In a 1994 interview with the Paris Review, Chinua Achebe, the world’s most widely-read modern African author, said that recording a people’s history is not a one-man job. The Nigerian-born writer explained he wanted to paint a more accurate picture of African culture than the one portrayed by the white authors he read as a boy, growing up:
I was introduced to the danger of not having your own stories. There is that great proverb—that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. . . . Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian. It’s not one man’s job. It’s not one person’s job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.
Achebe, who died last Thursday, March 21, at 82, leaves behind a legacy of success in telling the other side of the story. His robust oeuvre includes critically acclaimed novels, poems and essays. His first and best-known novel, Things Fall Apart, required reading in schools across America, was translated into more than 45 languages, and sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.
The New York Times in its obituary calls Achebe a “towering man of letters.” Smithsonian’s African Art Museum curator Karen Milbourne says he offered “an exquisite window through which to understand a changing Africa at a time when what we now call the traditional was really not recognized as valuable.”
To honor Achebe’s work, Millbourne and fellow Smithsonian curator Bryna Freyer suggest five other recent and contemporary authors who share his task of recording the African experience:
Amos Tutuola (1920-1997), a Nigerian contemporary of Achebe’s, was a mostly self-taught writer who based his books on Yoruba folk tales. Freyer recommends his most acclaimed novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard.
Wole Soyinka (b. 1934), also a Nigerian contemporary of Achebe’s, was the first person in Africa to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. He is best known for his poetry and plays, and Freyer recommends his 1975 play Death and the King’s Horseman.
Camara Laye (1928-1980), from Guinea, wrote some of the earliest major works in Francophone African literature. Freyer says check out The Radiance of the King, considered by Ghanaian-American writer Kwame Anthony Appiah to be “one of the greatest of the African novels of the colonial period.”
Dinaw Mengestu (b. 1978) is a Washington, DC-based American writer born in Ethiopia, says Milbourne. He has written two novels about the immigration experience, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears (2007) and How to Read the Air (2010), and received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” last year.
Abraham Verghese (b. 1955) is an Ethiopian-born physician and author of Indian heritage, says Milbourne. He has written two memoirs and a novel, all best sellers. The novel, Cutting for Stone (2009), follows twin brothers in Ethiopia during its military revolution and in New York, where one of them flees.