Tricia Adaobi Nwaubani has an op-ed piece in the December 11, 2010 edition of the New York Times in which she argues that “African literature is better off without another Nobel… at least for now”. I’m stunned by the arguments that she uses to buttress her opinion. Ms. Nwaubani is the author of the delightful, funny and edgy novel I Do Not Come to You by Chance, which I absolutely loved reading.
She states the following in the article:
A Nigerian publisher once told me that of the manuscripts she reads from aspiring writers, half echo Chinua Achebe and half try to adopt Wole Soyinka’s style. Mr. Achebe and Mr. Soyinka, who won the continent’s first Nobel in literature in 1986, are arguably the most celebrated black African writers, especially in terms of Western accolades. But their dominance causes problems in a region where the common attitude is, “If it already works, why bother to improve on it?”
Here, each successful seller of plantain chips spawns a thousand imitators selling identical chips; conformity is esteemed while individuality raises eyebrows; success is measured by how similar you are to those who have gone before you. These are probably not uniquely African flaws, but their effects are magnified on a continent whose floundering publishing industry has little money for experimentation and whose writers still have to move abroad to gain international recognition.
An Ngugi Nobel would have resulted in the new generation of aspiring writers dreaming of nothing higher than being hailed as “the next Ngugi”
Yes, Africans are fond of imitation. Open a successful car-washing business and soon there will be 10 more of such establishments within 10 yards of your business. Our educational systems, our current traditions and our leaders stifle and suppress expressions of creativity and difference. However, not recognizing or celebrating the achievements of an artist for fear that others will ape him or her is a warped argument, at best. We can neither blame nor punish people for being good at what they do. Nwaubani’s own debut novel is among the freshest works to be published in Africa in recent years. Africa needs more of such books, and it would not be wrong if someone got it into their head to be the next Nwaubani.
She goes on to say that
…what African writing needs now is real variety and adventurousness — evolution, not emulation. Messrs. Ngugi, Achebe and Soyinka are certainly masters, but of an earnest and sober style. What about other styles?
Sober? Is she kidding? Wole Soyinka is far from sober. And what of Ngugi’s Wizard of the Crow, which successful mixes humor, satire and fantasy and is, in my opinion, one of the most entertaining books by an African author. Is sober the new word for old?
As a lover of humorous books, I’m often saddened that I can find hardly any by African authors. Fans of lighter literature or commercial fiction often make the same complaint. I know some young writers who are experimenting in these and other genres; an Ngugi award could have pushed them back to the old tried and tired ways.
Yes, undoubtedly, we need more genre writing in Africa. We need to write and read science fiction, crime fiction and young adult literature. We need to expose young readers to varied forms of fiction and non-fiction. But the need for more lighter and commercial fiction does not mean that we cease to write literary fiction. No one can convince me that African writers have written enough novels of the “old tried and tired ways” as Nwaubani puts it. Nwaubani needs to understand that she and other younger writers can, and are more than welcome to, seize a greater space for themselves within African literature. There is more than enough space for everyone. It is not about competing with the more established masters; it is and always has been about access and marketing of African books across the entire continent. We do not need to throw out the old to make room for the young or the new, for Pete’s sake!
To her next paragraph:
I should say that Mr. Ngugi remains one of my literary sweethearts, and he’s hardly a conformist. Many fans have extolled his brave decision to write in his mother tongue, Kikuyu, instead of English. If he truly desires a Nobel, I can’t help but wish him one. But I shudder to imagine how many African writers would be inspired by the prize to copy him. Instead of acclaimed Nigerian writers, we would have acclaimed Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa writers. We suffer enough from tribal differences already. This is not the kind of variety we need.
Oh, Lord have mercy! Ngugi did not choose to write in Gikuyu because he believes in tribalism. He did so to confront and break down the boundaries that have been imposed on African languages. The majority of African children begin their formal education in a second language, in a foreign and imposed language. This situation is far from ideal. We need to cherish our own languages just as we do the European languages which we have been compelled to speak and work in. That would not be emphasizing ethnic differences. Perhaps then, even more Africans would choose to write. Then one could conceive of an Africa in which a Ghanaian could learn to read and write in a Zimbabwean language.
Overall, I’m surprised at this article. Nwaubani’s arguments are shallow and misguided. She resorts to generalizations and is unaware of the increasing number of books being written in various African languages. In any case, it not clear from her piece that Nwaubani has read much of Africa’s ‘old tried and tired’ fiction. I have problems with the Nobel Prize. But I wanted Ngugi to win. I loved Wizard of the Crow. And if that book influenced Nnedi Okorafor when she was writing Who Fears Death, then possibly emulating or being influenced by Ngugi might lead to more fantasy fiction from Africa. And I can’t complain about that. Certainly, it would not be a curse. Far from it. It would be a blessing indeed.