Post-Achebe African Writers
“Today as we celebrate the life of Chinua Achebe,” wrote African scholar Njoki E. Wamai on Orange Prize winner and MacArthur Fellow Chimamanda Adichie’s Facebook page, the day after Achebe’s March 21, 2013, death, we are “so grateful to him for placing African stories and experiences firmly in the mainstream through his path-breaking novels and for inspiring a whole generation of African novelists such a Chimamanda Adichie whom we now celebrate. We must write our own stories as Nana [Nana Sekyiamah, Ghanaian writer] reminds us with the death of Achebe…let's remember him by starting to write our lived experiences.”
Wamai’s advice to “write our lived experiences” captures both the literary community’s pain at losing Achebe, a literary giant whose most famous novel Things Fall Apart caused a seismic change in global literature, and also, many writers’ sense of hope that Achebe’s legacy may live on in a new generation of African writers.
This generation of successful writers, many of whom come from Achebe’s native country of Nigeria (novelist Unoma Azuah says that Nigeria’s literary influence may be due to “sheer numbers”; according to Vanguard Media Limited, Nigeria’s estimated population is between 160 and 167 million), have a sense of gratitude towards Achebe, who as Happiness Like Water author (First Mariner Books, 2013) Chinelo Okparanta explains, showed Africans as “deeply thinking, deeply intellectual.” But Achebe’s death also raises the “where are we now” questions for many of Africa’s young, prize-winning authors. Achebe famously criticized Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as racist, and in his writing and political life, fought against westernized images of Africa, but today is there a need to be political in quite the same way? And in a postmodern, Web-linked world, in which global literature is being shown increasing attention, what does it mean to be an African writer anyway?
These ideas about a “new generation” of post-Achebe writers were explored when, three months after Achebe’s death, Granta editor Ted Hodgkinson asked Nigerian short story writer A. Igoni Barrett if he felt a “part of a generation at all,” and “if the death of Chinua Achebe [was]...galvanizing or divisive for those that follow him”? Barrett deemed this question “too soon” to answer, but it’s an idea Adichie explores five days after Achebe’s death, in an interview with the Lagos-based Channels Television. In the interview, Adichie explains that Achebe’s work was authentic because Achebe seemed to be free of anxiety of influence and the need to imitate other writers (perhaps because, in Achebe’s time, there were so few writers writing about Africa from the perspective of Africans); as such, Adichie says, Achebe simply wrote the stories he wanted to write. Still, Adichie says that Achebe’s influence was freeing: “My generation of Nigerian writers are able to write because he wrote. In many ways, [Achebe] paved the way…he gave us the confidence and the permission to write.”
Still, though Achebe had many admirers, he also had his critics. Writing for the Vanguard, Adichie describes how Achebe’s last book, There Was a Country, was criticized for its portrayal of Nigerian politician Obafemi Awolowo’s role in the Nigerian-Biafra war. (Awolowo was beloved by some Nigerians for the advancement he made in education, but criticized for blocking food and aid to the Igbo people.)
"Ultimately, this kind of frankness is what earned Achebe respect," says Uche Nduka, author of nine books of poetry, most recently Nine East (SPM London, 2013). “Achebe wasn’t afraid to talk about what makes people uncomfortable,” says Nduka, “His importance arises from that. You don’t know how many African countries paid tribute to him when he died. Achebe refused to play politics.”
While Achebe may have been criticized for being too overtly political, some members of the new generation of African writers say that they are criticized for not being political enough, for not being “African” enough.
“I don’t have any humongous political agenda,” says Okparanta, who admits to having received some painful criticism from other Africans for writing about color and class conflicts within Nigerian communities, “but I want us to see ourselves in these characters. That’s all I’m striving to do. These characters [in Happiness Like Water] come out of a desire to show things as they really are.”
Tope Folarin, who, as a Nigerian-American who has never lived in Africa received the 2013 Caine Prize amidst a flood of criticism, is noticeably disturbed when he’s asked if he considers himself to be an African writer.
“In 2013, there is something about that question that seems deceptively simplistic,” Folarin says. “I think people have any number of identities, and whenever people ask that question, people don’t recognize the multiple identities they also have.” Today, we live “in a world where people could go online and be any number of things… we could all assume any number of identities. And people aren’t questioning this.”
Okparanta acknowledges that today’s generation of African writers celebrate Folarin’s win, as it represents how complicated the issue of identity is for many African writers. “I’m excited to see Tope win the prize,” Okparanta says. “And so what if he wasn’t born in Nigeria? It’s an African story that resonates with us, and the author’s birthplace of does not invalidate that. It’s a good thing to recognize and offer that sort of validation to those of us who have left. It makes sense that the prize would pick up for someone who is not born there.”
Perhaps the reason that this post-Achebe generation of young African writers--who are well-traveled and educated and producing diverse work ranging from pure science fiction (Nnedi Okorafor) to the surreal (Chris Abani) to the hyper-real (Noviolet Bulawayo)—are so successful is that they are grappling with the same issues many people are: living in a post-modernist world where the very concept of identity is fluid.
“I’m never comfortable unless I’m traveling,” says Olumadebo Fatunde, an emerging poet and 2013 Bread Loaf Writers’ conference participant. Fatunde adds that the process of immigrating from one country to another “detonates our psyches,” which is the reason today’s African writers are “always writing our displacement from ourselves, our displacement from dignity, home, traditions.”
Still, some of the new African writers argue that acknowledging other identities (Adichie’s latest novel Americanah is based, in part, in the United States) doesn’t make a writera any less African.
“I’m an African writer in love who is in love with New York as a place,” says Nduka. “I’ve lived in Lagos, Amsterdam, Bremen (Germany), but wherever you’re from that’s what makes you unique. My African-ness comes out—I don’t have to force it. The Nigerian is always at work, and it comes out.”
Rochelle Spencer has an MFA from New York University and is co-edited All About Skin: An Anthology of Short Fiction by Award-Winning Women Writers of Color (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014). Her other work appears or is forthcoming in Callaloo, Publishers Weekly, the African American Review, Poets and Writers, and the Crab Creek Review, which nominated her essay, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Woman," for their Editor's Choice Award and for a Pushcart Prize.