In the longlist for its prestigious 2017 Literary Awards, PEN America has recognized literature representing the African continent as critical to the cultural aesthetic. From debut novelists to emerging mid-career writers to an established young voice of our times, these six African authors should be on everyone’s reading lists now.
One of the most exciting authors bound for the final awards list is 27-year old Yaa Gyasi. Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing is up for the $25,000 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. Gyasa has stated a trip to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle during her sophomore year at Stanford inspired the sweeping tale of two Ghanaian half-sisters, one sold off to slavery and the other married off to a British slaveowner.
41-year old Nigerian-American Teju Cole may win the $10,000 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay for his collection, Known and Strange Things. Cole broke onto the international literary landscape with his 2012 novel Open City and the 2014 reissue of his novella Every Day is For the Thief. The over 40 essays in Known and Strange Things reinforce Cole’s reputation as a keen observer of the intersections of psychology and identity in the racist power structure.
Writers born across the African continent dominate consideration for the $5,000 Open Book Award (formerly known as the Beyond Margins Award) to celebrate “an exceptional book-length work of literature by an author of color.” Prior winners of African descent include Uwem Akpan in 2009 (Say You’re One of Them) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in 2007 (Half of a Yellow Sun). One potential winner this year is 37-year-old Nigerian Igoni A. Barrett. Acclaimed for two prior story collections, his 2016 publication of the nominated novel Blackass brought him widespread international recognition. Fellow PEN America award nominee Teju Cole called Barrett, who was the recipient of the 2011 Chinua Achebe Center Fellowship, “a major talent.”
Zimbabwean Petina Gappah sidelined her successful attorney career to finish her tome, The Book of Memory—the powerful story of an albino woman imprisoned for murdering the wealthy white adoptive father who sexually abused her. Gappah poignantly names her heroine ‘Memory,’ and Memory’s harrowing personal notebooks recount all that led to the murder as she struggles for a death penalty pardon. Cameroon native Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers tackles the unforgettable 2008 US financial crisis through the eyes of a recently-immigrated Cameroon couple struggling to make ends meet. Mbue, a resident of New York City, shared that a chance passing of African chauffeurs waiting outside Manhattan’s Time Warner building jumpstarted her idea for the novel. Nigerian-British writer Helen Oyeyemi has been a beloved international author ever since her 2005 debut novel, The Icarus Girl. Her nominated story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours was named a Best Book of 2016 by NPR and PBS NewsHour, among others. Oyemi attended Cambridge University and now lives in Prague.
PEN America will announce the finalists for all 2017 Literary Awards on January 18 and winners will be announced on February 22.