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Updated: Jan 11, 2021

Chinua Achebe–trailblazer

Nigerian writer, 70, Chinua Achebe, who gave us a lesson in writing African fiction westerners, is pictured on January 19, 2009 during a welcoming ceremony at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja upon his return to Nigeria for the firrst time in over 10 years. Achebe, whose most famous work is 1958's "Things Fall Apart," is a literature professor at Bard College in New York state. AFP PHOTO / Abayomi Adeshida (Photo credit should read ABAYOMI aDESHIDA/AFP via Getty Images)

Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) at 70 (Photo:   ABAYOMI ADESHIDA/AFP via Getty Images)

Written in 1958, Chinua Achebe‘s Things Fall Apart was one of the first African novels to receive international acclaim, and perhaps Achebe was among the first of modern African authors to teach us about writing African fiction for westerners. A complex cultural exploration of Nigeria’s Igbo people, Things Fall Apart is the story of Okonkwo, a leader in an Igbo village in Nigeria in the 1890s, who deals with his personal struggles against the backdrop of British colonialism.

Considering the depth of the Igbo tradition in the novel, it’s a wonder that western audiences embraced the work so whole-heartedly. According to R. Victoria Arana, a professor of English at Howard University, Things Fall Apart was transformational. “It had a profound re-ordering of the imaginative consciousness for people in Africa,” she said. “The book was a part of the re-storying of people who had been knocked silent.”

Writing on Achebe’s genius, philosopher and intellectual  Kwame Anthony Appiah encapsulates it beautifully: ” . . . Achebe solved a problem that these earlier novels [like Palm Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola] did not. He found a way to represent for a global Anglophone audience the diction of his Igbo homeland, allowing readers of English elsewhere to experience a particular relationship to language and the world in a way that made it seem quite natural—transparent, one might almost say. Achebe enables us to hear the voices of Igboland in a new use of our own language. A measure of his achievement is that Achebe found an African voice in English that is so natural its artifice eludes us.” In the question of whether “true” African literature should belong to African language only, Achebe was quite clear that, “I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.”

There is, indeed, a subtlety, complexity, and nuance in Achebe’s voice, and many African authors have tried to emulate it to varying degrees of success. It’s rather like trying to lasso a whale: it will escape every time even if it’s within your grasp. Things Fall Apart seems to have been written entirely on its own terms. I’m skeptical that such is the case for African novels nowadays, i.e. that the African voice has completely free rein to roam. I suspect that fiction from Africa is more commercially driven than it was back in the 1950s, so that the Westerner must at all costs understand the work for it to be financially successful.

The mid-20th-century renaissance 

During the late colonial and early postcolonial period, African literature by the likes of Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka, Ayikwei Armah, and Ama Atta Aidoo sprang to life. It would be a mistake to believe that African writing began when Africans learned the language of their colonizers. The history of African literature reaches far before that, but in the 1950s to 60s, African literature tackled the conflicts between the indigenous and the invading imperial forces. Later works addressed the challenge of neocolonialism: African bureaucrats as corrupt as the ex-colonials. Both Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o and V.S. Naipaul tackle this in their novels, PETALS OF BLOOD and A BEND IN THE RIVER respectively, but with radically different approaches.

Cover of novel A BEND IN THE RIVER BY V.S. NAIPAUL, one of the authors who knew about writing African fiction westerners
Cover of the novel PETALS OF BLOOD by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, who is experienced in writing African fiction Westerners

Present times

Now, we have another golden age of African literature, particularly with heralded works out of Nigeria. After a lull, it seems American publishers began to pay attention to new African authors who write in the diaspora for western readers. Contemporary African writers are probably more “internationalist” than the 20th-century group. In his article, Aaron Bady describes how Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie  joked that, “I’m not part of a secret society of African writers that meets in some dark basement.” The international flavor of contemporary African authors can be seen in novels like Americanah, Foreign Gods, Inc, Ghana Must Go, Edible Bones, Homegoing by Adichie, Okey Ndibe, Taiye Selasi, Yaa Gyasi, and Unoma Azuah respectively. There are others too numerous to mention here, but the recognizable theme running through these examples is the transatlantic experience in the United States and West Africa in modern times and/or during the slave era. Western editors, particularly American ones, appear to have fallen in love with this narrative and have often gushed over them. This is not to imply that the books are not well written, but at least for some time, the trope appeared formulaic for success. We will see what the rest of the century brings us.

Stark truths

  1. Most readers will be in the USA, the UK, not in Africa. It’s a tough irony that the large majority of readers in the country where the novel is set will not get to read the book.

  2. Reading of fiction is not as widespread, or as important, in sub-Saharan Africa as it is in the West. This is changing, however. There are more and more African book clubs, some of which I’ve been a Zoom guest.

  3. There isn’t a well-developed, wholesale book distribution system in most if not all of Africa, e.g. Baker and Taylor or Ingram. That means African bookstores ordering books at retail from the UK or US. However, one of the best bookshops in Accra, Vidya Bookstore, was able to negotiate a reduced price from the UK publishers of my novels.

  4. Publishers need to make money, and authors need to be successful if they want to continue getting published. It would be difficult to claim that African writers in the diaspora don’t bear this in mind, even if subconsciously.

What to do?

My experience as an author writing African fiction for Westerners is that I walk a thin line writing mysteries set in Ghana. There is a push-pull aspect of it. I want to be authentic, but I want my readers to understand unfamiliar aspects of culture. My suggestions to budding “African authors” writing in the diaspora are these:

  1. Push the envelope as you represent Africa in your stories. What your editor and your readers can tolerate may surprise you.

  2. If you feel that a turn of phrase or a description is quintessentially related to the setting of your novel, be assertive about keeping it in the manuscript.

  3. On the other hand, can you express it another way that retains its originality but increases understanding?

  4. As a matter of style, I avoid throwing in indigenous words in the middle of English sentences in an attempt to flavor dialogue with the setting unless that is the way the character really talks. I believe it’s better to write sentences completely in the indigenous language and either translate them or make the context plain.

  5. Start at the top of the ladder–you can always climb down a few rungs. Write for the setting–you can tone it down later.

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