YOUR GUIDE TO AFRICAN HISTORICAL FICTION (1/2)

Historical fiction is my favorite genre of fiction to read, second only to dystopian fiction (which is really a subgenre but let’s not get into that). It’s my favorite because I really love history. I love reliving or envisioning what it would be like to live in certain times past. And generally, I believe Historical fiction has elements of truth in it that are more apparent than in any other genre. So, it’s fiction but in many ways it isn’t.

There has been a lot of controversy as to what is considered Historical fiction. Some say it’s fiction set at least twenty-five years in the past. Others say it’s fiction set at least fifty years in the past. Some say it’s fiction occurring on the backdrop of a certain historical event, e.g. a war, a revolution, etc. Whatever definition you pick is up to you. As for me, I read any fiction that is in alignment with all of three definitions but I’m really more biased to the last. I like reading about history, about wars and revolutions, and Africa is a continent rich in history like that. We have history dating back to the Bible, so really there is an infinite amount of time for authors to explore.

Now, before we can delve into the many African historical novels out there (and there are many) we must understand this: Africa is a continent. Africa is as diverse as DNA. 54 countries. Five major regions. Thousands of tribes. The amount of stories to explore are endless. But one thing that we find recurring in AHF—permit the acronym—is that the stories are always revolving around war, genocide, slavery and colonialism. It’s as if our history has been reduced to that particular time frame and I find that problematic. I think there are a lot of resources (art, architecture, religion) left unexplored that can be put together to weave a good story from a time past that is not necessarily tied to the coming or exodus of white people.

That said, I pondered a lot on how best to write this blog post. I could write about the fictions in each individual country but then it would take a solid year to compile such a list. After much consideration, I decided that I would write based on the regions and general opinion, some of the best historical fictions. So, here’s the guide I curated dear AHF-questioning reader.

WESTERN AFRICA

If you’re looking to start reading W-AHF, a great book to start with is Yaa Gyasi’s million-dollar debut novel, Homegoing. Homegoing is a novel set in Ghana. It explores African and African-American history. Each chapter is an independent story, but though different, it’s all connected in the end. The novel follows the stories of two sisters who are caught in the middle of the slave trade. It continues with their genealogy, telling the stories of each character independently in each chapter. I have personally read this novel, and it’s one of the few novels that made me love Historical fiction in the first place.

I would be unfortunate not to mention Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie under this category (W-AHF). It is a novel dear to my heart. The Biafrian pogrom (History, in general) is not taught in our secondary schools. So, for many young generation Nigerians, this book was the closest thing to a lecture we got about what really happened in the 60s. And that’s really what has made it a cherished resource in our society (among the sea of stories about the war).

The last on my list for W-AHF is Wayetu Moore’s She Would Be King. The novel is a blend of Historical fiction and Magical realism, so it can come off as a bit difficult to read at first. It reimagines the founding of Liberia through three characters–two from the African diaspora (Virginia and the Caribbean) and one red-haired African girl named Gbessa who is accused of witchcraft and exiled from her village, Lai.

EASTERN & CENTRAL AFRICA

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not, Child is quite the introduction to E-AHF. It is set before and during the Mau Mau rebellion against colonial rule of 50s Kenya, and tells the story of a young boy, Njoroge, who must decide if he will be the first of his family to go to school or if he will fight in the rebellion.

When you’re done with that, you must read 2020 Booker Prize nominated novel, The Shadow King by Maaza Mengitse (which I was rooting for!). It is a great historical fiction novel that celebrates the work of female soldiers during the Italo-Ethiopian war of the 30s (just before WWII). Being a novel about war, there are very harrowing and horrific details. Reviewers say you can’t help but google about the war to fully understand the extent of damage and the resilience of the Ethiopian women soldiers. This novel deserves all of its praise.

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubunga Makumbi has been hailed the “Great Ugandan novel.” In an article for the Guardian UK, Lesley Nneka Arimah writes that the novel is “equal parts imagination as well as research.” Set mostly in 18th century Buganda Kingdom (now Uganda), Kintu is a Ugandan creation story that follows the accursed Kintu clan. Like Homegoing, the novel follows the genealogy of the Kintu people and much like She Would be King, it has it’s fair share of magical realism. It is the perfect epic.

Mount Pleasant by Patrice Nganang, I believe, is one grossly underrated piece of historical fiction. Set in 30s Cameroon which is being rocked by colonialism brought about by the Germans, then the English, and then the French, it follows the life of Sara, a nine-year-old girl, who is presented as a gift (an actual gift) by her mother to the Sultan Njoya. Sara, under the tutelage of her new master, is turned into the boy named Nebu. And by “turned into a boy”, I mean she is made to wear boy clothes and the growth of her breasts are stunted with scalding rocks. Ouch.

Thank you for reading my blog today. On the next blog post, I will discuss books from Northern and Southern Africa.

For more information on historical fiction books from around the world, please visit this lovely resource www.historicalnovels.info

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Amie

Amarachi Ike writes from Enugu, where she is currently studying Medicine at the University of Nigeria. She is an essayist, fiction writer, blogger and aspiring author.

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