The African novel has come of age in the early 21st century North American diaspora. Straddling homelands, histories, myths, looking for values and identity somewhere in between—those are the grand topics of the African novel.
“Novelists are sorted by the language they wrote in,” Steven Moore explains in the preface to his new, massive work, The Novel: An Alternative History, 1600-1800 (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013). Moore divides them into Spanish, German, French, Chinese, Persian, etc., even delineating English from American. But the scholar has no categories for Swahili, Yoruba or Oromo; his study does not include the 19th-21st centuries. The African novel is too recent.
What exactly makes a novel “African”? No one writes in an African language. The most famous of them all is surely Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), but even the great Nigerian wrote in English as he exposed the exploits of British colonialism and Christian missionaries.
Did Joseph Conrad write an African novel in Heart of Darkness? Did Graham Greene in his A Burnt-Out Case? Africa provides their settings—but the moods of the place, the emotions of the characters, the meaning all comes second or third hand. What can a Conrad or Greene really know of African milieus, myths and values? Other beautiful novels like Someone Knows My Name, by Lawrence Hill, and Mating, by Norman Rush, are also written by white proficients recreating something that they’ve only briefly experienced and understood.
Something else to consider: When talking about contemporary African novels, we don’t usually think of writers like the talented Ian Holding (Unfeeling and Of Beasts and Beings), a Zimbabwean. Holding is white. His second novel was even about white guilt. Nadine Gordimer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who died on July 13, champion of the novel in her native South Africa, is similarly missing from today’s conversation. The reason is simple: In the 21st century, we’re talking about blackness when we talk about African novels, writers from Africa who know what it means to be black in a white world.
Today’s master of the genre is the still only 37-year-old Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, winner of many awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship. Educated in the United States since she was 19, she has attended Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Yale and Harvard, but she grew up in West Africa. She is already one of the best (and best-selling) novelists of the 21st century, adored almost equally by critics and readers. In this respect she is in rare company, including Hilary Mantel and Cormac McCarthy. Adichie writes about race, blackness, homeland, Africa and America—what she knows.
In an interview in the Center for Religious Humanism’s magazine Image, she explained her Catholic childhood in Nigeria: “We went to church every Sunday. I was drawn to religion, but I was the kid who just wouldn’t shut up. I had questions. Everybody else went to church and came home. I wanted to go to the sacristy and talk to the priest about why he said that, I’m sure much to my father’s irritation.” In the same interview she continues: “I was drawn to the drama of the Catholic Church. I would cry at Paschal Mass when we raised the candles…. When it was time to renew your vows and they would light the candles, I would burst into tears because I was so moved. I loved the smell of incense and I loved the Latin. I keep meaning to write about it. I was a happily Catholic child.” So, yes, you guessed it, she also writes about being Catholic.
Central characters in an Adichie novel are not Peter and Julie, but Ugwu, Odenigbo and Kainene (Half of a Yellow Sun), or Ifemelu and Obinze in Americanah, the novel under review here. Whether Ugwu or Ifemelu, these characters are always trying to navigate how to belong and understand themselves in a world where their race, class and dreams tend to set them apart.
Another important African-American (the term doesn’t seem quite right in this context) novelist today is Dinaw Mengestu, also a MacArthur Foundation grant recipient. Born in Addis Adaba, Ethiopia, in 1978, Dinaw’s family fled during the years of communist revolution, when he was just 2; they raised him in suburban Chicago. The first sentence of his latest effort, All Our Names, sets the now-familiar scene: “When Isaac and I first met at the university, we both pretended that the campus and the streets of the capital were as familiar to us as the dirt paths of the rural villages we had grown up and lived in until only a few months earlier....” This capital is Kampala, Uganda. Mengestu’s debut, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, which made his name, follows the story of a man in Washington, D.C., who fled the Dreg, or Ethiopian Revolution, more closely mirroring the experiences of his own family.
In All Our Names, as in The Beautiful Things, money swirls around the heads and in the imaginations of Mengestu’s characters, and it confuses them. Week-old newspapers in the village are replaced by simultaneously happening events and real, dangerous opportunities. The second-hand Victorian-era novels they read back home did not begin to prepare them to speak English or understand the West in the 21st century. And the memories of violence, loss and pain from their pasts do not easily leave them. They look desperately for values that will pull them forward as they leave Africa behind.
Meanwhile, one more: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust actually does remind one of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene. The novel depicts an Africa that we too often see in the news. Owuor is a Kenyan now living in Australia, and the opening page of his debut effort reveals a young soldier whose “fingers tremble on the trigger of an old, shiny AK-47” that was three weeks earlier in the hands “of a minor Somali warlord.” Adichie’s warm humanity, cultures intertwined, this is not.
But once again, in Dust, as in Adichie’s Americanah, the African-born emigrate. A sister and brother escape their dusty homeland in northern Kenya, one to Canada, the other to the big city, Nairobi. When the brother dies a violent death, pursuing justice for others, the sister comes home. With the spiritual sensitivities of Marilynne Robinson, Owuor then traces the sister’s path back to her childhood place, and parents, as she reflects on the meaning of place, identity, past and future. But, foreign to Robinson’s more bucolic settings, Dust’s characters struggle with themes we find as essential backdrops to African novels: racism and the legacy of colonialism.
For good reasons the African novel has come of age. There are more African-born first, second and third generation men and women living in the United States, Canada and Britain than ever before. But I am not one of them, and still I find these novels moving, often unforgettable. This is probably because the displacement felt by characters in Adichie, Mengestu and Owuor is common in the lives of many of us, whether we’ve moved from one country to another or not, fled violence or not or are living settled in our chosen place. We are all seeking more meaningful ways to belong. We all feel fractured in some way.