The Great African Novel

So my brain as clearly been in need of some stimulus recently and last night I got it in the form of a brilliant article in the New Yorker about the Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe. A new edition of his novel 'Things Fall Apart' has recently been published and the New Yorker has taken the time to look into this author and African literature as a whole.

Really, there are so many things jumping at me from this article that I don't even know where to BEGIN! Ok...I'll start by saying that I have NOT read this infamous novel - I know, gasp gasp!! I also have NOT read that much by other African writers mainly only Nadine Gordimer (South Africa), J.M. Coetzee (South Africa), and Amos Tutuola (Nigeria) and a few short stories by other writers. Clearly, I'm the first to admit that I need to read more, more, more!

Anyway, now that my disclaimer is out there.....I was very glad that the New Yorker even discussed this book and theme. I've read the New Yorker since high school and these days, I mainly catch up through their website or on their podcasts (the fiction podpast is particularly great for road trips), however African writers and literature is not often covered. So for me, it is always great when a notable literary magazine features someone from Africa.

Achebe writes that carrying the full weight of African experience requires “a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.” Or, as he later put it, “Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English for we intend to do unheard of things with it.”

This was referring to the use of English as a literary medium for African writers. This really jumped out at me because of my post yesterday regarding 'Sudanese English.' I was joking about how English is used here and how much of it I have picked up, but the more I think about it, the more it truly is amazing. The idea of taking a language and doing 'unheard of things with it' and altering it to 'suit its new African surroundings' totally strips away any illusions about the purity of a language. Like cultures, and just about everything else, language also changes, yet pidgin English (or Spanish or French, etc) is generally looked down upon. So it is actually kinda cool when someone says, 'instead of writing in 'proper' English, I'm going to describe these people in this location using the version of English that is common to them. Later on in the article, it is also described how that same English still has to be altered to ensure that the reader (especially in primary markets of the U.S. and Europe) can still understand and appreciate the story being told.

While there are many other highlights in the article, the last line really struck me. Chimamanda Adichie (author of 'Purple Hibiscus') writes about her experience reading Achebe:

“I didn’t think it was possible for people like me to be in books.”

Can you imagine, growing up and not have ANY literature reflecting your way of life?? Worst still, growing up and just NOT reading what little there may be out there?? When I've gone to book stores in Nairobi or Kampala, the section on books by African writers, really describing the experience of maybe people living in slums, or middle-class blacks, or even the super wealthy seems so small (there are a lot more books about and by expats and their views on Africa), that I wonder what people (especially children) read. I remember a few years ago, as a birthday present for the daughter of a friend, I went to the bookstore and I can tell you, it was NOT easy to find to find a wide variety of books by African writers, but I was persistent and got a few. There is a fabulous book fair in Nairobi, (where I basically walked away with loads of books) that I feel should be mandatory for everyone in the city. While there are so many people out there trying to encourage African writers and push for more African literature, more and more needs to be done not only to encourage Africans to tell THEIR story, but to encourage each other to actually READ it!!!

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