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Originally published Sunday, May 4, 2014 at 6:21 AM

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Novels of the African Diaspora: A reading list

Books of note by Dinaw Mengestu, Teja Cole, Chimamanda Ngozi and others.

Seattle Times book editor


Lit Life

Dinaw Mengestu wrote one of the most haunting novels I have read this year. “All Our Names” features two narrators: an Ethiopian man swept up in a 1970s revolution in Uganda that turns into a dictatorship, and the American social worker who tries to help him once he emigrates to this country.

It has stuck with me because of its stark but lyrical evocation of the loneliness of the immigrant, and it made me think of other talented young novelists I have read or heard of recently, all of African heritage, all from families who emigrated to America or Britain.

Then I heard Mengestu, a Georgetown University professor and MacArthur “genius” grant winner, say something that inspired an “aha!” moment. In an interview on “Well Read,” the books-and-authors program on state public-affairs network TVW that I appear on each week, Mengestu put this surge of literary talent into historical perspective:

“You didn’t have that many African migrants come to the U.S. until the 1970s,” Mengestu said. “We needed to have the civil-rights movement. We needed to have colonialism come to an end in Africa. We needed to feel the frustration of a post-colonial world, where a lot of those men that were once great leaders and heroes now became dictators and tyrants.”

America and Britain are experiencing a flowering of literature by the children of these immigrants. Their parents fled upheaval in Africa in search of a better life. Now their children are writing about it. Here’s a shortlist of books you shouldn’t miss by these authors, including Mengestu:

Mengestu has written two other novels, “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” (a 2008 Seattle Reads selection, which was adapted into a play by Book-It Repertory Theatre) and “How to Read the Air.”Both draw on the struggles of Ethiopian families to find new lives in America and their children’s quest to understand the world and history of their parents.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: This young Nigerian-born woman of incendiary talent won this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award this year for her novel “Americanah.” It’s about a razor-sharp young Nigerian woman who settles on America’s East Coast. Through her eyes we see both American attitudes about race and Nigerian immigrants’ nostalgia for home, even when Nigerian reality is not quite what they remember.

Teju Cole: The son of Nigerian parents, Cole was born here but raised in Nigeria, and is now writer-in-residence at Bard College. I loved his novel “Open City,”about a half-German, half-Nigerian psychiatrist who takes to walking New York City’s neighborhoods as therapy for his own problems. As he walks, he returns to his memories, trying to sort out what it means to be an African immigrant in this country. Cole has just released a Nigeria-set novel, “Every Day is for the Thief.”

Here are some other authors suggested by Mengestu:

Maaza Mengiste. Born in Addis Ababa and now a Brooklyn resident, Mengiste is the author of “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze,” set during turmoil in Ethiopia in the 1970s as it transitioned from the reign of longtime emperor Haile Selassie to a ruthless Marxist dictatorship.

Nadifa Mohamed. Born in Somalia, Mohamed’s family moved to London for a temporary stay and when war broke out in Somalia, they decided to remain. Her latest book is the novel “The Orchard of Lost Souls,” about a trio of women caught up in the Somali civil war.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or

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