Tag: Helen Oyeyemi

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.

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BOOK REVIEW: Helen Oyeyemi’s “Boy, Snow, Bird” Turns a Fairy Tale Inside Out

Helen Oyeyemi
The cover of “Boy, Snow, Bird” and author Helen Oyeyemi. (Piotr Cieplak / Riverhead)

The risks that Helen Oyeyemi takes in her fifth novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, are astonishing in their boldness.  “Nobody ever warned me about mirrors,” begins the narrator, Boy, a pale white girl in Manhattan’s East Village whose rat-catcher father beats her until she runs away to a small town in Massachusetts and marries a man she doesn’t love. It is 1953. The man she doesn’t love, a widower, has a small child, also very pale and very beautiful, and very beloved by all, named Snow.

In time, Boy and her husband have their own child, Bird, who is black; this is how Boy discovers that her husband and much of his family have been passing for white. Urged by her husband’s family to give up her telltale baby, Boy instead makes a hard choice: She sends the beloved Snow away.  “Snow is not the fairest of them all,” Boy insists. “And the sooner [they all] understand that, the better.” Love, that magical power, makes Boy protective and destructive at once.

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