently, revealing layers of emotion that defy age, class and religion.
3. BORN ON A TUESDAY
by ElNathan John
[Visiting Nairobi in February,15th 2016]
Dantala lives in Bayan Layi, Nigeria and studies in a Sufi Quranic school. By chance he meets gang leader Banda, a nominal Muslim. Dantala is thrust into a world with fluid rules and casual violence. In the aftermath of presidential elections he runs away and ends up living in a Salafi mosque. Slowly and through the hurdles of adolescence, he embraces Salafism as preached by his new benefactor, Sheikh Jamal. Dantala falls in love with Sheikh’s daughter, Aisha, and tries to court her within the acceptable limits of a conservative setting. All the while, Sheikh struggles to deal with growing jihadist extremism within his own ranks.
This novel explores life, love, friendship, loss and the effects of extremist politics and religion on everyday life in Northern Nigeria.
4. A SIDE OF RAUNCH
by Abigail Arunga
5. LONDON CAPE TOWN JO’BURG
by Zukiswa Wanner
[Winner of the K. Sello Duiker Award]
The book revolves around two characters, Germaine Spencer and Martin O’Malley. After coincidently meeting several times the two fall in love and get married. Their relationship seems like the perfect love story; Martin O’Malley is a black Irish-South African who is trying to make his mark in the finance sector in London, whereas Germaine works as a ceramicists and art lecturer. As the reader you are taken on a journey through these cities that constitute important stations in the life of the main characters. Beginning with their first meeting and early relationship in London (1994–1998) and continuing to their move to Cape Town (1998–2008) and finally to Johannesburg (2008–2011), the reader gets an insight into the experiences of Germaine and Martin, culminating in the suicide of their teenage son Zuko.
6. BORN A CRIME
by Trevor Noah
Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man’s relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother: his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.
The eighteen personal essays collected here are by turns hilarious, dramatic, and deeply affecting. Whether subsisting on caterpillars for dinner during hard times, being thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping, or just trying to survive the life-and-death pitfalls of dating in high school, Trevor illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and unflinching honesty. His stories form a moving and searingly funny portrait of a boy making his way through a damaged world in a dangerous time, armed only with a keen sense of humor and a mother’s unconventional, unconditional love.
7. MEMOIRS OF A KENYAN SPYMASTER
by Bart Joseph Kibati
He gives us sparkling snippets of his family and community, as well as politics and intrigues of the time, including everything he knew; from smuggling coffee from Uganda to grabbing plots in Kenya. In a no-holds-barred, he tells not just about his work as a Special Branch officer but also a political and social history of Kenya. He shows us, with surprising candour and some home truths, how far we’ve come.
by Rasna Warah
This book reveals the web of lies, cover-ups, corruption and impunity within the United Nations that has allowed wrongdoing to continue unabated. Many of these acts of wrongdoing occur or continue because the UN fails to protect whistleblowers; on the contrary, most UN whistleblowers experience severe retaliation. UNsilenced describes how whistleblowers have been denied justice within the UN system and how the immunity accorded to UN officials and the conflict of interest inherent in the UN’s internal justice system allow the perpetrators of criminal or unethical activities to go unpunished.
by Nansubuga Makumbi
[Winner of the Kwani Manuscript Prize]
In 1754, Kintu Kidda, Ppookino of Buddu Province in the kingdom of the Buganda, sets out on a journey to the capital where he is to pledge allegiance to the new kabaka of the realm. Along the way, a rash action in a moment of anger unleashes a curse that will plague his family for generations.
Time passes and the nation of Uganda is born. Through colonial occupation and the turbulent early years of independence, Kintu’s heirs survive the loss of their land, the denigration of their culture and the ravages of war. But the story of their ancestor and his twin wives Nnakato and Babirye endures. So too does the curse.
In this ambitious tale of a family and of a nation, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi skilfully weaves together the stories of Kintu’s descendants as they seek to break with the burden of their shared past and to reconcile the inheritance of tradition and the modern world that is their future.
10. THE CONCUBINE
by Elechi Amadi
11. ALLAH IS NOT OBLIGED
by Ahmadou Kourouma
‘The full, final and completely complete title of my bullshit story is:
Allah is not obliged to be fair about all things he does here on earth’
Birahima’s story is one of horror and laughter. After his mother’s death he travels to Liberia to find his aunt but on the way gets caught up in rebel fighting and ends up with a Kalashnikov in his hands. He tells of the chaotic and terrible adventures that follow in his career as a small soldier with heartbreaking bravado and wisdom.
The collection includes well-known authors – such as Cat Hellisen, Fred Khumalo, Pede Hollist, Mary Okon Ononokpono, Efemia Chela and Louis Greenberg – alongside emerging stars like Megan Ross, Dayo Ntwari, Louis Ogbere and Alexis Teyie. With settings both realistic and fantastical, and stories both lyrical and urgent, this collection is the definitive high watermark for fiction from Africa this year.
Includes the winning story, The Worme Bridge by Cat Hellisen.
13. TRAM 83
by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Two friends, one a budding writer home from abroad, the other an ambitious racketeer, meet in the most notorious nightclub—Tram 83—in a war-torn city-state in secession, surrounded by profit-seekers of all languages and nationalities. Tram 83 plunges the reader into the modern African gold rush as cynical as it is comic and colorfully exotic, using jazz rhythms to weave a tale of human relationships in a world that has become a global village.
14. MAID IN SA – 30 WAYS TO LEAVE YOUR MADAM
by Zukiswa Wanner
To get you started:
• There are two types of white madams, the poor-white madam and the liberal middle-class madam.
• There are no poor African madams.
• If your helper has a colourful name, she must be a Zimbabwean.
• Having a Malawian helper is never about the Malawian helper, darling.
15. TOURING MY MIND
by Eric Otieno Onyango (Rixpoet)
16. THE GHOSTS OF 1894
by Oduor Jagero
I wanted to tell a story that goes beyond the 1994 but plotted in the thick of 1994. I tracked Rwandan story to 18th century. But I realized that telling the Rwandan tragedy leads you to the Ugandan tragedy under Idi Amin. And many other East African stories. I lived in Rwanda for eight months researching this story – and while in Rwanda, I realized that Rwandan story is embedded in Uganda’s own story. So people who have been asking me about my trips to Uganda, this is largely part of the reason.
This painful research and writing and reading has birthed my second novel THE GHOSTS OF 1894.”
– Oduor Jagero, author
by Boniface Mwangi
This book tells of the two remarkable women – his mother and grandmother – who influenced his character and inspired his drive to raise awareness about poverty, inequality and corruption.
His work as a photo-activist is grounded in social engagement, collective action and the need for justice. This is the story of a man full of determination and warmth, a man who lives his life to make a difference.
18. NIGHT DANCER
by Chika Unigwe
Night Dancer is a powerful and moving novel about the relationship between mothers and daughters, about the bonds of family, about knowing when to fulfil your duty, and when you must be brave enough not to. Presenting a vista of Nigeria over the past half-century, it is a vibrant and heartfelt exploration of one woman’s search for belonging.
19. THE WHISPERING TREES
by Abubakar Ibrahim Adam
20. THE WOMAN NEXT DOOR
by Yewande Omotoso
But one day an unforeseen event forces the women together. And gradually the bickering and sniping softens into lively debate, and from there into memories shared. But could these sparks of connection ever transform into friendship? Or is it too late to expect these two to change?
HONORABLE MENTIONS INCLUDE:
TOMORROW I’LL BE TWENTY
by Alain Mabanckou
THE LAST VILLAINS OF MOLO
by Kinyanjui Kombani
Told against the background of the 1991 ‘tribal’ clashes in Kenya, this is one of the most critically acclaimed stories in modern times. It has been a study text in universities in Kenya and Germany.
EASY MOTION TOURIST
by Leye Adenle
by Igoni Barret
by Lesleigh Kenya
The contributing writers include: Atandi Anyona, Euticus Aziz Mola, Kaesa Kelvin, Maimuna Jallow, Mtheto Kadoko Hara, Mwangi Gituro, Mwende Ngao, Powell Omolo, Rayhab Gachango.
If someone was to say that this list is a little bit skewed, I would not object. The respondents were mainly Kenyans. It was limited to the books that we have on our kiosk – which is not yet as diverse as I would want it to be, and it was not restricted to books produced in 2016 only. But I believe it is an important list to share. I am not really interested in the binaries of which book is better than which – that is highly subjective- and I am not even sure the parameters used for such listings. I care more about which books made the most impact in people’s lives.
2016 gave us good books. Let’s hope that 2017 holds an even better literary promise.
See you on the other side, folks.