The best fiction books with trustworthy portrayals of political history & cultural insights into their African settings

Susan Lewallen Author Of Crossing Paths
By Susan Lewallen

The Books I Picked & Why

The Old Drift

By Namwali Serpell

Book cover of The Old Drift

Why this book?

This astonishing mashup of fact and fiction tracks three generations from three different lineages starting around 1900, describes their convergence over the century, and carries on into present-day Zambia, beyond the book’s publication date. This gives it the opportunity to morph into “science fiction” towards the end. The prose is often superb and the characters are vividly described. Obscure but authentic historic and technical details, e.g., the Afronaut story (who knew?) and some clinicopathologic aspects of malaria, are impressive examples of the research the author put into the book. The McCall’s pattern numbers she referenced for a fictional seamstress were even correct! It’s a long read, chock-a-block with characters. I had to reference the genealogy at the front often to keep track of it all. Serpell has immense talent and I’ll definitely read more of her future work. 

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By Abdulrazak Gurnah

Book cover of Paradise

Why this book?

Yusuf is a young boy, an indentured servant to an Arab trader, living in a cloistered environment amidst much he doesn’t understand. On a trading trip from the Swahili coast, through the foothills of Kilimanjaro, and on to Lake Victoria, he has the opportunity to see foreign wonders, learn how the trader negotiates, and see the attitudes of the Swahili traders toward the people from the interior, the relatively new Indian immigrants, and the German colonizers. The trip is brutal; descriptions are straightforward and realistic but the author never sensationalizes events. This is an important piece of the incredible variety in the mosaic of African culture and history. The honesty and authenticity the author provides make it clear what he has to offer the literary world and why he was awarded a Nobel prize. 

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Half of a Yellow Sun

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Book cover of Half of a Yellow Sun

Why this book?

The lives of two estranged, upper-class sisters play out against the Biafran war in this gripping story. It starts in the heady days before the war, when, for the primarily Igbo southerners, secession promised freedom from harsh treatment at the hands of northern Nigerians. It was chilling to realize that Adichie was leading me slowly and steadily through a descent into Hell. She describes the forced conscription of men and boys by the Biafran army, terrorism, and cruelty from the invading Nigerians, and the deliberate policy to starve the Biafrans. Readers should gird their loins – many details are hard to read. I loved the complexity of the characters and the way the terrible war puts personal issues between the sisters into perspective. Adichie said she drew on her own parents’ lives and their faith in a victory for Biafra during the war years and was pleased the book has started conversations among her generation about what happened there. 

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The Poisonwood Bible

By Barbara Kingsolver

Book cover of The Poisonwood Bible

Why this book?

When an American Southern Baptist missionary takes his wife and four daughters into the Congo in 1959 to spread his harsh, inflexible version of Christianity, there are bound to be conflicts, both within the family and between the cultures. Kingsolver deftly weaves these with the history and politics of the Congo at the time to produce an unforgettable story. She doesn’t shy away from describing the hypocrisy of the USA and other Western powers, who demonstrated their willingness to sacrifice the democratic process when they perceived a threat to their own interests from an elected “socialist/communist” president. The book has so much: wonderous descriptions of the rainforest; complex family dynamics; unique, well-developed characters; and a compelling plot. This is one of my favorites! 

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Cutting for Stone

By Abraham Verghese

Book cover of Cutting for Stone

Why this book?

Marion and his twin brother Shiva, adopted sons of Indian doctors, come of age in a missionary hospital in Addis Ababa in the 1960s and 70s. Verghese shows his knowledge of this setting in detailed descriptions of life in the hospital and its environs. These evoked vivid memories for me of the time I spent working in similar Ethiopian hospitals. All you could do, often, wasn’t enough. I could see, hear, and smell the rich detail Verghese provides. Against this background, he unrolls a family drama centered on the conflict between the twins. Marion finishes medical school in Addis amidst unrest as the civil war heats up and Shiva, with no formal education, becomes, nonetheless, a skilled fistula surgeon. When Marion’s association with a member of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front upsets the dynamics further, the action moves to New York City and the flourishing Ethiopian community there. Verghese shows deep understanding of the human potential for both grand and malevolent acts with beautifully articulated insights into the mysteries of universal themes: love, betrayal, revenge, forgiveness, and redemption.

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