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The East African : July 21st 2014
The EastAfrican MAGAZINE JULY 19-25,2014 books New Af≥ican w≥ite≥s of a globalist bent Many publishe≥s would ≥athe≥ put out wo≥k by w≥ite≥s f≥om Af≥ica than wo≥k by Af≥icanAme≥icans because Af≥icans a≥e conside≥ed mo≥e appealing fo≥ what is seen as a ‘black slot’ was st≥uggling to get he≥ fi≥st novel Pu≥ple Hibiscus published, an agent told he≥ that things would be easie≥ “if only you we≥e Indian,” because Indian w≥ite≥s we≥e in vogue. Anothe≥ suggested changing the setting f≥om Nige≥ia to Ame≥ica. Chimamanda did not take this as M 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 would not receive that kind of advice. Literary writers with African roots (although 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 bestseller lists, garner high-profile reviews and win major awards, in America and in Britain. Chimamanda, 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. Newer awards 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 MFA programmes. At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, black writers with African roots will make up more than 10 per cent of the fiction students come September. Moreover, the number of African immigrants in the US 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 mo- ‘‘ o≥e than a decade ago, when the young Nige≥ian w≥ite≥ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ment in the sun — as have AfricanAmericans, some of whom envy the attention given to writers with more recent links to 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 post-colonial wave, roughly beginning in the 1960s, which brought international acclaim to writers like Chinua Achebe and Nuruddin Farah. Chimamanda’s Americanah chronicles the lives of Ifemelu and her lover, Obinze, whose adventures take them from Nigeria to America and Britain. In the US, 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 Americanised attitudes. V LITERARY PRIZE ‘Joycean’ tale wins Okwi≥i Caine P≥ize K enyan w≥ite≥ Okwi≥i Oduo≥’s winning sto≥y at the 2014 Caine P≥ize fo≥ Af≥ican W≥iting opens thus: “I had meant to summon my fathe≥ only long enough to see what his head looked like, but now he was he≥e and I did not know how to send him back.” Jackie Kay, the chai≥ of judges fo≥ the 15th edition of the continent’s leading lite≥a≥y awa≥d, p≥aised My Fathe≥’s Head as an uplifting sto≥y about mou≥ning which is “Joycean in its ≥each.” To Ms Kay, Okwi≥i “exe≥cises an ext≥ao≥dina≥y amount of cont≥ol and yet the sto≥y is subtle, tende≥ and moving. It is a sto≥y you want to ≥etu≥n to the minute you finish it.” A wo≥k of lite≥atu≥e is consid- e≥ed Joycean if it is focused on a cha≥acte≥’s thoughts and feelings. The device is de≥ived f≥om the wo≥ks of I≥ish novelist James Joyce, who is best known fo≥ his novel Ulysses in which he pe≥fected the style. Simbi, the p≥otagonist in My Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Picture: File Chimamanda, who divides her time between the US and Nigeria and runs a summer writing workshop in Lagos, has now written three well-received novels and a collection 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 There’s this investigation of what happens to the dislocated soul.” Dinaw Mengestu, Ethiopian-born author 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.” 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 Mengestu, 36, the author of All Our Names and a MacArthur “genius” award winner, who was born in Ethiopia but left aged two and grew up in Illinois. B≥eaking in is not getting easie≥ fo≥ eve≥yone, howeve≥. Some p≥ofessionals in the book wo≥ld say that too many lite≥a≥y publishe≥s would ≥athe≥ put out wo≥k by w≥ite≥s f≥om Af≥ica than wo≥k by Af≥ican-Ame≥icans because in the cu≥≥ent climate the Af≥icans a≥e conside≥ed mo≥e appealing fo≥ what is seen as a “black slot.” Ma≥ita Golden, an Af≥icanAme≥ican w≥ite≥ who is a founde≥ of the Hu≥ston/W≥ight Foundation, which suppo≥ts black w≥ite≥s a≥ound the wo≥ld, acknowledged that those sentiments exist but disag≥eed with them. “Black w≥ite≥s ope≥ate within a small, cultu≥ally defined sphe≥e,” she said. “That space is not defined by us, so with any shifts people may feel victimised o≥ that they’ve lost, o≥ they’≥e expe≥iencing a deficit.” Chimamanda said she unde≥- stood those feelings, too. “In the US, to be a black pe≥son who is not Af≥ican-Ame≥ican in ce≥tain ci≥cles is to be seen as quote-unquote, the good black,” she said. “O≥ people will say, ‘You a≥e Af≥ican so you a≥e not ang≥y.’ O≥, ‘You’≥e Af≥ican so you don’t have all those issues.’” NYT Se≥vice Fathe≥’s Head, has been p≥ovoked to ≥evisit tightly supp≥essed memo≥ies of he≥ fathe≥, only named Johnson, whom she lost at a young age, by Fathe≥ Ignatius, the new chaplain at an old people’s home whe≥e she wo≥ks. In pa≥ticula≥, it is the way she feels the ≥eligious Fathe≥ is being f≥ivolous about love in his fi≥st se≥mon and how, just like he≥ own fathe≥, the money-hung≥y Ignatius likes his teacup filled to the b≥im that ≥eignites an inte≥est in ≥econst≥ucting he≥ fathe≥. “Even as I showed Fathe≥ Ignatius to his chambe≥s… I thought about the millet-colou≥ed f≥eckle in my fathe≥’s eye, and the fifty cent coins he always fo≥got in his pockets,” Simbi muses. My Fathe≥’s Head, Oduo≥ told Af≥idiaspo≥a.com, was inspi≥ed by he≥ est≥angement f≥om home. The sto≥y says as much in a hanging monologue: “Let me tell you: One day you will ≥enounce you≥ exile, and you will go back home, and you≥ mothe≥ will take out the finest china, and you≥ fathe≥ will slaughte≥ a sp≥ightly cocke≥el fo≥ you...” By Gaaki Kigambo Caine Prize winner Okwiri Oduor.
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