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The 10 women who have influenced African literature that you should know

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

When we talk about the great names in African literature, we often talk about men: Wole Soyinka,Cheikh Anta Diop, Chinua Achebe, Ahmadou Kourouma, Mongo Beti , etc. But what about women? As Hugo Bréant points out in "From Female African Literature to African Writers", to talk about African writers is generally to highlight exceptionality.

Although less known compared to male authors, African literature also has big names on the women's side. With a different style and themes, these great authors of African literature nevertheless have one thing in common: they break taboos. They write, and all at once, trace a whole story. Here is a summary of 10 great women who have left their mark on African literature.

1. Nadine Gordimer

Gordimer, writer, anti-apartheid activist, was born in Springs, a mining town on the outskirts of Johannesburg, on November 20, 1923, in South Africa. With some 15 novels and dozens of short stories, written over seven decades to expose the immorality of apartheid and other injustices. She is behind such works as 'Burger's Daughter' and 'The Conservationist.' to cite a few of her works, which are about the oppression of the South African apartheid regime. She was withdrawn from school at 11 after being diagnosed with a heart murmur. While consigned to her bed, she spent hours reading and writing and developed a fondness for literature. After reading such books as Forster’s “A Passage to India, Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and E.M. she became aware of the “rigidly racist and inhibited colonial society” she lived in. And thus, began her lifelong mission to denounce apartheid, racism, and other evils she found in her society. She attended a convent school and studied at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg for a year. There, she first socialized with blacks. She later explained to an interviewer that time “was more or less the beginning of her political consciousness."

In1949, Face to Face her short story collection was published. 5 years Later in 1953 her first novel, The Lying Days, an examination of her own upbringing. However, it's the publication of her short stories in the New Yorker magazine that propel her to international prominence. She won several awards among them, the Booker Prize in 1974 for The Conservationist and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991 for morally complex novels that explored the cost of racial conflict in apartheid-era South Africa. She attended the 1963 Rivonia Trial in which Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders were sent to prison for life. She also helped Mandela edit his speech, “I Am Prepared to Die,” that he gave at the trial from the defendant’s dock.

ANC activists, remarkable figure and a writer whose works, created under the police repression and state surveillance of the apartheid regime, conveyed to readers an indelible hatred of oppression and injustice. She wrote so frankly about the enforced poverty and isolation of blacks, as well as institutionalized racism, illustrated through stories about lovers, neighbors, and friends that South Africa’s apartheid government banned three of her books. Nadine Gordimer, an uncompromising moralist who became one of the most influential voices against the injustice of apartheid, died at 90 in 2014.

"Truth isn't always beauty, but the hunger for it is.Nadine Gordimer "

2. Mariama Bâ

“So Long a Letter”. The title alone is sufficient to describe the extent of the impact of this book on African literature. Even those who have never read it know it by its name. And for a good reason, there is no way to ignore this book: it was omnipresent. A compelling and captivating novel that is for me one of the best books of African literature of all time.

This work of art is the creation of Mariama Bâ. Born in Dakar in 1929, Mariama was confronted with the realities of life at an early age. She lost her mother when she was still a child and was then sent to her grandmother. Very gifted at school and particularly in literature, little Bâ had a string of good results, obtaining her primary school certificate at 14 (school enrolment was not as early at the time) before joining the Rufisque Normal School from which she graduated in 1943 with her teacher's diploma in her pocket.

It was only in 1979 that Mariama Bâ decided to use the pen for "So long a letter ". A true ode to African woman, the book is presented as a series of letters written by Ramatoulaye to her friend Aïssatou following the death of her husband. Annihilated and lonely, Ramatoulaye shares her resentment and feeling while depicting the pessimistic portrait of Senegalese society and the place she gives to its women. The book was a hit, first in Senegal and then in other countries, where it was translated into many languages. The prizes were not long in coming, in 1980, "So Long a Letter" won the Noma prize at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

But Mariama Bâ is not the type to rest on her laurels. She dips her pen again and writes her new novel, which she calls "Scarlet Song". The book would be published in November 1981 but the author, unfortunately, didn't have the opportunity to see her work flourish: on August 17, 1981, in Dakar at the age of 52, Mariama Bâ died of cancer.

Her short career lasted only 2 years, yet the impact of her writings still perdures to this day. A pioneer of women issues and education in many associations promoting women's rights and education, Mariama Bâ is undoubtedly one of the pioneers of French-speaking African literature, inspiring hundreds of women authors to write to express their ideas.

A school for girls on Gorée Island has been named in her memory.

"All families, rich or poor, united or torn, conscious or thoughtless, constitute the Nation. The success of a nation depends irrevocably on the family". Mariama Bâ

3. Aminata Sow Fall

Aminata Sow Fall was born in 1941 in Saint-Louis. She attended Faidherbe High School and then Van Vo High School, now renamed Lamine Gueye, before going to France where she prepared for a degree in modern literature. She married in 1963 and then returned to Senegal where she worked as a teacher. In 1976, she published her first novel"Le Revenant”, published by the new African editions. This is the story of Bakar, a modest postal worker who, under pressure from his family and friends, would improvise to steal money from his employer's mailbox.

However, if Aminata Sow Fall's name is not unknown to most of us, it is because of her novel published 3 years later: "The Beggars' Strike", which won the "Grand Prize for Black African Literature" in 1980. The bàttu is a Wolof word that refers to the utensil that serves as a bowl for beggars. By extension, it refers to the beggars themselves.

"The Beggars' Strike" is the story of a revolt, that of the talibes in the face of a politician who wants to expel them from the city. 38 years after the publication of this novel, this theme is still relevant today, except for a few details.

Aminata Fall is now 76 years old but her passion for writing has not aged a bit. In 2017, the woman whom Alain Mabanckou considers to be "the greatest African novelist" unveils her latest masterpiece, "The Empire of Lies".From the founding of the Khoudia publishing house to the International Centre for the Study, Research and Reactivation of Literature, Arts and Culture in Saint-Louis and the African Office for the Defense of Writers' Freedoms in Dakar, Aminata Sow's life is a perpetual battle to make this art, which until now has barely been fully liberated and shine through.

"Culture is the noblest food; it elevates us above small material instincts". Aminata Sow Fall

4. Buchi Emecheta

Florence Onye Buchi Emecheta, certainly Nigeria's best-known woman writer was born in Yaba near Lagos, Nigeria on July 21, 1944. She wrote about African women's experiences in Africa and Great Britain. As a young kid, influenced by an older aunt who used to tell stories to the children about their people, the Igbo, Bucchi dreamed of being a writer. Once her dad was killed as a soldier in the British army in Burma, she won a scholarship at 10 to attend a Methodist Girls' High School in Lagos.

With 20 novels which mined her experience as a black single mother in Britain, her work has inspired a generation of black writers. In 1960, She moved to England with her husband Sylvester Onwordi after being engaged since she was 11. Her Novel " Second Class Citizen" published in 1974, described her unhappy marriage and at times, violent marriage. After Her spouse burned manuscripts of her work, at the age of 22, Emecheta left him and worked to support herself and her five children. During that time, she completed a degree in Sociology at the University of London. She also contributed a column which formed the basis of her 1972 book Into the Ditch to the New Statesman about black British life.

The Ditch (1972), Second-Class Citizen (1974) and Head Above Water (1986) give an insight into the hardship she faced in Britain as a single black mother. Also, later novels such as Gwendolen (1989) and The New Tribe (2000), her most recent novel to date, address British racism. Other books such as Bride Price (1976), The Slave Girl (1977), The Joys of Motherhood (1979) and in Kehinde (1994 deal with the changing role of women in Nigerian society. Meanwhile, books like In Destination Biafra (1982), The Rape of Shavi (1983) focuses on the Nigerian civil war and the colonization of Africa. Buchi Emecheta has written numerous plays for the BBC and won several awards. She was selected as one of the Best British Young Writers in 1983. She has been a resident writer and professor at various universities in the United States and Nigeria, and she received an OBE in 2005.

This African writer, a powerhouse of a woman is an inspiration, not just for pioneering a route into literature for other black women, but for tackling domestic abuse. “Her fictionalized life story showed women that they could survive and succeed through adversity and abuse and stand up for feminism. The celebrated author of The Bride Price, The Joys of Motherhood, and more died at 72 on January 25, 2017

“What I am trying to do is get our profession back. Women are born storytellers. We keep the history. We are the true conservatives – we conserve things, and we never forget. What I do is not clever or unusual. It is what my aunt and my grandmother did, and their mothers before them.” Buchi Emecheta

5- Ken Bugul

"Nobody wants it" is the nickname Marietou Mbaye chose to sign her art. Born in 1947 in Ndoucoumane, Ken Bugul is the pen name of Senegalese writer Mariètou Mbaye Biléoma. She is a novelist whose career began with a trilogy that resembled an autobiography: "Le baobab fou" in 1984 then "Cendres et embers" and “Riwan ou le Chemin de sable” in 1994 and 1999 respectively.

This last novel, which concludes this trilogy, earned her worldwide recognition by winning the prestigious "Grand Prize for Black African Literature" in 1999.Ken Bugul's bibliography reflects her path, which is perfectly illustrated by her nickname: a chaotic path strewn with pain and disillusionment.

Yes, because Ken Bugul's life was not all roses: a blind father who was 85 years old when she was born, a mother who abandoned her when she was five, a first nightmare marriage in France and a year and a half to hang out on the streets, to name but a few.

And that's what makes this author so exceptional: she has always been able to recover from her falls.

"Life is a good dose of madness and a lot of humility. Madness is not negative. It allows you to free yourself. Humility is essential. To be humble is to be attentive to the world, to what surrounds us. And keep all your senses awake."Ken Bugul

6. Tanella Boni

Suzanne Tanella Boni is a French-speaking Ivorian writer, born in Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire or Ivory Coast) on 1 January 1954. She is one of the most celebrated writers of Ivory Coast. Tanella Boni is a poet, philosopher, novelist, short story writer, literary critic, and art critic. In her writings, she is interested in the sharing of knowledge, the defense of human rights, living together, the idea of humanity, and the daily life of women.

Tanella Boni studied in Toulouse and Paris (University of Paris IV). Professor of philosophy at the University of Cocody in Abidjan, she is a poet, novelist, short story writer, and critic. She also writes children's books. President of the Association of Writers of Côte d'Ivoire from 1991 to 1997, she is the organizer of the Abidjan International Poetry Festival. In 2005, she received the Ahmadou Kourouma Award for her novel Matins de curfew. Tanella Boni has been a member of the World Academy of Poetry since 2001. She gets inspired by the field of freedom, dreaming of a world of solidarity and without borders. Honorary member of the scientific council of the Group for Studies and Research on Globalization (GERM); member of the scientific council of the journal Diogène and member of the editorial board of the electronic journal Mots Pluriels (1996-2003), she has also contributed to the journal Africultures since 1998. Elected member of the Executive Committee of FISP (International Federation of Philosophical Societies) in 2008. In her writings (poems, novels, essays, short stories...), she is interested in the sharing of knowledge, the defense of human rights, living together, the idea of humanity and the daily life of women, as shown in her theoretical texts, her "Letter to Future Generations" (UNESCO, 1999) and her last two novels: "Mornings Under Curfew" (Le Serpent à Plumes, LiBeratur-Förderpreis and Ahmadou Kourouma Award 2005) and "Les nègres n'iront jamais au paradis" (Le Serpent à Plumes, 2006) as well as her essay "Que vivent les femmes d'Afrique?"Paris, Panama Editions, 2008.

"My ancestors had for every typically feminine instrument a mortar and pestle, handymen, kitchen utensils or defensive weapons. (...) I'm turning the all-purpose pestle into a pencil that can leave traces."Tanella Boni

7 – Calixthe Beyala

It was in Douala,Cameroon that Calixthe Beyala was born in 1961, from a Bamiléké father and a Béti mother. Calixthe's parents separated shortly after her birth, and, her education was then entrusted to her grandmother. She had a difficult childhood marked by poverty, her older sister being the only one to support the family. Calixthe still managed to continue her education until the age of 17, when she immigrated to France and obtained her baccalauréat G2, getting married in the process. She then began studying management and literature. Her first book, "The Sun Hath Looked Upon Me", was published in 1987. This was the beginning of a brilliant career.

Calixthe Beyala then went on to win prizes and distinctions: Grand Prix littéraire d'Afrique Noire in 1993 with "Mom Has a Lover," François-Mauriac prize from the Académie Française as well as the tropical prize for "Asseèze The African Woman" the following year. In 1996, she won the Grand Prix de l'Académie Française with "Lost Honours" and two years later, Le Prix comité français de l'UNESCO for " La petite fille du réverbère".

In parallel with her career as a successful writer, Calixthe advocated for the cause of women, the Francophonie and the rights of visible minorities through the Equity Collective, of which she is the spokesperson.

"You will see: my very words jump and rattle like chains. Words that detonate, disintegrate, unscrew, tumble, torture! Words that spank, slap, break, and crush! Anyone who feels discomfort should skip ahead".Calixthe Beyala

8 – Fatou Diome

Fatou Diome was born in 1968 on the island of Niodor in Senegal. As it seems to be a tradition among great African authors, Fatou Diome is raised by her grandmother.

A true "dissident", Fatou herself decided to go to school, something unusual for the time and was passionate about French literature. This passion will naturally lead her to try her hand at the art of writing. In 2001, “La préférence nationale “a collection of six short stories, was published, marking Fatou Diome's entry into the circle of authors.

In 2003, she gained international notoriety with her first novel, "The belly of the Atlantic", which addresses the thorny problem of emigration. The book won the Chantal Lapicque Hemisphere Prize the same year and two years later received the LiBeraturpreis, a prize awarded each year by a committee of readers to a writer from Africa, Asia or Latin America. She will then publish several writings such as "Ketala" in 2006, "Celles qui attendent" in 2010 or" Marianne porte plainte" in 2017.

Fatou Diome is also known for her commitment and outspokenness on television, such as during the programme "Ce soir où jamais" devoted to migrants or for her altercations with the president of the National Front, Marine Le Pen.

"We see the poor moving; we don't see the rich looting our countries."Fatou Diome

9- Leonora Miano

Leonora Miano, born on March 12, 1973, in Douala, is a Cameroonian writer with an unusual background. She "hurts" from the beginning with her first book "Dark Heart Of The Night" which was very well received by critics and which alone won six prizes, including the "prize for the first woman's novel" in 2006 and the "prize for Cameroonian excellence" in 2007.

Proof that it was not by chance, her second novel "Contours du jour qui vient" won the prestigious prize for French Language literature and was awarded the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. Daniel S. Larangé, a French multi-faceted researcher and teacher, would describe Leonora Miano's style as "Afropean" literature because of the author's particularity in juxtaposing the two cultures.

Very committed, Miano won the Femina Prize in 2013, awarded each year by an all-female jury, for her novel "La saison de l'ombre” which deals, through a poignant and gripping narrative, with the beginning of the black slave trade.

"The main concern in Africa is that of a degraded self-awareness following the Slave Trade".

Leonora Miano

10 – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Achidie is undoubtedly one of the African literary figures of recent years.

Born in 1977 in Enugu, Nigeria, Chimamanda left her country at the age of 19. She studied at Drexel University in Philadelphia and Eastern Connecticut State University, where she studied communication and political science. She holds a Master's degree in creative writing and an M.A. (Master of Arts) in African studies.

Her first contact with the world of literature was in 2003 with "Purple Hibiscus", a critically acclaimed novel and winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 2005.

But the success didn't stop there for Chimamanda. Three years later, "Half of a Yellow Sun," a poignant novel about the Biafra war, was published and won the Orange Prize for Fiction the following year. Her novel "Americanah" published in 2013 and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Fiction award will be adapted for cinema with Lupita Nyong'o in the lead role.

Today, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's notoriety goes beyond the scope of the book. As a committed feminist, she is the author of the famous phrase "We should all be feminists", delivered in 2012 at a TED conference that would be picked up by millions of people around the world including celebrities such as Beyoncé and Rihanna.

"I want to be who I am, without having to conform to models, to what society would want me to be". Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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The 10 women who have influenced African literature that you should know


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