Book Culture Spotlight: Nigerian Writers
Nigerian literature has long been equated with Chinua Achebe, whose Things Fall Apart was one of the first African novels to gain international acclaim, and Wole Soyinka, whose Death and the King’s Horseman famously complicated the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. But it’s easy to see that this simple equation is now being upturned by a new generation of Nigerian authors who are quickly becoming literary stalwarts themselves.
One shining example is Teju Cole, whose debut novel Open City won the PEN/Hemingwayin 2012. Cole’s new novel, Everyday is for the Thief, is fiercely local in contrast to his peripatetic and sweepingly metropolitan debut, which transported the reader from New York to Belgium and back again. The new book follows a young Nigerian man as he returns to Lagos for a short visit and becomes increasingly disconcerted by the jumbling of cultural signifiers–of Nigeria’s colonial past, of its fraught and violent present, and of its global future. What is at stake is a cultural whitewashing, the same force of effacement that the narrator experienced as a New York transplant. For Cole, who has reconfigured his Twitter into a political medium for commenting on drone warfare, this kind of international consciousness is far from rare, and he pulls it off masterfully here.
Another example is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has already written three novels and two collections of poetry. Long considered a premier Nigerian voice, her new novel, like Cole’s, tells of a Nigerian’s emigration and return to her home country. But it is also a love story in the vein of Ian McEwan, about a couple whose bond is tested by circumstances beyond their control–in this case, American immigration restrictions in the wake of 9/11, which grant Ifemelu entry but force Obinze into a hardscrabble, undocumented life in London. Both visceral and political, Americanah is a suspenseful read that also has much to say about a globalizing Africa and an expatriate’s responsibility to her native country.
With her debut collection of short stories Happiness, Like Water now out in paperback, Chinelo Okparanta revealed her skill at writing quiet but disarmingly affective prose. Suspicious of “ornamentation,” her subdued prose is offset by violent or sexually charged stories–a couple robbed of their Peugot, a Nigerian immigrant reconsidering his sexual orientation, a lesbian visa applicant faking an interest in oil spills–that move, like Okparanta (who immigrated to the US when she was 10), in setting from Nigeria to America. Keep an eye out for her forthcoming novel, which is due out from Houghton Mifflin in the Fall 2015.
As a fairy tale that rests on the synonymy of beauty and absolute whiteness, Snow White has been due for reconsideration, and Helen Oyeyemi (author of four previous novels, notably Mr. Fox) more than capably rises to the challenge. In a small Massachusetts town in 1953 Boy Novak marries a local widower, Snow Whitman, and gives birth to his daughter, Bird. Though Snow is ostensibly white, Bird is born dark-skinned, exposing his African-American genealogy. A story of aesthetic obsession like its predecessor, Boy, Snow, Bird questions how much power surfaces really hold and how true they are in representing the depths of a person’s nature.
Besides their acuity, what these authors share is their Nigerian heritage and their Western immersion. Like Jhumpa Lahiri, Akhil Sharma, and Zadie Smith, they are fundamentally concerned with the lives of immigrants and the complicated influence of the West–corrupting, in a sense, but also nourishing–on where they and their families come from. American publishing is increasingly turning its eyes towards the international community for material and inspiration: works in translation by the likes of Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard creep ever upward on the New York Times Bestseller List, publications like Words Without Borders draw further attention to prominent international writers, and stalwart imprints like Penguin Classics are making a concerted effort to publish writers well-known in their country of origin but unfamiliar here (a prime example being The Time Regulation Institute by the Turkish author Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar). As this trend continues, these voices will become ever more important in elucidating the relationship between the West and the rest of the world. The opening up of the American literary community to previously unrepresented populations, even just from a mathematical point of view, can only spell good things for the future of storytelling.
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