Beyond the Realm of the Exotic Locating the African in African Literature

Half of a Yellow Sun is my favourite novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In addition to its intricate plot and beautiful narrative style, it was my first comprehensive encounter with the affairs of Nigeria’s civil war. I use the term ‘comprehensive’ deliberately. My father fought for Biafra during this war, and so playful military drills, war songs, and combat simulations were part of my childhood. I remember quite vividly my father’s shouts of ‘Attention!’ and ‘Atice!’ (At Ease!)’ as my two siblings and I marched into a straight line to be inspected. We desperately fought back fits of giggles as he stiffly marched back and forth, inspecting our ranks and pointing out out-of-place uniforms and imaginary overgrown moustaches.

Sometimes these drills ended or began with personal anecdotes of the war, like how he was sure he had been killed by shrapnel, only to look down and find a dead grasscutter in the spot where he had been squatting. We named this grasscutter ‘Dimpka’ and held a mock funeral for it; it was the least we could do after it had taken the hit that would have killed our father. Or how the bunker he hid in at one time was the only one not shelled by the Nigerian Army that day. These were my first, and for a long time, only stories of the war. Half of a Yellow Sun, however, supplied the whys and hows of the war, something Nigeria had failed to do up to that point. For this reason, I suspect it will always be my favourite Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel.

My reasons for liking Americanah, my second favourite of Chimamanda’s novels, are unique—Americanah was the breath of fresh air I did not know I needed. I was introduced to African literature with the primary school classics; Nzekwe’s Eze Goes To School, Osamwonyi’s Ali And Simbi and Onwu-Otuyelu’s Ifeanyi And Obi. Secondary school wove in stories like Ike’s The Bottled Leopard, Achebe’s Chike And The River, Onadipe’s Sugar Girl, Koin’s Time Changes Yesterday and Second Chance, Okoro’s One Week One Trouble, and Iroh’s Without A Silver Spoon. These were relatable stories that I enjoyed and remember fondly but, nine years later, I found myself devouring Americanah with an eagerness that took me by surprise. How did I go from merely enjoying African literature to needing it like ‘fresh air’?

Chinua Achebe, one of the world’s most prolific writers, told stories he knew, stories he could relate to. Even his fictional societies, like Anthill of the Savannah’s Kangan, could easily be a number of African societies of that period. However, to the rest of the world developing at a different pace and in a different way, Achebe’s stories seemed so far removed that African literature became synonymous with the fantastical, the exotic. Somewhere between Things Fall Apart and Americanah, African literature became homogenous, as opposed to being defined by the origin of its authors’ characters or settings, as with American literature, Australian literature, Asian literature, etc. Yes, African literature is generally set in Africa, but there is an expectation that the stories are of a certain temperament, and that temperament is heavy. This New York Times job advertisement for a Nairobi bureau chief published in 2019, an extract of which is below, demonstrated this expectation and caused a fair bit of outrage.

Our Nairobi bureau chief has a tremendous opportunity to dive into news and enterprise across a wide range of countries, from the deserts of Sudan and the pirate seas of the Horn of Africa, down through the forests of Congo and the shores of Tanzania. It is an enormous patch of vibrant, intense and strategically important territory with many vital story lines, including terrorism, the scramble for resources, the global contest with China and the constant push-and-pull of democracy versus authoritarianism.

The ideal candidate should enjoy jumping on news, be willing to cover conflict, and also be drawn to investigative stories. There is also the chance to delight our readers with unexpected stories of hope and the changing rhythms of life in a rapidly evolving region.

The advertisement received strong backlash, my own Twitter tirade included, and so I will refrain from going on another rant here. I will emphasize, however, that the advertisement perfectly highlights my point as to the temperament expected from stories coming out of Africa—factual or fictional.

My reacquaintance with African literature post-secondary school featured books like Kourouma’s Allah is Not Obliged, Wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow, and Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come To You By Chance, and though I loved them, I too had come to associate African literature with a certain heaviness. So, when Chimamanda penned a love story, I could not put it down because even though I could not directly relate to the backdrop of race-relations, Obinze and Ifemelu’s love story was a theme I could (finally) relate to. It was the closest thing to African chick lit I had come across in a very long time and I seized it with both hands. I then began to wonder if I was the problem: did I mostly find representation in ‘western’ narratives and if yes, what did this say about me? Was I not African enough for African literature? Perhaps I just wasn’t reading the right stories?

To explore (and disprove) this, I began to read all the popular, award-winning novels and the more I read and enjoyed these stories, I realized how remote these narratives were from my own experiences. I found it hard to relate to the backdrops of war, colonialism, and political oppression, when my own struggles at the time were navigating romantic relationships, sneaking out to parties with friends, and trying to stay on top of my grades at school. While these storylines are important, they overshadowed or left little room for the representation of the more relatable everyday experiences. Because, the way African literature presents, one would think that we do not have everyday experiences, or that our everyday experiences are always exotic.

This is not to say that these stories push narratives that are untrue. Early African writers like Chinua Achebe and Ama Ata Aidoo did not go out of their way to write stories they thought would be approved by the rest of the world; they wrote these stories because these were the stories they knew and experienced. Africans grappled with ‘real issues’ like dictatorship, war and poverty and had limited time for the merits of the intangible. It just so happened that these narratives received western interest and validation via fancy establishments and awards, which then became tools to tell us which of our stories had merit.

Even the Caine Prize, arguably Africa’s leading literary award (established only in 2000), has its origins tied to an English gentleman, Sir Michael Caine. It follows, therefore, that African writers from later generations favoured the ‘tried and tested’ narratives of their predecessors in a bid for the same validation. Writers were no longer writing about what they knew but what they should know. It did not matter whether or not they had different contexts and experiences beyond those expected.

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs comes to mind when I consider the themes that make a novel a ‘classic’ in western literature versus African literature. For example, Emily Brontë’s Jane Eyre attained ‘classic’ status through exploring universal themes of love, family, spirituality, gender roles and social class; themes belonging to the psychological and self-fulfilment levels of Maslow’s pyramid. Contrastingly, African literature classics, even Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, mostly revolve around ‘bottom-pyramid themes’ like war, colonialism, politics and poverty. We need to be seen by the rest of the world to be dealing with the more ‘African’ themes of poverty, corruption, etc. How dare African literature venture to explore topics at the top of the pyramid without dealing with the things at the bottom? We have let others define and dictate what our experiences should be, because, like Achebe said, ‘people create stories create people; or rather stories create people create stories.’

I would be remiss in painting every single piece of African literature with this brush. There are some stories that border on ‘less serious’ themes than conflict, poverty, and the usual tropes. They are mostly found tucked in dark-lit corners of bookstores, waiting for a reader, whose budget does not stretch far enough to buy the much higher-priced, award-winning ‘African literature’ text of the moment, to take a chance on them. These stories fight their way from corner shelves into window displays by employing elements of the fantastical. Take Ayobami Adebayo’s, Stay with Me, for instance. A great story about infertility and infidelity had to feature a smattering of unnecessary military coup drama, and the unconvincing premise that a grown woman living in a city in the 1980s did not know what an erection was.

If Stay With Me were simply a story about a family’s struggle with infertility, would it have been popular enough to make it into this essay? Alternatively, stories must be written by an already established author to get this level of recognition. In another of my Twitter tirades, this one about the sparsity of African chick-lit, someone commented saying that, in her opinion, the reason Chimamanda was ‘allowed’ to write Americanah was that she had already paid homage and given us (them) the traditional ‘African’ stories with Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun. And even then, it could not just be a love story – heaven forbid that a serious African author and feminist be reduced to writing on the plebeian subject of romance, it had to be told against the backdrop of more ‘serious issues’ like race and identity.

I recently got my father a copy of Half of a Yellow Sun. He had just sent me the draft of his first novel, which he’d only just finished after almost 30 years. In the conversation that followed, he revealed that he hadn’t read any new novels in about ten years. ‘Aru eme!’ I exclaimed and rushed out to buy him a copy of Chimamanda’s book. Not just because Half of a Yellow Sun is my favourite Adichie story; but because, despite being written by someone in a completely different generation, I thought it was a true African story, and one he could relate to and find representation in⎈