The best novels from French-speaking Africa translated into English

Who am I?

I’m a public health professional, author, and reader. During part of my childhood and my subsequent career in international public health, I lived in Côte d’Ivoire and the Central African Republic; I’ve also worked throughout West and Central Africa, primarily in Francophone African countries. My experiences in these parts of the continent have not only influenced my fiction writing, but also what I read. While there are plenty of books by Anglophone African authors, few of their Francophone counterparts see their work translated into English. As a result, stories from French-speaking Africa are underrepresented in the literature available to English-speaking audiences. This list is an attempt to make a dent in this disparity.

I wrote...

The Civilized World

By Susi Wyss,

Book cover of The Civilized World

What is my book about?

Set across five African countries and the U.S., The Civilized World follows five unforgettable women whose lives intersect across Africa in unexpected and sometimes explosive ways. Adjoa struggles to earn enough money in Côte d’Ivoire to return to Ghana to open a beauty parlor. Janice, an American aid worker, is haunted by a tragedy that also impacts Adjoa. Comfort, an imperious busybody, complains about her American daughter-in-law, Linda, while Ophelia contemplates how to save her marriage. Named “A Book to Pick Up Now” by O, the Oprah Magazine, the book explores what it means to need forgiveness—and what it means to forgive.

The books I picked & why

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In the Company of Men

By Véronique Tadjo,

Book cover of In the Company of Men

Why this book?

As a public health worker, I was moved by this beautiful novel, an homage to the courageous people who prevented Ebola from becoming a worldwide pandemic. Set in an unnamed country, most likely Guinea, it uses lyrical language and multiple points of view of those affected and infected by the virus—patients, health care providers, gravediggers, the bats who transmitted the virus to humans, and even an old baobab tree that observes the humans with detached wisdom. Using language both poetic and empathetic, Tadjo reminds us in this cautionary tale that Mother Nature is very much in charge.

So Long a Letter

By Mariama Ba, Modupé Bodé-Thomas (translator),

Book cover of So Long a Letter

Why this book?

Published in 1989, this is the oldest book on this list, and yet it still resonates in its depiction of the female condition in Senegal specifically, and Africa in general. Ramatoulaye, a recently widowed Senegalese schoolteacher, writes a letter to her old friend and fellow teacher, Aissatou, to share her struggles after her husband took on a second wife 25 years into their marriage. Juxtaposed against pre- and post-independence from colonial power France, the novel shines a light on how much less Senegalese women benefited from newfound rights and freedoms than their male counterparts.

Co-Wives, Co-Widows

By Adrienne Yabouza, Rachael McGill (translator),

Book cover of Co-Wives, Co-Widows

Why this book?

In the rare instances that the Central African Republic makes it into the news, it’s for political turmoil or for having some of the worst development indicators. After getting to know Central Africans during my years living there, I’ve long been on the lookout for fiction that shows the day-to-day, human side of the CAR. Yabouza’s novel does exactly that, exploring the lives of two co-wives, Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou, as they cope with the aftermath of their husband’s sudden death. While the premise might sound similar to Ba’s novel, the results are entirely different, thanks to the tight bond that forms between the two former rivals—and the wit, warmth, and seen-it-all wisdom of Yabouza’s storytelling.

A Long Way from Douala

By Max Lobe, Ros Schwartz (translator),

Book cover of A Long Way from Douala

Why this book?

Jean is an accomplished student at the University of Douala who sets off with his best friend, Simon, to find Jean’s older brother, who has run away to pursue his dream of becoming a soccer star in Europe. Their trip is paved with danger but Jean is willing to face any perils in order to spend time with Simon, on whom he has a secret, unrequited crush. Despite the novel’s heavy themes of terrorism, child abuse, authoritarianism, homophobia, and the plight of undocumented immigrants, Lobe pulls off an entertaining, rollicking story that provides a wonderful snapshot of his country.

Aya: Life in Yop City

By Marguerite Abouet, Clément Oubrerie, Helge Dascher (translator)

Book cover of Aya: Life in Yop City

Why this book?

I’ve added this graphic novel to my list in part for nostalgic reasons. Although the book and its two sequels were published in the 2000s, they are all set in 1970s Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, when I had the good fortune to live there. Aya is an adolescent girl living in the vibrant neighborhood of Yopougon, where everyone knows each other’s business. While she just wants to focus on her studies, she keeps getting distracted by the drama of those around her—from the boy-chasing machinations of her girlfriends to the foolish missteps of her parent's generation.

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