Tag: Teju Cole

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: Going Back to Lagos in Teju Cole’s “Every Day Is for the Thief”

Author Teju Cole and the cover of his book, "Every Day is For the Thief." (©Teju Cole / Random House)
Author Teju Cole and the cover of his book, “Every Day is For the Thief.” (©Teju Cole / Random House)

Imagine a patient, observant and precise writer like the late W.G. Sebald reborn as a Nigerian exile, returning to and then wandering about that country’s teeming and chaotic cultural capital, Lagos. That, in broad strokes, is the voice of the narrator of Teju Cole‘s fine novel, Every Day Is for the Thief.

“The air in the strange environment of this city is dense with story, and it draws me into thinking of life as stories,” Cole’s unnamed narrator says halfway through the novel, as he becomes more deeply immersed in the disorder, the striving, the corruption and the inventiveness of Lagos and its people. “The narratives fly at me from all directions … And that literary texture of lives full of unpredictable narrative, is what appeals.”

Cole earned a large following in the United States for his PEN Faulkner Award-winning Open City, published in 2011. That novel told the story of a Nigerian immigrant and his wanderings in New York City and other places.  The U.S.-born Cole was raised and educated in Nigeria. Before he wrote Open City, he had written Every Day Is for the Thief, his first book, published in Nigeria in 2007, and which Random House is now issuing in the United States for the first time.

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