Historical Musings #7: Exploring Africa

Historical Musings It’s very easy to find historical fiction set in Europe or America. If you’re looking for a book on the wives of Henry VIII, the Italian Renaissance, the US Civil War or the French court, there are literally hundreds of novels to choose from – but historical fiction set in other parts of the world is not as well represented.

I’m participating in A More Diverse Universe at BookLust this month and will have two books to tell you about soon: the first is Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone, set partly in 1930s Peshawar, and the other is Flood of Fire, the final part of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy set in India and China during the First Opium War. Last year, for the same event, I read The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, set in Malaya in the 1940s and 1950s, and The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan, a story of Mughal India. It seems, then, that when I do choose to read more diversely within the historical fiction genre, I tend to pick up books set in Asia (particularly in India and China) rather than in other areas of the world.

The Sultans Wife A quick look through my blog archives has shown me that I have read a very small number of historical novels set in Africa over the last few years – and even fewer that were actually written by African authors. Several of Dorothy Dunnett’s novels are set partly in Africa (the journey to Timbuktu in Scales of Gold is particularly fascinating), Wendy Wallace’s The Sacred River is set in 19th century Egypt – and of course, there’s Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series which is set in Egypt too. I can also recommend three novels set partly or entirely in Morocco: Linda Holeman’s The Saffron Gate (1930s), Jane Johnson’s The Sultan’s Wife (17th century) and Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account (16th century).

half of a yellow sun If we can include the 1960s as historical fiction, then I have also read The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone) and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria) – and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, which covers the history of Ethiopia from around 1950-1980. I do prefer to stick to Walter Scott’s definition of historical fiction, though, which would rule out anything set less than sixty years before publication! Before I started blogging, I read Roots by Alex Haley and the Ramses series by Christian Jacq, but beyond these I’m struggling to think of anything else.

Can you recommend some good historical fiction novels set in Africa? Which are your favourites?

17 thoughts on “Historical Musings #7: Exploring Africa

  1. beckylindroos says:

    Historical fiction set in Africa and written by Africans is hard to find although the ones set in Egypt and South Africa are easier. There’s a whole crop of fiction writers from India now, there are historical reasons for this, but I won’t go into that. I also just finished Flood of Fire – excellent.

    The classic historical fiction from Egypt is The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz but there are other good ones. A super excellent and now classic work of historical fiction from Nigeria is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. From South Africa is James Mitchner’s The Covenant but that’s old and he’s not from Africa.

    Most of the novels on the shelves today set in Africa aren’t really historical fiction – they’re memoir fiction but some are really quite good – you mentioned a few and I’d like to add some classics (or close) that I’ve read and recommend:

    South Africa (the country) – authors – J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Alan Paton –
    Botswana – Alexander McCall Smith – Ladies’ #1 Detective Agency (not historical)

    East Africa –
    Somalia: Maps by Nuuradiin Faarax –

    West Africa –
    Nigeria: The Famished Road by Ben Okri – The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma novel (on Man Booker Short List for 2015)

    North Africa –
    Egypt – The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al-Aswany

    Again the books in the above paragraph are not what I’d call “historical fiction” (at least happens before the author’s birth!) – more like memoir fiction although they have some background in them and they’re written by folks from that country. There are more of course but these are close to classics.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for all of those suggestions, Becky! I haven’t read either the Cairo Trilogy or Things Fall Apart, but as you say, they are classics and I would like to read both at some point. The other books you’ve mentioned all sound interesting too, even if they can’t really be described as historical.

  2. Alex says:

    It’s an interesting question as to how far back you have to go for the subject matter in a novel to count as historic. I’m reading a crime novel at the moment set in 1947, just before I was born. I think I am approaching that as if it were historic crime, but if it had been set three years later then I’m not so sure I would. If I can remember the time can it be historic? If yes, then what does that say about me?

    • beckylindroos says:

      The name of the genre is confusing butI tend to call old books (Jane Eyre) historical literature or historical novels and save historical fiction for those books which are written today about a past which was prior to the times of the author.

      If an author of fiction has written about a time prior to his memory or experience then a lot more research was involved than if it happened within his lifetime and the tone of the narrative is different.

      With “historical fiction” an author will have to explain more about what this or that is – like in Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen didn’t explain what the “fee entail” was because her readers would know. If a similar story about the same times were written today, the book would be historical fiction and the author would need to explain what those inheritance laws were. The same with Middlemarch and the voting rights laws which were so important there.

      Because those books are about the times in which the authors and readers lived they’re just “old books’ and because they’re still in print they’re classics! I love classics – they’re like a window into the past.

      Some classics are also historical fiction – A Tale of Two Cities was written about the French Revolution (1789) but Dickens’ wasn’t born until 1812 and so he wrote it for his Victorian readers. The same with War and Peace by Tolstoy – about the French Invasion of Moscow (1812) but Tolstoy wasn’t born until 1828. (Tolstoy walked the battlefields of Austerlitz as some of his research).

      As a result it’s far easier to read historical fiction than to read classics – historical fiction is written for folks living at the time of the writing and things are explained.

      Heart of Darkness is not historical fiction because it’s partly based on Conrad’s own experience – that’s how it was in 1890 when he traveled there and he wrote it just 9 year after his own trip. That said, it is an historical novel and a real classic. The same as some others mentioned.

      (Sorry – I get windy on this subject.)

    • Helen says:

      Alex – It’s a difficult question to answer. I think what we define as historic really has to be a matter of personal opinion. I’m happy to use the ‘sixty years prior to publication’ rule set by the Walter Scott Prize as a guideline, but I have seen other people describe books set in the 1980s as historical fiction, which just doesn’t seem right to me!

  3. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    I was just thinking about this question! There’s a list at the “Historical Novels” site that may be helpful:
    http://www.historicalnovels.info/Africa.html. I haven’t read a single one of the books listed, more’s the pity.

    Otherwise, I can only think of Elizabeth Wein’s Lion Hunters books … technically not historical, as they’re based on an alternative Arthurian legend in which Mordred and his family take refuge in ancient Aksum (Ethiopia) after the fall of Camelot. But they’re realistically written and quite powerful.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks Lory! Apart from The Sultan’s Wife I haven’t read any of the books on that list either – most of the authors and titles are new to me. I love the sound of the Lion Hunters books, even if they’re not exactly historical.

    • beckylindroos says:

      Thanks for the link – very surprised to see The Ice Cream War (William Boyd) on the list. I’ve got that scheduled to read in a couple weeks – for a reading group. I’ve read a few of the books on that list but really only a very few – now there’ll be one more! lol

  4. daniellecobbaertbe says:

    Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed is all I can think of at the moment. It is set during the Second World War.

    From the list above I have read ‘What the days owes the night’. Sure there is also Albert Camus’ work. What I miss in the list is work by Doris Lessing. ‘The grass is singing’ is set in the 1940s, as well as ‘Martha Quest’.

    And an interesting novel, partly set in Africa, South America and Ireland is ‘The dream of the Celt’ by Mario Vargas Llosa. There are also Joseph Conrads books on Africa like ‘Heart of darkness’; haven’t read any books by Conrad though. And still to read: ‘Travels in West-Africa’ by Mary Kingsley which is a travel account rather than historical fiction.

    • Helen says:

      I have read The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed, but that one is set in the 1980s which is too recent for me to consider historical. Thanks for reminding me of Black Mamba Boy!

  5. whatmeread says:

    Flood of Fire, in fact the entire trilogy is excellent! I haven’t reviewed Flood on my blog yet, but I finished it a few months ago. Of course, all the Dunnett books are excellent, too. One book that I highly recommend that is set in Egypt and is part historical/part contemporary is The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif.

    Your mention of the definition of historical fiction is one I have mulled many times. The most useful definition I found was one that said it had to be before the time of the author’s recollection. Of course, that requires you to look up the author’s date of birth sometimes. But that’s what I’ve been doing with novels dated in, say, the 1950’s or 1960’s to decide if they are historical or not. The tough thing is that sometimes you can’t find the date of birth listed for some more recent authors, so you have to guess how old they look in their author photos.

    • beckylindroos says:

      Yes! Malla Nunn’s mysteries take place in apartheid South Africa – probably in the mid-1950s. Nunn was born in Switzerland to mixed race parents who escaped the mess of South Africa, but when was Malla born? – I have to guess because all I have to go on is pictures and I’d say she looks in her 50s but I doubt she would remember anything. So she has to do research of some kind – explaining things to folks who although they live there now, might not remember.

      The focus is the social milieu as two police officers investigate crimes – the lead detective is white and his assistant is black but the lead detective is an immigrant from England so doesn’t really know the ins and outs of apartheid. The assistant has to interview some folks the lead has to do others – but all is cool between the two of them. Nunn would likely have had help with this sort of thing from family members so I’m not sure if it’s really historical – otoh, she’s not remembering music and cars of the day – (the stuff of memoirs from crime novelists like Val McDermid or more literary novelists like Colm Toibin.)

      So I’d say yes, Nunn’s mysteries which take place are historical mysteries – and they are fine crime novels too – more interesting in some ways than conventional detective procedurals.

      Just a sample of what i look at when deciding –

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