About one in four Americans watched Netflix’s Squid Game in 2021, which is remarkable because the Korean reality TV show wasn’t created for an American audience. Our curiosity about the experiences of people from other countries is particularly laudable as technology now enables a world personalized to our tastes and preferences.
And yet, while more than 111-million viewers watched Squid Game, few Americans have read this year’s Nobel Prize winner in literature, Abdulrazak Gurnah. This is a shame given the fact that reading any literary fiction improves our ability to empathize with others, and even makes us smarter. There are numerous immeasurable benefits, too, to becoming comfortable with discomfort, even when discomfort stems from reading about an unfamiliar place, time, or context. For example, Gurnah – who was born in Zanzibar and now lives in the UK – writes in English about the complexities of colonialism and the diverse lives of East Africans but his stories provide insight to many of our own social and political interactions.
For Americans who branched out to international entertainment last year, the good news is that a literal world of choices opens for those willing to read beyond the usual. Thanks to social media, recommendation websites, and platforms like Goodreads and LibraryThing, armchair travelers have numerous ways to launch an international reading adventure.
Because Gurnah’s Nobel Prize win revealed the dearth of attention in the U.S. to African writers in general, here are five novels from the African continent, including one from Gurnah, worthy of adding to your to-read list for 2022:
Abdulrazak Gurnah, Paradise
Published by New York-based New Press in 1994, Paradise details a boy’s coming-of-age in 19th-century East Africa. Readers may be inclined to universalize the page-turner about innocence, friendship, and betrayal. Nevertheless, the beauty of reading about new and unfamiliar topics comes in the specifics—in this case, the disruption of traditional practices by European colonizers and fragile interactions between farmers, merchants, and traders of different faiths and backgrounds.
Tsitsi Dangaremba, Nervous Conditions
“I was not sorry when my brother died.” This breathtaking first sentence opens Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga’s debut novel, which features the coming of age of protagonist Tambu in 1960s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the shadow of a commanding family patriarch. In 2020, Dangarembga released the third book in this series, The Mournable Body,which follows Tambu’s story into adulthood.
Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing
In case you missed this 2016 bestseller, now’s the time to read it. This sweeping and emotional saga follows two families across three hundred years in Ghana, England, and the United States, showing us the impact that history can have across generations and continents. We start with two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, whose children and grandchildren have very different fates due to one being sold into slavery, and the other marrying an Englishman.
Maryse Condé, Waiting for the Waters to Rise
This 2021 novel written by the winner of the 2018 Alternative Nobel Prize in Literature offers us an intriguing way to consider grief and loss through the experiences of a doctor, Babakar, who dreams of his early life in Mali. This transnational novel also includes an element of mystery when Babakar decides to help his only companion, a motherless girl named Anaïs, find her family in Haiti.
Namina Forna, The Gilded Ones
For something completely different Sierra Leonean American author Namina Forna offers a young adult fantasy that became a bestseller in 2021. In a similar vein to Nigerian-American writer Tomi Adeyemi Legacy of Orïsha series, Forna’s novel features a young teenaged protagonist, Deka, who discovers she has a gift that forces her to face her adulthood in a way she hadn’t anticipated.
Leah Milne is a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project and the University of Indianapolis. She teaches American and postcolonial literature and is the author of Novel Subjects: Authorship as Radical Self-Care in Multiethnic American Narratives (University of Iowa Press, 2021).