- THINGS FALL APART, CHINUA ACHEBE
Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was one of the first books by an African author to achieve widespread success in the west and was one of the key books in sparking the Nigerian literary renaissance of the 1960s. The novel is set in the late 19th century and follows the life of Okonkwo, a wrestling champion who is the leader of a fictional Igbo community called Umuofia. It narrates his life, his family history and his attempts to grapple with the vast changes happening around him.
This incredibly powerful book touches upon themes of masculinity, generational differences and the horrifically destructive effect of white colonialism on Igbo society. There’s a reason that it’s well-known and well-loved and its importance continues to be felt by readers today.
“‘Does the white man understand our custom about land?’
‘How can he when he does not even speak our tongue?'”Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
- The Color Purple, Alice Walker
Another hugely successful literary classic, The Color Purple has been adapted for both stage and screen and has won many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1983. Although, equally, it has faced many calls for censorship on account of its violent and sexual content.
Certainly, it’s not a book for everyone but it is definitely worth the read if you decide you can handle it. It follows the character of Celie, a young black woman growing up in the state of Georgia during the early 1900s. She navigates the cruel world around her with an admirable determination in the face of horrific abuse. The novel’s fearless focus on female relationships, love and family set against this harsh backdrop makes it poignant, hopeful and completely unforgettable.
“I had enough bad luck to keep me laughin’ the rest of my life.”Alice Walker, The Color Purple
- Giovanni’s Room, James BaldwIN
Giovanni’s Room is not only a classic of black literature, but also of LGBT+ literature. Published in 1956, Baldwin’s novel provoked controversy due to its unflinching portrayal of same-sex desire at a time when homosexuality was still a criminal offence in the US.
The book delves into the complex psychology of a young American named David as well as his relationships with other men, especially his affair with Giovanni (an Italian bartender). It is told retrospectively with David dwelling on the conflict and shame brought about by his internalised homophobia as well as his attempts to fit into a society that refuses to accept him. The book is devastatingly tragic which is only emphasized by Baldwin’s beautiful, lyrical writing. Its exploration of identity and masculinity were ground-breaking when the novel was published and (sadly) resonates just as much in today’s world.
“these nights were being acted out under a foreign sky, with no-one to watch, no penalties attached- it was this last fact which was our undoing, for nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.”James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
- aT nIGHT aLL bLOOD IS bLACK, dAVID dIOP
Moving to more modern books, At Night All Blood is Black was published in French in 2018 and its English translation won this year’s International Booker Prize. Set against the backdrop of World War One, the novel centers around two Senegalese soldiers, their friendship and the impact of one of the men’s deaths in combat.
Its power lies in the exploration of a deeply traumatised mind being drawn towards brutality and breakdown. Its subject matter and the graphic violence it depicts means that it’s not an easy read, but it is definitely a worthwhile one. At Night All Blood in Black is able to feel beautifully and horrifically devastating, in a way that is nightmarish yet utterly gripping. It’s also definitely a book that improves upon a re-read as you realise the full force of Diop’s plot through knowledge of what’s to come.
“Temporary madness, in war, is bravery’s sister. But when you seem crazy all the time, continuously, without stopping, that’s when you make people afraid, even your war brothers.”David Diop trans. Anna Moschovakis, At Night All Blood is Black
- MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER, Oyinkan Braithwaite
Equally as dark but with far more laughs, My Sister, the Serial Killer’s title is relatively self-explanatory. It tells the story of two Nigerian sisters: one a serial killer who murders her boyfriends (Ayoola) and the other responsible for clearing up her sister’s mess (Korede). This set up is soon disturbed, however, when Ayoola sets her sights on one of Korede’s colleagues, a man that Korede has herself been interested in for a long time.
The book is a strange but successful blend between thriller and dark satire. The writing is snappy and punchy with the characters being similarly entertaining. It’s not exactly a light-hearted read, but it’s less heavy than some of the other books on this list and yet still touches upon important themes (such as family, femininity and morality as a whole). It’s also a relatively quick read so you don’t really have an excuse not to read it!
“Maybe she is reaching out because she has sent another man to his grave prematurely. Or maybe she wants to know if I can buy eggs on the way home. Either way, I’m not picking up.”Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer
This article is part of a themed week spotlighting Black History Month in the UK