Tuesday, 30 April 2013

A worthy successor to the late great Chinua Achebe

The loss of Chinua Achebe last month was met with sadness by lovers of literature all over the world but most especially those on the African continent who grew up reading the likes of  Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah. His was a generation of resistance to colonialism and celebration of Africa in its post  independence era. I've often wondered whether my generation is capable of producing such literary masterpieces as Camara Laye's "l'Enfant Noir" or Ngugi Wa Thiongo's "Weep not child". Like the music of our parents and grandparents' generation it seemed that the best had come and gone.
However a few years ago I started discovering a new generation of African writers - almost by mistake, because I wanted to offer readers who visited my bookshop a wider choice of African and African diasporan writers. Years later when the BBC ran a poll in the UK to find the 100 greatest books of all time or 'big reads' as they were called, I was irritated by the lack of African and African-diasporan writers on the list. I decided to compile my own list in consultation with friends, a list that focused exclusively on African and non-Western writers. I was surprised at how easy it was to reach 100 and in fact limit the list to 100. The African writers or writers of African descent featured on the list included Chris Abani, Dayo Forster, Andrea Levy, Aminatta Forna, Diran Adebayo, Edwidge Danticat and many more. A name that appeared twice because of her two impeccably written novels was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A country woman of Achebe who shares not only his ethnicity but was also fortunate to have received praise from this literary giant.
What struck me when I read Purple Hibiscus, Adichie's first novel, was in fact its simplicity and lack of pretension  At last I had found a story I could relate to told by someone with a natural understanding and knowledge of the subject matter and cultural setting. Often I found so many works of fiction set in Africa or dealing with an African subject matter came across either as the work of an anthropologist (usually White) observing his subjects for the purpose of an scientific study or as an overzealous effort by an African to sell his book or receive critical acclaim in the West by perpetuating the age-old stereotypes about the continent. Adichie by contrast tells stories of ordinary Africans, middle class, hard working, with flaws and above all relatable. In Half of a yellow sun, we witness her ability to interweave history into fiction without overdoing it. It never feels like you're reading a Masters dissertation - the facts provide a context for the story - a thread that runs throughout but she doesn't lecture the reader or burden her/him with far more information than is necessary. Her third offering - a series of short stories entitled The thing around your neck took a more lighthearted turn - showcasing Ms. Adichie's humour and allowing us to laugh at ourselves - our modern day selves - grappling with a range of sometimes banal, sometimes profound issues.
And now with the release of her latest novel entitled Americanah, Ms. Adichie demonstrates unequivocally why she is a worthy successor of Chinua Achebe. Far from being a epic work, it is the simplicity and relevance of Americanah that makes it such a stellar offering. What Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie offers to the contemporary reader - especially the African of her generation is an account, a recording of our reality. The stage - post independence Africa - provided a setting for the likes of Buchi Emecheta and Ousmane Sembene, for Ms. Adichie and her contemporaries it is  instead - the 21st century Western World/ Africa of Africa's renaissance and America's first Black President. This modern world, observed by Ms. Adichie is inhabited by a nomadic urban-dwelling population of Afropolitans - moving from the continent to the West effortlessly....switching accents and influencing whatever sphere they find themselves in.
Although there are many writers of her generation like her, some already mentioned, others include Lola Shoneyin, Chika Unigwe, Irene Sabatini and Tsitsi Dangarembga, I would argue that Ms. Adichie's talent shines the most in part because its polished yet down-to-earth and in part because she herself reflects the modern African. She shares her time between the USA and Nigeria. She is intelligent yet unprententious in her writing, we need not reach for a thesaurus or dictionary in order to appreciate her storytelling. She has knack for creating characters - both her main protagonists and passing ones that are multi-dimensional, ones that make us laugh at loud and remind us of people we've met along the way.  Commendably she has avoided the go-to themes for Africa of conflict, chaos and helplessness. Her novels showcase the good and bad of Africans and Africa but mostly they showcase the ordinary -the human stories that we hope those outside the continent will recall when they interact with us - not the stories of corruption, war and famine but those told by Ms. Adichie of family, aspirations, love and everything in between. With the loss of one great writer, we're thankful for another and grateful that our stories continue to be told in way that reflects both our simplicity and our complexity.

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