Nigeria’s young authors are not always ‘heirs’ to their literary forebears

Chigozie Obioma, whose book The Fishermen has been nominated for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. Supplied

Chigozie Obioma’s Man Booker Prize nomination for The Fishermen follows by more than ten years that of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus in 2004. No other Nigerian writer has made it to the prize in between. The similarities between Obioma and Adichie are striking.

Both writers were in their 20s when nominated for the prize. Both are currently living in the US where they emerged from creative writing programmes. Both debut novels are coming-of-age stories and both authors, for their style and ethnic background, have been variously described as “heirs” to Chinua Achebe.

The connection to this African literary giant, and to his masterpiece, Things Fall Apart, is explicitly established by Adichie in the opening line of Purple Hibiscus:

Things started to fall apart at home when…

It is Obioma’s ability to combine the novel form with the storytelling tradition that has been deemed Achebean.

As strongly as this comparison may stand, framing younger writers’ work within the footsteps of giants is always fraught with predictable risk. This is the risk of shadowing the merits (and faults) of the former in an attempt to assess the legacy of the latter.

More relevantly to Nigerian writers today, the risk is also that of nurturing replication rather than innovation in a world market that, when it comes to Africa, is keen to have readers reassured in their notions.

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. Supplied

‘Africanness’

One such notion is the essential “Africanness” of texts from or about Africa. It is an intangible but sellable quality that has already been subject to scrutiny when it comes to specific prizes such as the Caine Prize for African Writing. The prize has been criticised even by writers for indirectly encouraging authors to conform to external expectations of what a “good” African story should be about.

It has also significantly been accompanied by debates such as that surrounding yet another emerging writer, Tope Folarin, winner of the 2013 edition of the Caine Prize. He is said by some to lack the necessary connections to Africa – he has spent most of his life in the US – to classify as properly “African”.

This sort of polemic, as sterile as it may be, does remind us of the subtle dynamics behind the success of a good story, and of novels in particular. The deep institutionalisation of writing through programmes and prizes – a main gap between Africa’s literary greats and the younger generations – partially implies a crystallisation of writing from or about Africa.

Within this context, while Achebe above all fought against a stereotyped narrative of Africa in literature, the work of younger authors risks establishing a new tradition of writing about the continent that may also lead to stereotype.

Achebe is not the only author whose influence on the younger generations is tangible. Obioma has repeatedly indicated Amos Tutuola, author of the first African novel in English published outside of Africa, as his main reference point.

Adichie’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, heavily owes in plot and spirit to Chukwemeka Ike’s Sunset at Dawn. Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation (2005) may be considered a revisitation of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy, whose exceptional language Iweala sets on to recreate.

Theoretical and detached

When younger authors are confronted with Nigerian history, however, their approach is often more theoretical and detached than that of their predecessors. This is mainly because most of them are born and/or reside elsewhere.

But, it also because their writing about about Nigeria’s vicissitudes is arguably undertaken more to grasp a fragmented identity than to play an active role in the country, such as that played by Wole Soyinka with his political writings, or by Achebe himself.

Issues of identity are also central in the work of Teju Cole, born in Michigan to Nigerian parents but raised in Lagos, with the controlled, surgical prose of his highly acclaimed Open City, and his first novella Every Day Is for the Thief moving between the US and Nigeria.

The perspective changes dramatically when one comes to authors that are born and bred in Nigeria. A. Igoni Barrett’s novel Blackass is a most interesting example. Freely inspired by Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the novel subverts the stereotyped perception of black and white people alike.

It follows Furo Wariboko in his adventures. He wakes one morning to find he has become white – with the notable exception of his backside. The predictable and less predictable consequences of such as an unexpected change, however, offer an insight into Nigerian politics and daily life that go well beyond racial issues, certainly still a factor in today’s Nigeria.

Twitter style

While this book may lack the beauty of Obioma’s or Cole’s prose, it has the merit of discussing topics like racial passing and transvestism. It also incorporates the language of social networks in several pages written in Twitter style.

The employment of the internet and its platforms does indeed represent an important addition to the career of emerging writers, whose work may come to be associated with surprising, if not altogether new, campaigns.

This is the case with a blog, Abulu Sightings, set up by a group of Obioma’s friends. As the website states, in association with The Fishermen will display:

… photos of derelicts, demented people throughout Africa, in order to raise awareness of their predicament to the attention of African governments.

While this is unlikely to have the impact of, say, Soyinka’s guerrilla theatre in newly independent Nigeria, this is a laudable campaign. It may also have relevant cultural implications. “Demented people” make for some of the most remarkable characters throughout Nigerian fiction. Abulu – the madman whose prophecy is at the core of catastrophe in Obioma’s novel – is no exception to this.

Should it prove only half as successful as the novel, the blog should therefore provide an invaluable source of visual material against which Nigerian literature both past and present – alongside more urgent matters – can be discussed.