Masterpieces of African Literature

Spring 2009 Princeton University

Who can compete with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Joyce? Are there great books of African literature? Indeed, Nigerian literature is one of the great literatures of the twentieth century. Ethiopian literature is one of the oldest literatures in the world. South Africans have won more Noble Prizes for Literature in the past forty years than authors from any other country. African books have long participated in a global traffic in invention: the medieval African narrative of the Kebra Nagast may be the most important book you have never heard of; the Malian Sunjata epic shaped canonical American literature; Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard changed the way novels were written; Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy has been tricking careless readers for fifty years; Ken Saro Wiwa’s Sozaboy is a dazzling experiment in language; E. M. Coetzee’s Foe rewrites Western literature in a mere 160 pages; Chris Abani’s Kalakuta Republic strips masculinity bare; and Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions is one of the best depictions of the perils of education to have been written. In this course, we will focus on some of the best books from Africa published since 1950 and one from 1312. This course is not an introduction to African cultures; it is focused on close readings of these brilliant and difficult texts, attending to their diction, syntax, grammar, imagery, connotations, and modes of aesthetic signification.

If there were world enough and time, these are some of the masterpieces I would teach:

Kebra Nagast (The Glory of the Kings)


Wole Soyinka Death and the King's Horseman

Chinua Achebe Arrow of God

Ngugi wa Thiongo Devil on the Cross

Ferdinand Oyono Une Vie de Boy (Houseboy)

Amos Tutuola The Palm-Wine Drinkard

Ousmane Sembene Les bouts de bois de dieu (God's Bits of Wood)

Camara Laye L'Enfant Noir (The Dark Child)

Daniel O. Fagunwa The Forest of a Thousand Demons

Ayi Kwei Armah The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born

Tahar Ben Jelloun The Sand Child

Ben Okri Famished Road

Ken Saro WiwaSozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English

Bessie Head A Question of Power

Buchi Emecheta The Joys of Motherhood

Ama Ata Aidoo Our Sister Killjoy

Tsitsi Dangarembga Nervous Conditions

Mariama Bâ So Long a Letter

Assia Djebar L'Amour, la fantasia

J. M. Coetzee The Life and Times of Michael K.

Naguib Mahfouz Palace Walk

Athol Fugard Master Harold ... and the Boys

Nadine Gordimer The Pickup

Thomas Mofolo Chaka

Chris Abani Kalakuta Republic

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Half of a Yellow SunAbdulrazak Gurnah By the Sea

Ahmadou Kourouma Allah Is Not ObligedAlaa-Al-Aswany The Yacoubian Building Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani  I Do Not Come to You by Chance 

Abraham Verghese Cutting for Stone

See also Africa's 100 Best Books of the Twentieth Century