They have a foot in two worlds. They were born in Africa, or have at least one parent who was, and now call the U.S. home. Fueled by the tug of enduring childhood memories and the whisper of polarizing identities, these seven critically acclaimed authors are crafting inventive tales that demonstrate the diversity of experience within the diaspora.
Imbolo Mbue raked in literary distinctions in 2016 with her bittersweet debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, a New York Times best seller about a young couple from Cameroon who become disillusioned by the American dream following the 2008 financial crisis. Winner of the 2017 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, Mbue’s debut was also an Oprah’s Book Club selection, an endorsement that confirmed the arrival of an important voice.
This spring, Mbue returns with How Beautiful We Were, the saga of the inhabitants of Kosawa, a fictional African village, and their struggle against the devastation caused by an American oil company. “I wanted to explore what happens when a community that in many ways is powerless suddenly discovers that they are indeed powerful,” she says. She began drafting the novel in 2002, when she was 21 and writing “was just a hobby.” The story hits close to home for Mbue, who was born in Cameroon and emigrated to the U.S. at 17. “I think a lot of my writing has to do with my childhood,” she says. “I was in awe of dissidents and revolutionaries.”
Chigozie Obioma, 34, who has been hailed as “the heir to Chinua Achebe” by the New York Times, hadn’t yet finished his first semester in the creative-writing MFA program at the University of Michigan when his first book, The Fisherman, was acquired by Little, Brown and Company. The critically lauded novel examines the bond between four young brothers after a local celebrity, a madman known for accurate prophecies, informs them that the eldest brother will be killed by one of his siblings. “I didn’t know how much of an impact my crowded household had on me until I left to go to university,” says Obioma, who grew up in Akure, Nigeria, with seven brothers and four sisters. “It struck me then that I did not have a friend: My many siblings had sufficiently rendered that need unnecessary.” In Obioma’s second book, An Orchestra of Minorities, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2020, we learn of the fate of Chinonso, a Nigerian poultry farmer who sacrifices everything he owns to prove himself to Ndali, a wealthy woman he saved from committing suicide.
Wayétu Moore, 35, author of She Would Be King, is a Liberian American writer who uses magical realism to build suspense and raise the human stakes. Her next novel, Melanctha, due out in 2022, tells the story of a bullied immigrant girl who realizes she can breathe underwater. “I didn’t choose magical realism,” Moore says. The tales she heard as a child included people flying, or casting a spell, “and that was just storytelling.” In an American literary context, one might categorize this as fantasy or speculative fiction. “In a Liberian literary context,” she says, “it’s about what was this ant warning her of, not why was the ant talking. If you’re introduced to storytelling in that way, the event is not the magic, the event is not the fantasy, the event is always the human condition.”
Yaa Gyasi, 31, was two years old when she and her parents moved from Ghana to the United States, where they eventually settled in Huntsville, Alabama. She returned to Ghana for the first time in 2009, a trip that would inspire her well-received debut novel, Homegoing. The sweeping tale traces the lineage of two half-sisters for more than two centuries, from the slave castles of colonial Africa to the plantations and racism of America. In Transcendent Kingdom, her second novel, released last year, we meet Gifty, a Ghanaian American PhD student determined to use science to understand her brother’s addiction to painkillers and her mother’s bout with deep depression. “One thing that I feel optimistic about in the States is that we are starting to see more books by African writers gain prominence and be read,” she says. “There were so many years of my childhood where the only African writer that anyone could name was Chinua Achebe. The fact that that’s no longer true for so many people, I think, is encouraging.”
Tope Folarin is the author of 2019’s A Particular Type of Black Man, which draws heavily upon the author’s own life. The 39-year-old Rhodes scholar was born to Nigerian parents in Ogden, Utah. “When I was younger, there were times when I was ashamed of that Nigerian part of myself, especially in Utah. It’s not an identity anyone else understood.” Identity is an important theme in Folarin’s novel, which goes beyond the typical immigrant bildungsroman. The novel follows Tunde, a fictional stand-in for Folarin, and his family’s difficult assimilation into American life in Utah and Texas. The book deviates from autofiction when Tunde reaches college and feels he can no longer contend with an American reality that wasn’t constructed for his benefit. At his dorm desk, he takes over from Folarin and pens the second half of the novel, a story that aligns with who Tunde actually is.
Maaza Mengiste was determined to rewrite Ethiopian history with The Shadow King. Short-listed for the 2020 Man Booker Prize, the book explores the role of Ethiopia’s women soldiers during Mussolini’s invasion of their country in 1935. “This history decided the way World War II was about to unfold. Ethiopians were the first anti-fascists, but we don’t hear that,” says Mengiste, a professor of creative writing at Queens College in New York. She was born in Ethiopia in 1971 just before the start of the country’s civil war. Her family was fortunate enough to escape, first to Nigeria and then to Kenya. They landed in Colorado when Mengiste was seven. Her memories of the conflict and the silence around it would inspire her first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. “I really wanted to tell the stories of people who lived through and also died during the revolution. How do we make sense of this history and the many different kinds of loss? The work of writing is to think about who existed before us, because it affects how we imagine the world that we want to create for the new people coming up.”
Namwali Serpell, a Zambian American writer, professor of English at Harvard University, and winner of the 2020 Anisfiel-Wolf Book Award, recently published her debut novel, The Old Drift. The book follows the peripatetic lives of three Zambian families from different racial backgrounds. It blends genres, including history, science fiction, and magical realism, and roams from England to Italy and India. “My family and upbringing, and the multicultural milieu I grew up in both at home and in Lusaka, were always nomadic,” says the 40-year-old. “This means I always had a special interest in cultural hybridity, syncretism: things mixing and mingling and blending, sometimes appropriating, and sometimes diluting, and sometimes becoming something altogether new and interesting.”