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Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood

Trevor Noah
CATEGORIES: Person/Place/Event | Sense of Culture

This is one of the few books where I’ll insist you “read” the audio version. Hearing Trevor Noah tell his own story will have you alternately laughing and crying as he recounts memories of Apartheid’s brutality in one breath and pooping on his kitchen floor the next, all the while switching effortlessly between one of the eight (!) languages he speaks. (I’m pretty sure my friends are sick of my telling them to go read/listen to this now.)


J. M. Coetzee
CATEGORIES: Classic/Culturally Significant | Sense of Culture

This dazzlingly well-written book by the Booker Prize winner deals with the complexities of life in post-Apartheid South Africa, where issues of race create a constant thrum and shifting dynamic. A disengaged, sensual (one might say predatory) college professor — who’s crossed a few lines but perversely refuses remorse — repairs from Cape Town to live with his estranged single daughter on a remote farm. There he’s faced with ironies of privilege and vulnerability, the drama of Apartheid. Events — there’s plot aplenty — unspool unexpectedly and shockingly in a kind of microcosm of a nation rising from its past — messy, haunting, moving. Repentance can be found, but you have to look for it, which is why this book grips you so hard. Uncomfortable and addicting. Could not put it down.

(Recommended by Kate Zentall, writer/editor)

Long Walk to Freedom

Nelson Mandela
CATEGORIES: Person/Place/Event

Revolutionary. Prisoner. Leader. Nelson Mandela was all those things and so much, much more. The autobiography of his early life and 28 years in prison on the notorious Robben Island detail his struggle against apartheid and his subsequent rise to political power.

The Promise

Damon Galgut
CATEGORIES: Person/Place/Event

The family saga in the 2021 Booker Prize winner spans multiple generations against the backdrop of Apartheid. On her deathbed, an Afrikaner wife makes her husband promise to give their Black domestic servant the house she lives in on the family’s farm, but the infighting about the matter among family members continues over the next several decades. The New Yorker likened Galgut’s novel to the works of James Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, while Harper’s Magazine raved, “The Promise evokes when you reach the final page, a profound interior shift that is all but physical. This, as an experience of art, happens only rarely, and is to be prized.”


Yvette Christiansë
CATEGORIES: Person/Place/Event

While the brutalities of Apartheid are relatively well-known, South Africa’s history of slavery is written about far less. In this PEN/Hemingway Award finalist, the first-time author fictionalizes the account of the real-life Sila, a slave convicted of murder and sentenced to hard labor on the notorious Robben Island (where Mandela spent much of his imprisonment). The work of historical fiction offers insight into the Dutch reaction to British anti-slavery laws, as well as the response of the indigenous Xhosa.

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