New Wave of African Writers with an Internationalist Bent

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the premiere, in Lagos, Nigeria, of the film “Half of a Yellow Sun,” based on her novel. (Credit: Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters)

More than a decade ago, when the young Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was struggling to get her first novel, “Purple Hibiscus,” published, an agent told her that things would be easier “if only you were Indian,” because Indian writers were in vogue. Another suggested changing the setting from Nigeria to America. Ms. Adichie didn’t take this as commentary on her work, she said, but on the timidity of the publishing world when it came to unknown writers and unfamiliar cultures, especially African ones.

These days she wouldn’t receive that kind of advice. Black literary writers with African roots (though some grew up elsewhere), mostly young cosmopolitans who write in English, are making a splash in the book world, especially in the United States. They are on best-seller lists, garner high profile reviews and win major awards, in America and in Britain. Ms. Adichie, 36, the author of “Americanah,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction this year, is a prominent member of an expanding group that includes Dinaw Mengestu, Helen Oyeyemi, NoViolet Bulawayo, Teju Cole, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and Taiye Selasi, among others.

The Ethiopian-born novelist Dinaw Mengestu in 2010, when his book “How to Read the Air” was published. (Credit: Ed Ou for The New York Times)

There are reasons for the critical mass now, say writers, publishers and literature scholars. After years of political and social turmoil, positive changes in several African nations are helping to greatly expand the number of writers and readers. Newer awards like the Caine Prize for African Writing have helped, too, as have social media, the Internet and top M.F.A. programs. At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, black writers with recent African roots will make up more than 10 percent of the fiction students come September. Moreover, the number of African immigrants in the United States has more than quadrupled in the past two decades, to almost 1.7 million.

And publishing follows trends: Women, Asian-American, Indian and Latino writers have all been “discovered” and had their moment in the sun — as have African-Americans, some of whom envy the attention given to writers with more recent links in Africa.

“People used to ask where the African writers were,” said Aminatta Forna, author of “The Hired Man” (2013, set in Croatia). “They were cleaning offices and working as clerks.”

Some writers and critics scoff at the idea of lumping together diverse writers with ties to a diverse continent. But others say that this wave represents something new in its sheer size, after a long fallow period. (There were some remarkable exceptions, like Wole Soyinka’s 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature and Ben Okri’s 1991 Booker Prize.) And it differs from the postcolonial wave, roughly beginning in the 1960s, which brought international acclaim to writers like Chinua Achebe and Nuruddin Farah, among others.

There are more women, for one thing. More important, the stories being told, while sometimes set in Africa, often reflect the writers’ experiences of living, studying or working elsewhere and are flecked with cultural references — and settings — familiar to Western audiences.

Ms. Adichie’s “Americanah” chronicles the lives of Ifemelu and her lover, Obinze, whose adventures take them from Nigeria to America and Britain. In the United States, Ifemelu writes a popular blog about her growing racial consciousness and finds love with American men, both black and white. Back in Nigeria, her friends use the word “Americanah” to tease her about her Americanized attitudes.

Ms. Adichie, who divides her time between the United States and Nigeria and runs a summer writing workshop in Lagos, has now written three well-received novels and a book of stories. She has amassed awards and has a movie adaptation this year of her novel “Half of a Yellow Sun,” about the Biafran war. She even made it into a Beyoncé song: “Flawless,” released in December, sampled several lines about feminism from a public lecture she gave.

The success of “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2006), after the critical embrace of “Purple Hibiscus” (2003), was a major factor in sending publishers scrambling to find other talented African writers.

The flowering of new African writers is “an amazing phenomenon,” said Manthia Diawara, a professor of comparative literature and film at New York University. “It is a literature more about being a citizen of the world — going to Europe, going back to Lagos,” he said. “Now we are talking about how the West relates to Africa and it frees writers to create their own worlds. They have several identities and they speak several languages.”

Ishmael Beah, the author of a memoir about the Sierra Leone civil war and now a novel, “The Radiance of Tomorrow.” (Credit: Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

But for all the different themes and kinds of writing, the novelist Dinaw Mengestu said that he saw a thread. “There’s this investigation of what happens to the dislocated soul,” said Mr. Mengestu, 36, the author of “All Our Names” and a MacArthur “genius” award winner, who was born in Ethiopia but left at age 2 and grew up in Illinois.

The novelist Okey Ndibe, 54, said for his part, “My reflexes are shaped mostly by life in Nigeria, but so many aspects of me are in the American mode.” His second novel, “Foreign Gods, Inc.,” is about an educated Nigerian in New York eking out a living as a taxi driver. Mr. Ndibe, who arrived in America in 1988, said that as someone coming from a place where being black was the norm, he became fascinated by the experience of American blacks. “My protagonist’s life in America is as important as his life in Nigeria, if not more so,” he said.

Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, agreed that “there is a new, self-aware internationalism” and “a much more welcoming interest” in this country, too. Earlier generations, he added, “had it much harder.”

Breaking in isn’t getting easier for everyone, however. Some professionals in the book world say that too many literary publishers would rather put out work by writers from Africa than work by African-Americans because in the current climate the Africans are considered more appealing for what is seen as a “black slot.”

Marita Golden, an African-American writer who is a founder of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, which supports black writers around the world, acknowledged that those sentiments exist but disagreed with them.

“Black writers operate within a small, culturally defined sphere,” she said. “That space is not defined by us, so with any shifts people may feel victimized or that they’ve lost, or they’re experiencing a deficit.”

Ms. Adichie said she understood those feelings, too. “In the U.S., to be a black person who is not African-American in certain circles is to be seen as quote-unquote, the good black,” she said. “Or people will say, ‘You are African so you are not angry.’ Or, ‘You’re African so you don’t have all those issues.’ ”

Publishers, not surprisingly, tend to disagree with the idea that African-American writers are being overlooked now. “Hogwash,” said Robin Desser, vice president and editorial director at Alfred A. Knopf and Ms. Adichie’s editor. “When the next Toni Morrison comes around I can say that publishers will go crazy.”

Given the inroads they have made and the new roots they have planted, African writers say they have proved they are much more that a trend.

“My hope is we all become part of the canon, not just here but internationally,” said Ishmael Beah, 33, who lives in the United States. His 2007 memoir, “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,” about Sierra Leone’s civil war, was a best seller. His novel, “Radiance of Tomorrow,” about the aftermath of that conflict, came out this year.

“We all have a lot to say,” Mr. Beah said, “and we realize that we have to speak for ourselves about the diversity, the difficulties, the beauty of this continent.”

article by Felicia R. Lee via nytimes.com

One thought on “New Wave of African Writers with an Internationalist Bent”

  1. What I saw reading this article was just beyond shameful, deplorable and disgusting: I saw African writers playing the stereotype of the needy African hustler (in America, the hellhole of white supremacy) who needs a second chance to solicit interest from Western/white publishers. How pathetic and nauseating!

    As an African myself, I disagreed with a plethora of things in this article. They were more than misinformed, at times they bordered on willful ignorance. Firstly, Adichie’s remark of her ‘if only you were Indian’ story. I don’t know if she does this to exaggerate her hardships in attempting to find a publisher, but she’s been gradually embellishing her story over the years – at first she said they disagreed with her work because ‘it wasn’t African enough’, i.e. it wasn’t a confirmation of the West’s stereotypes of Africans – the bush, jungle etc. Now she’s taken the Indian line. SMH. That is a new low for her. And personally, I only know of two Indian writers, worthy of my memory: (1) Rushdie – whom I think is actually a great writer; (2) Naipal – whom I find a lazy researcher & a repugnant racist; the rest have never really made me wish to follow up on their work.

    Another thing I disagreed with is this line:

    “After years of political and social turmoil, positive changes in several African nations are helping to greatly expand the number of writers and readers.”

    Not true. Afro-European literature, as I’ve come to label literature that comes from Africa in English, and its writers has always been in profound numbers, especially in times of sociopolitical unrest. In fact, a majority of them, including great African writers as Achebe, suffered racist criticism from white critics of literature because they regularly liked claiming (unjustifiably so) that literature and politics are two seperate entities. Extensive treatment of this subject and the hogwash arguments of its white advocates can be found in the book Towards The Decolonisation of African Literatue by Chinweizu et. al. Whether in sociopolitical turmoil or not, Africa has never run short of writers at all. In fact, a writer like Ngugi wa Thiongo, who is a professor of comparative literature in the US, had a substantial audience in India because of the political nature of his narratives as they resonated with locals and academics there. Ngugi still writes today, with his last novel (translated by himself) being only some two years ago – Wizard of the Crow. However, he no longer writes in English.

    Another line I disagreed with:

    “People used to ask where the African writers were,” said Aminatta Forna, author of “The Hired Man” (2013, set in Croatia). “They were cleaning offices and working as clerks.”

    What load of B.S.! Where did you find this moron?! Just because this character is not familiar with great African writers like Yvonne Vera, Zakes Mda, Chris Abani, K. Sello Duiker, Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, Zoë Wicomb, Njabulo Ndebele, Phaswane Mpe etc. does not mean that they do not exist. If it was the intention of this moron to garner the sympathy of white publishers by playing the stereotype of the needy African who needs a second chance, then believe me, he succeeded. If I wasn’t as informed as I am, even I, as a Black person, would be sold. The article continued:

    “There are more women, for one thing. More important, the stories being told, while sometimes set in Africa, often reflect the writers’ experiences of living, studying or working elsewhere and are flecked with cultural references — and settings — familiar to Western audiences.”

    Ah, the unfamiliar African jungle setting where men ventures at his own peril! There go I but for the grace of god! If it is the intention of the writer of this article to suggest that this literature has garnered interest because of the familiarity of the settings to Western, i.e. white, audiences, then he/she (and perhaps these ignorant dumb writers) has entirely missed the point of literature itself. Who are the intended audiences of these writers? Are they not African or of African descent? Then why should they care what whites think of their work and the settings thereof? Moreover, why did white audiences who are avid and serious scholars of literature able to read and appreciate Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, when it was littered with ancient African settings and customs not familiar to Westerners? You people need to assess your arguments, they’re beyond childish.

    The only thing I agreed with here is the remark by mama Marita Golden. She expresses that:

    “Black writers operate within a small, culturally defined sphere,” she said. “That space is not defined by us, so with any shifts people may feel victimized or that they’ve lost, or they’re experiencing a deficit.”

    Very true. It is a sphere also defined by unconscious racism, including internalised self-hatred by Black writers to seek to explore other alternatives.

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