"Tell Our Own Stories": Contemporary African Women's Fiction
The Thing Around Your Neck
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009, 224 pp., $24.95, hardcover
I Do Not Come to You by Chance
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
New York: Hyperion, 2009, 403 pp., $15.99, paperback
An Elegy for Easterly
New York: Faber and Faber, 2009, 224 pp., $22.00, hardcover
Women Writing Zimbabwe
Irene Staunton, Ed.
Harare, Zimbabwe: Weaver Press, 2008, 134 pp., $24.95, paperback
Reviewed by Heather Hewett
A new generation of African writers is making waves on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States and Europe, several African-born writers have sold their books to mainstream houses and have topped bestseller lists; on the African continent, the development of new publishing houses and collectives, literary magazines, and writing networks (many of them with online components) have provided space and encouragement for emerging voices. Fans, critics, and scholars of African literature in English have, by turn, welcomed these developments and asked probing questions about dramatic shifts in the literary landscape: Is African literature moving from a publishing “ghetto” to the center stage of “world” literature in English? If so, what will this mean for African literature? Will the Western media machine continue to latch onto stories that fit stereotypes of what “Africa” is, or will African writers have a greater freedom to tell the stories they want to tell? And finally, a question of interest to readers of this publication: how are women writers faring within all these changes?
Judging from the pile of books on my desk, a growing cohort of women writers is faring quite well. While they may not be publishing in equal numbers to their male peers, women are occupying a more central role in the publishing landscape than previously. Partly because of feminist presses (particularly worth mentioning is Women Writing Africa, the four-volume series put out by the Feminist Press, which revises African history with its rich collection of texts by female storytellers, performers, and writers that were assembled and edited by a global team of scholars) and also because of African-based initiatives, women writers are beginning to reap the rewards of both feminist and nationalist work as well as the less tangible benefits of heightened visibility. Equally important, women writers living abroad (of which there are high percentages, mirroring African writers more generally) have access to Western publishing houses and a range of institutions—MFA programs, writing workshops, and women’s writing networks. I do not mean to suggest that gender gaps have been eradicated; they persist, with various manifestations in different African countries. Nor do I mean to suggest that all women have equal access to publishing; certainly class and education differences among women deeply affect the ability to write and publish, and African literature on the continent remains dominated by male writers. Even so, the trend is upward: more women writers are publishing, and their work is reaching new audiences at home and abroad.
Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, co-founder of Cassava Republic Press in Nigeria, believes that structural changes in the publishing landscape may continue to open up avenues for African women writers. In a recent email exchange, Bakare-Yusuf observed that the new generation of African writers and readers wants different stories from the “monolithic narrative about Africa that gets produced in and for the Western market.” In her view, “only African publishers are going to be brave enough to publish… everyday life stories rather than the grand narrative of war, genocide, and victimology that has become the mainstay of books that eventually become popular in the West.” One implication for women may be an increased autonomy and authority to write the stories they want to write—a freedom that may not necessarily adhere to the desires of Western readers or, for that matter, male readers on either side of the Atlantic.
This possibility is borne out by the books on my desk: one novel and three collections of short fiction penned by established and emerging women writers under the imprint of large and small publishers in the United States, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria. These books tell stories by turns arresting, hilarious, and heartbreaking. With their exploration of such issues as everyday life, domesticity, female desire, resilience, and globalization, these books provide fresh perspectives and narratives that expand and in some cases challenge many readers’ ideas about “African literature.”
Arguably the most visible African woman writer at the moment is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian-born fiction writer whose writing demonstrates an impressive range of artistic and intellectual acumen. Lauded by the literary establishment, the winner of a MacArthur Fellowship and several literary prizes, Adichie writes with a sensibility attuned to the rich literary and cultural heritage present not only in postcolonial African literature but also more broadly, in Anglophone world literature. The author of two novels, Purple Hibiscus (2003), a young girl’s coming-of-age story set in Nigeria, and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), a historical epic about the Biafran civil war, Adichie’s new short fiction collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, demonstrates the her mastery of the short-story form. A perceptive and subtle writer, Adichie captures in elegant and precise prose the deep wells of complex emotion under the surface of characters living in and moving between Lagos, Philadelphia, Nsukka, small-town New England, Kano, Brooklyn, and Princeton. And while many of these stories have appeared in other publications (including The New Yorker and Granta), reading the collection in its entirety reveals the degree to which The Thing Around Your Neck maps the complex experiences of diaspora and migration, the unspoken haunting produced by displacement that can constrict the breath and weigh down the present.
The steadiness of the author’s gaze on the psychic spaces that can erupt between intimate friends and family frequently produces a wrenching effect. Many (though not all) of her characters are women who suddenly find themselves emotionally estranged or displaced and must find the inner strength to confront these distances. Unlike many canonical migration narratives, most of which focus on men’s experiences, these stories give voice to female longing and desire: one woman at long last rejoins her husband in Philadelphia, only to find that she no longer knows him; another woman, haunted by the secrets of her past, returns to her childhood Nigerian home and discovers that the object of her girlhood desire cannot unburden her of her ghosts. If intimates can suddenly prove strangers, so too connections (however fleeting) can manifest themselves with those we don’t know. In “A Private Experience,” a University of Lagos student who is visiting her aunt in a Northern Nigerian city is saved during a religious riot by a stranger, an older, illiterate Hausa woman; later she learns that other Igbo Christians (most likely including her sister) were killed by Hausa Muslim zealots.
If much remains silent and subterranean in Adichie’s fiction—a restraint that invites the reader to contemplate the inner turmoil and longing sustained within individual lives—Adichie’s reflections about the complexities of writing as a African-born female writer emerge as well. “The Headstrong Historian,” for example, continues the story of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, but from the perspective of a minor female character, Nwamgba. Her granddaughter becomes an historian engaged in the project of recovering West African history who realizes the deep links between “the hard, obvious things that are printed in books and the soft, subtle things that lodge themselves in the soul.” Even more pointedly, the protagonist in “Jumping Monkey Hill,” a young Nigerian woman attending an African writers’ retreat in South Africa, must contend with the leering looks of its founder, the white “Oxford-trained Africanist” who claims that the plot of her story is “implausible.” These stories suggest how the creation of African literature remains contested territory; external ideas about “Africa” and “African writing,” however unwanted, can infiltrate a writer’s psyche and manifest themselves at the very beginning of her creative process. Adichie unabashedly presents stories that neither reassure nor comfort Western audiences but rather explore the continuing impact of unequal power relations on literature itself.
Adichie, like several other writers of her generation, has been able to publish her books simultaneously with African and foreign houses. Nigerian readers can buy her titles from Farafina Books, an imprint of the independent Lagos-based publishing house Kachifo Limited. Farafina is one of several publishers producing books far more cheaply than US or European houses; its first title, Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, costs 400 naira, or about $2.72, at the time of this writing. (Other titles range from 1,000 to 1,500 naira; the mass-market edition of Adichie’s novel is priced lower to make it available to secondary school students, who must read the book for their exams.) Kachifo’s slogan, “Tell our own stories,” combines with an Internet-savvy approach characteristic of many recently founded houses on the continent.
While some writers are publishing exclusively with African-based publishers, others are following Adichie’s lead. Take, for example, Nigerian writer Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani. I Do Not Come to You by Chance, Nwaubani’s debut novel about digital Africa and the business of “419” scams, is published by Hyperion in the United States and by Cassava Republic Press in Nigeria. Its author looks to contemporary Nigeria for her inspiration and finds a rapidly transforming society, its values of education, respect, and hard work supplanted by corruption, easy money, and consumerism. A fast-paced tale of con artistry and satire, I Do Not Come to You by Chance blends humor and social commentary in its examination of the lives of the scammers who compose and send fraudulent e-mails to the inboxes of strangers.
Twenty-five-year-old Kingsley Ibe, the first-born son of educated parents, narrates the story. Despite graduating top in his class in chemical engineering, and despite many interviews, his life has been placed on hold. He cannot get a job without help from a “long-leg”—a friend, or a friend of a friend; without a job, he cannot pay for his parents’ medical bills, his siblings’ education, or his girlfriend’s bride price. With his diabetic father near death and his mother and siblings falling into poverty, Kingsley finally turns to the family’s black sheep, his Uncle Boniface (“Cash Daddy”). Under Cash Daddy’s tutelage, Kingsley begins his career as a 419 scammer, learning to coax millions of dollars out of naïve and greedy mugus (victims) who, like gamblers, believe that the next payment will lead them to their windfall. Sympathetic to Kingsley’s plight, I found myself chuckling at the hilarious e-mail exchanges, often interwoven with the narrator’s clever commentary. “I DO NOT COME TO YOU BY CHANCE,” his missives proclaim, and the sender can’t bring himself to believe that anyone will actually fall for his bait.
But fall for it they do. When Kingsley initially feels guilty, his uncle points out that these foolish Western mugus do not belong to Kingsley’s family, the direct beneficiaries of the successful scams. Besides, Cash Daddy points out, what about the slave trade and “all the things they stole from Africa, have they paid us back?” Nwaubani complicates matters further by listing all the things Kingsley’s uncle’s money buys: the upkeep of orphans, the tarring of roads, the installing of streetlights, the building of a primary care health center. “So, no matter what the media proclaimed, we were not villains, and the good people of Eastern Nigeria knew it,” Kingsley comments, a fact that leads directly to his uncle’s new career as a politician.
Nwaubani’s caper-filled escapade provides plenty of laughs, and the novel’s exuberant spirit fuels the absurd (and at times inconceivable) e-mails authored by its narrator. But no matter how much money he makes, Kingsley cannot buy his mother’s respect, and therein lies the rub. While the well-crafted and smart novel spins an enjoyable tale for readers, its more sobering insights provide a Nigerian perspective on familiar themes of con artistry, virtue, and greed in a globalized world.
E-mail scams also fuel the plot of one of the stories in An Elegy for Easterly, Petina Gappah’s debut collection of short fiction, which won the 2009 Guardian First Book Award. In Gappah’s “Our Man in Geneva Wins a Million Euros,” a 55-year-old Zimbabwean man, a low-ranking civil servant on his first foreign posting and “a latecomer to the Internet and all its glories,” gets taken in by fellow Africans—and the results prove far from hilarious. Other stories follow characters as they navigate the political and economic tumult that has increasingly plagued Zimbabwe over recent years, and trenchant commentary emerges. In the book’s first story, a widow listens to a long-winded, nationalist funeral oration by the unnamed president while she reflects back upon the reality of her philandering husband’s life; the title story provides an elegy for Martha Mupengo, an outcast woman touched by “lunacy” and living in a forgotten Harare slum. These stories, like many in An Elegy for Easterly, testify to the resilience of those left behind, symbolized by the “sinuous / tenacity of a tree” (lines from Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism,” the volume’s epigraph).
The collection’s best stories focus on vastly different experiences of ordinary, everyday life in Zimbabwe. “In the Heart of the Golden Triangle” is addressed to a second-person “you”: a woman married to a successful Zimbabwean businessman, trapped in the “golden triangle” of houses owned by diplomats and bankers, where women have abandoned their schoolgirl achievements and dreams to live an existence circumscribed by their identity as wives, mothers, and consumers. Other stories bring a sense of wry humor to their keen observations about human behavior: a fully Americanized “cousin-sister” returns from the United States for her father’s funeral and, despite the fact that she is constantly “on the verge of departure,” continues to stay; a retired coffin maker dances his way to a championship in his town and makes the headlines. These stories bristle with life, captured in musical prose that reverberates with Zimbabwean names of people and places, snatches of Shona conversation, remembered verses from childhood songs, and quotations from the work of Lewis Carroll, T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, and Stephen King.
Many of Gappah’s stories have been previously published elsewhere, including one (“In the Heart of the Golden Triangle”) in the fiction anthology Women Writing Zimbabwe. Published by Weaver Press, a Zimbabwe-based publisher co-founded by Irene Staunton in 1999, this anthology features fifteen short stories penned by a range of writers. Like Gappah, many of them have left Zimbabwe, though most of their stories are set in Africa. Despite the assortment of writing styles, tone, structure, and sensibilities—differences that can feel jarring at times—certain thematic convergences surface from the collection as a whole.
Several stories explore individual and familial experiences of contemporary medical scourges, such as AIDS and cancer. Vivienne Ndlovu’s “Bare Bones” examines the inner turmoil of a nurse asked by a dying patient for a final favor; Valerie Tagwira’s “Mainini Grace’s Promise” explores the impact of AIDS on a family and denies its readers the reassurance of a happy ending. Other stories explore the lingering impact of past trauma on the present: Blessing Musariri’s “Tichafataona Sleeps” deftly juxtaposes the lives of Eustina and Cornelius—happily married and living in the suburbs in the “new, free and reconciled nation”—and Eustina’s brother, still haunted by the national liberation war. Musariri’s poetic prose builds to the story’s devastating conclusion, which echoes with the cruel truths left in death’s wake. Despite the end of war, the story suggests, violence can continue to ricochet and wreak havoc in peaceful homes.
The publication of Women Writing Zimbabwe speaks to the resilience and resourcefulness of Zimbabweans, as well as to the vision of the founder of Weaver Press, who is still publishing books in Harare. In a recent e-mail message about writing and publishing during a time dominated by economic collapse and political repression, Staunton explained that her belief in literature keeps her going; as she puts it, “good literature reflects realities from different perspectives and is an essential form of truth-telling.” The truths of these stories invite us into different realities; it is up to us to accept their invitation.
Heather Hewett is an assistant professor of English and Women’s Studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz, where she coordinates the Women’s Studies Program and teaches courses in postcolonial African and world literature, women’s literature, and transnational feminism. Her work on women writers has most recently appeared in Women’s Studies Quarterly and Expressions of the Body: Representations in African Text and Image (2009).