Introduction to African Literature and Film Course

Undergraduate seminar taught regularly at Princeton University

Who can compete with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Joyce? Are there great books of African literature? Indeed, Nigerian literature is one of the great literatures of the twentieth century. Ethiopian literature is one of the oldest literatures in the world. South Africans have won more Noble Prizes for Literature in the past forty years than authors from any other country. African books have long participated in a global traffic in invention: the medieval African narrative of the Kebra Nagast may be the most important book you have never heard of; the Malian Sunjata epic shaped canonical American literature; Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard changed the way novels were written; Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy has been tricking careless readers for fifty years; Ken Saro Wiwa’s Sozaboy is a dazzling experiment in language; E. M. Coetzee’s Foe rewrites Western literature in a mere 160 pages; Chris Abani’s Daphne’s Lot strips masculinity bare; and Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions is one of the best depictions of the perils of education to have been written. In terms of film, Senegalese films include some of the finest films ever made. In this course, we will focus on some of the best books from Africa published since 1950 and one from 1312. This course is not an introduction to African cultures; it is focused on close readings of these brilliant and difficult texts, attending to their diction, syntax, grammar, imagery, connotations, and modes of aesthetic signification. We  study the richness and diversity of foundational texts of African literature—including novels, poems, and dramas)—as well as films (some originally in French or Arabic), while foregrounding questions of aesthetics, style, humor, and epistemology. Some themes will include colonialism, war, gender, and language.

Regularly Assigned Texts


Norton Anthology of Modern African Drama, ed. Jeyifo

Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry, eds. Moore & Beier


​Tawfiq Al-Hakim’s Fate of a Cockroach (Egypt, 1966)

Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman (Nigeria, 1975)

Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Nthsona’s Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (South Africa, 1972)

Novels, Epics, Biographies, and Dramas

Yisḥāḳ, Kəbrä Nägäśt (The Glory of the Kings) trans. from Gəˁəz by E. A. Wallis Budge (Ethiopia, 1321, trans. 1921)

Galawdewos, The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros (1672, trans. 2015)

Djanka Tassey Conde’s Sunjata: A West African Epic of the Mande Peoples, trans. from Manding by David Conrad (Mande/Mali, 1300s, trans. 2004)

Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard (Nigeria, 1953)

Ferdinand Oyono’s Une vie de boy (Houseboy) trans. from French by John Reed (Cameroon, 1956)

Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God (Nigeria, 1964)

Luis Bernardo Honwana’s Nós Matámos o Cão-Tinhoso (We Killed Mangy-Dog and Other Stories), trans. from Portuguese by Dorothy Guedes (Mozambique, 1964)

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (Zimbabwe, 1989)

Ken Saro Wiwa’s Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English (Nigeria, 1985)

Chris Abani’s Daphne’s Lot (Nigeria, 2003)

Sefi Atta, A Bit of Difference (2012)


Cocorico M. Poulet (Cock-A-Doodle-Doo! Mr Chicken) by Damouré Zika, Lam Ibrahim Dia, and Jean Rouch (Niger, 1974, 90 min)

I Told You So by Egbert Adjesu (Ghana, 1970, 97 minutes)

Quartier Mozart by Jean-Pierre Bekolo (Cameroon, 1992, 80 minutes)

Tey (Today/Aujourd’hui) by Alain Gomis (Senegal 2012, 86 minutes)

Cairo Station (Bab El Hadid) Youssef Chahine (Egypt, 1958, 77 minutes)

The Figurine Kunle Afolayan (Nigeria, 2009, 120 minutes)

Sisters in Law by Florence Ayisi and Kim Longinotto (Cameroon, 2005, 104 minutes) A moving must-see documentary about two Cameroonian lawyers who aid women in family court. Screened at over 120 festivals.

Daratt (Dry Season) by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Chad, 2006, 96 minutes) A boy is sent to kill the man who murdered his father but ends up working for him. Won the 2006 Venice Film Festival Special Jury Prize.

Life, Above All (South Africa, 2010, 100 minutes)

Saaraba by Amadou Saalum Seck (Senegal, 1988, 86 minutes)

Fathers (Surrender [Tanzania], A Barber’s Wisdom [Nigeria], The Father [Ethiopia], 2000) by Celine Gilbert , Ermias Woldeamlak and Amaka Igwe (78 minutes)

Pumzi by Wanuri Kahiu (Kenya, 2009, 21 minutes, on youtube)


Gälawdewos, “Mälkəˀa Wälättä P̣eṭros,” trans. from Gəˁəz by Derek Gideon ‘12 (Ethiopia, 1672, 2015)

Wole Soyinka, “Death in the Dawn”  (Nigeria, 1967)

Léopold Sédar Senghor, “A New York” (To New York), trans. from French by Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier (Senegal, 1956)

Antonio Jacinto, “Poema da alienação [Poem of Alienation]”; “Carta dum contratado [Letter from a Contract Worker]” Poemas, trans. from Portuguese by Michael Wolfers (Angola, 1960)


Other Films

If there were world enough and time, we would also watch:

Yeelen (Brightness) by Souleymane Cissé (Senegal, 1987, 105 minutes). A young man with magical powers journeys to request help in fighting his sorcerer father. Won the 1987 Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize.

Thunderbolt (Nigeria, 2000, 110 minutes). One of the best from Nollywood, the booming video industry of Nigeria (third largest producer of feature films). A love story with a supernatural horror twist.

Ainsi meurent les anges (And So Angels Die) (Senegal, 2001, 56 minutes). Pushes formal boundaries in depicting a troubled Senegalese poet with his French wife and their children.

Faat Kiné by Ousmane Sembene (Senegal, 2000, 121 minutes). One of the best films by the “father of African cinema,” about a Senegalese businesswoman and the “everyday heroism of African women.”

O Heroi (The Hero) by Zézé Gamboa (Angola, 2005, 97 minutes). Follows a war veteran after the end of the forty-year Angolan Civil War. Won the 2005 Sundance World Dramatic Cinema Jury Grand Prize.

Tsotsi by Gavin Hood and Athol Fugard (South Africa, 2005, 94 minutes). Tsotsi is a teenage gangster who hijacks a car and discovers a baby in the back seat. Won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

La Vie Est Belle (Life Is Beautiful) by Ngangura Mweze & Benoit Lamy (Congo, 1991, 83 min). Starring Soukous music legend Papa Wemba, tells the story of a poor musician who seeks fame in Kinshasa’s music industry

  • Other Books

If there were world enough and time, we would also read:

Al-Tayyib Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (Mawsim al-Higra ila ash-Shamal) (Sudan, 1966)

Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow (South Africa, 2001)

Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Devil on the Cross

Ousmane Sembene’s Les bouts de bois de dieu (God’s Bits of Wood)

Camara Laye L’Enfant Noir (The Dark Child)

Daniel O. Fagunwa’s The Forest of a Thousand Demons

Ayi Kwei Armah The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born

Tahar Ben Jelloun The Sand Child

Ben Okri Famished Road

Bessie Head A Question of Power

Buchi Emecheta The Joys of Motherhood

Ama Ata Aidoo Our Sister Killjoy

Mariama Bâ So Long a Letter

Assia Djebar L’Amour, la fantasia

J. M. Coetzee The Life and Times of Michael K.

Naguib Mahfouz Palace Walk

Athol Fugard Master Harold … and the Boys

Nadine Gordimer The Pickup

Thomas Mofolo Chaka

Chris Abani Kalakuta Republic

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Half of a Yellow Sun

Abdulrazak Gurnah By the Sea

Ahmadou Kourouma Allah Is Not Obliged

Alaa-Al-Aswany The Yacoubian Building

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani I Do Not Come to You by Chance

Abraham Verghese Cutting for Stone

See also Africa’s 100 Best Books of the Twentieth Century