Category Archives: Literature

Author Q&A: Kenechi Udogu

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kenny udogu editKenechi Udogu is a Nigerian author living in the UK. Her novel, The Yam Po Club, chronicles her protagonist’s experiences as a new student in a federal secondary school in Nigeria, and derives mostly from Kenechi’s own memories of her alma mater, FGC Owerri.  Kenechi has published eight novels while working full-time as an architect. And it’s no wonder that she has been praised for her “world-building” abilities – combining the best of her literary and architecture skills. She takes time out of her undoubtedly busy schedule to talk about being trapped in a teenage mind, the sticky middle of plot, and her secret stash of chick-lit.

Your book, The Yam Po Club, seems to draw from your experiences in boarding school in Nigeria. Is Buchi modelled after you, and if so, in what specific ways?

I’ve been asked this a few times. Truth is, she is modelled a little bit on me, but also on a lot of different people I grew up with. In some way we all know a Buchi, a Funke and an Nnenna.

Why did you decide to focus on the boarding school experience – was it an important period in your life?

It was a huge part of my childhood as I attended boarding school for six years from the age of ten. Most children who pass through boarding school in Nigeria are pretty young and impressionable, so it is almost impossible not to have been greatly influenced by the (good and bad) experiences of those years.

The Yam Po Club is your only novel set in Nigeria. Was it a conscious decision to return home?

I guess it was. I’d always wanted to record my experiences from those early years and it seemed apt to do so now, before my memory starts to play tricks on me.

You mentioned Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers a few times in your book. Was it an inspiration for The Yam Po Club? And like Darrell Rivers’ story, will we be reading Buchi’s until SS 3?

I loved Enid Blyton stories as a kid. I just couldn’t get enough of them. So, yes, I guess the Malory Towers series were an inspiration for this book. Again, I’ve been asked about developing the book into a series but I’ll have to see if I can gather enough interesting memories to fill five more books.

Which of your main characters would you like to have as a ‘neighbour’?

Senior Jane was very (very!) loosely inspired by my neighbour from JS 1. She was a lovely girl and I’m glad I got her to help me out when I had no clue what to do.

The Yam Po Club coverWhat is the first thing you remember writing?

I can’t recall exactly what it was about but it was a series of sketches in the back of my primary school note book with a story tagged to it. I should have paid more attention but at that point I had no idea I’d still be writing stories decades in the future.

Where, when or with whom have you been most impressed to see your work?

I recently got a mention on a website stating “If you liked The Other Slipper, you will like…” I was overjoyed that someone thought my book was worthy of being acknowledged that way.

Write one bestseller or have a sustained career of good books?

If one bestseller translates to a sustained career of good books, I’d go for that option.

Best perk of being a writer.

Sharing my crazy ideas with the world.

Worst thing about being a writer.

The fear of being judged negatively. It’s sad to admit but, I like being liked.

Remember your best and worst reviews? Let’s hear them.

The most memorable review for me was an early one for The Other Slipper. The reviewer said he thought the story was “more interesting than the Cinderella story itself” I couldn’t stop smiling for days. The most painful review (probably not the worst, but it still haunts me to the day) was a “Meh…” for one of my other books. The rest of the review didn’t matter to me. That word was enough.

One thing you wish you’d known starting out as an author.

I wish someone had told me how much marketing and promo was involved. Not that it would have deterred me, but it would have been good to understand how much time and energy goes into getting news about your book out there.

Besides good writing what other skill do you think is essential to a successful career in writing?

I’m not sure if we can call this a skill, but I’d have to say patience. Patience in writing, editing, more editing and finally, waiting for your book to make an impact.

Rate yourself on a scale of one to five for spelling/punctuation.

I’d like to say 4 but I’m probably a 3. I always gasp with shame when I read over my first drafts.

What do you think your writing owes your readers?

An escape from the present. Whether it’s taking the reader to a past memory (The Yam Po Club) or to an alternative universe (The Altercation of Vira), or even to a warped reality (Aversion), I would love for my readers to forget the present and be submerged in the worlds I create.

What personal experience of yours has turned up the most in your writing?

Hmmm, not so much experiences, more the exclamations I use in real life. I use far too many.

You have published eight books, many of which have teenage protagonists. Are your books particularly targeted at young adults?

I keep getting told I’m trapped in the mind of a sixteen year old. I’m not sure whether to take this as a good or bad thing but it certainly gears my writing towards young adults.

Which one person has been most supportive of your writing?

Not one person, a group of people – my family. I wouldn’t be where I am without their unwavering support of my work.

What’s the most memorable casual reader feedback you’ve received on your writing?

I didn’t realise this was even a thing until I started receiving compliments on my “world-building” abilities. I’m so used to swapping from real life to out of this world scenarios that I didn’t realise it was a difficult thing to do.

What is your guilty reading?

Comedic chick lit. Everyone disses them but we all have a small collection we keep on the go.

What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?

Like a lot of writers, I struggle with the middle of my stories. I usually whiz through the start, and I’m fairly certain of the end, but everything in-between takes ages to get right. I also struggle with editing as I get attached to scenes and characters and don’t want to lose them.

And the most pleasurable?

Connecting the dots in a story. Pure joy!

What are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?

Drama for the sake of drama.

What is your ultimate motivation for writing?

This might sound cliché but the thrill of writing is enough motivation.

Why your fascination with the fantasy genre?

I’ve always loved the idea of the mystical, the unknown, and the inexplicable. I was a big fan of fairy tales and epic fantasy stories when I was growing up, so when I started expanding my writing field, it made sense to lean towards magical beings and objects.

E-books: have they done more good or harm for literature?

It’s still early days in the e-books phase but I think they are a good thing. I’m reading more books on my tablets because they are easily accessible and, if I’m being honest, more attractively priced.

What one book would you advise everyone to read before they die, and why?

The Grimm fairytales, not the modern (Disney-eque) interpretations. The original stories were much darker and told tales that bore deeper meaning.

If you could bring something back from the past what would it be?

Nothing. I believe everything has its place and time. If it happened/existed in the past, that’s where it’s meant to stay.

What’s next?

The second book in my paranormal series -The Mentalist – is due out soon. It’s called Sentient and I’m really looking forward to sharing it with everyone.

The Yam Po Club is available to Nigerian readers on Okadabooks.com. You can also catch up with Kenechi on her blog

Read others in the Author Q&A Series

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A Tale of Two Bookstores

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Image courtesy Ann Arbor Review of Books

Whenever I visit a new place, I look for the bookshops and wander in to see what is available by way of Nigerian literature. During a visit to London some years ago, after several explorations that yielded nothing, I finally chanced upon a lone copy of One is Enough (1981) by Flora Nwapa in a bookshop in central London. The book was tucked away at the back of the store along with a small selection of African American and erotica novels.

I picked it up, feeling a sense of its misplacement and wondered how Nigerian literature had fallen so far from its ‘Golden Era’ — that heady period immediately preceding and following Nigeria’s independence when praise for the works of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Amos Tutuola and Elechi Amadi echoed in publications like the TLS and the Observer and labelled ‘timeless’, ‘universal’, ‘excellent’ and ‘bewitching’. How had Nigerian writing fallen into such obscurity?

Fast forward just over a decade — two weeks ago I found myself walking along the high street of a small English town, when the bold red and blue of Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah catches my attention from the store front display of Waterstones. Next to Adichie’s new novel is Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasie (Dare we lay claim to her?) Both beckon invitingly and I draw closer, beguiled by the prominent display.

I knew that Nigerian literature, particularly fiction from the Nigerian diaspora, had picked up in the years since I futilely scoured London bookshops. But it took encountering these books on such front and centre positioning in a town with a population of 50,000 and a very small black community to realise the milestone Nigerian literature had reached over the last decade or so.

There are disparate points of view as to why Nigerian literature is – to put it simply – hot again. A school of thought would attribute it to the re-establishment of democracy in 1999. Since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, Nigeria had been more or less in the throes of malignant military dictatorships. These regimes felt threatened by creative and intellectual expression and had made known their displeasure. Books, like Soyinka’s The Man Died(1972) were banned, writers, poets and journalists were imprisoned — publishing went into a decline.

With the return to democracy, it appears that the collective silence of self-preservation lifted, and people finally felt free to chronicle the political and economic realities of the era. This argument further explains why the majority of the works that were published immediately after that period –Helon Habila’s Waiting for An Angel (2002), Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus(2003), and Chris Abani’s Graceland (2004) – are full of criticism of the former establishment.

A second school is of the opinion that Chimamanda Adichie is the big bang of Nigeria’s literary renaissance. Adichie’s debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, was shortlisted for several international awards and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First book and she was hailed as the protégé of the great Chinua Achebe. International publishing houses, whose interest had been piqued by the celebrated young writer, began to look more closely at works by Nigerians in the hope of discovering the next Chimamanda. Other aspiring writers, in their turn, seeing the possibility of a writing career, became more ambitious and started to aim for the international market. Supposedly, this spurred authors like Helen Oyeyemi, Adaobi Nwaubani, Chinelo Okparanta and many others.

Another argument attributes the rise of Nigerian literature to the Caine Prize for African Writing, which was established in 2000 and won by Helon Habila in 2001. With its £10,000 prize money and exposure for winners, as well as the fact that many winners debuted internationally soon after, it has provided a platform for aspiring writers to break out into the mainstream. It has further ensured that only the best from Africa has emerged — the Caine Prize winner’s list and shortlists are a near accurate touchstone of internationally acclaimed Nigerian writing. Since the establishment of the prize, Nigeria has produced five winners, including Rotimi Babatunde and Tope Folarin, the 2012 and 2013 winners respectively. And, undoubtedly, these success stories are inspiring many to the craft.

Whatever the reason behind this growth, what is clear is that Nigerian literature has recently achieved unparalleled success. With more than 250 ethnic groups and a population of 160 million, Nigeria cannot have too many voices telling its stories to the world — offering varying perspectives and a deconstruction of age-old stereotypes.

Back at Waterstones in the small English town, I give in and enter to buy both the books. Copies of Americanah and Ghana Must Go are stacked high on the ‘New Bestsellers’ table by the entrance, alongside titles by EL James and Sylvia Day. Erotica again! Democracy and Chimamanda Adichie may have promoted Nigerian literature, but apparently, it isn’t the only genre to have made that long journey from the back of the store.

Updated version of article published on Wasafiri Blog on May 28, 2013

The £10,000 Caine Story

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2012 Winner, Rotimi Babatunde with Caine Prize Founder, Baroness Nicholson

When British-Nigerian writer, Bernadine Evaristo was announced as chair of the Caine Prize, she stressed the urgent need for writing that does more than reinforce the already warn perceptions about Africa: “War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa – in short: The Tragic Continent”. She posed the question of whether too many African writers are writing for the approval of non-African literary decision makers such as International publishing companies and prize bodies, a question that had been preoccupying members of the Nigerian literati.

While one mightn’t say that the effort by the 2012 Caine Prize to find “exciting, provocative” short fiction has yielded the very best it can – the shortlisted entries still contain copious references to racism, homophobia, poverty, disease and the need for escape – the handling of the stories have been more nuanced than in previous years. Of the five stories, which I had read countless times to prepare press materials, a couple stood out in my mind. And it was with delight, if not surprise, that I witnessed the announcement of Rotimi Babatunde’s ‘Bombay’s Republic’ as fourth Nigerian winner of the Prize – after Helon Habila’s, Segun Afolabi’s and E C Osondu’s works in 2001, 2005 and 2009 respectively

‘Bombay’s Republic’, described as “darkly humorous and soaring prose”  tells the story of a Nigerian soldier drafted to fight in Burma during World War Two, but Babatunde wasn’t preoccupied so much with the usual: The victimhood of Africans made to fight a war that they had no business with – “Colour Sergeant Bombay… would quickly find that someone had confused his nation’s frontiers with a place half the world away” – or the racism meted out to the soldiers, with propaganda making the rounds about them being tailed cannibals capable of ressurection. Instead Babatunde focused on chronicling the gradual shattering of stereotypes and assumptions, and the liberating effects of a traumatic experience on his impressionable Sergeant.

Questioned by Ellah Allfrey, Deputy Chair of the prize, about why Bombay did not return to promote the independence efforts in Africa, Babatunde replied that, the former’s illusions having been shattered during the war, he could not return to “do the usual or predictable”. Instead, Bombay’s republic ends as an allegory on a self-perpetuating leader, like Allfrey’s own “dear president Mugabe.”

As I read and enjoyed Rotimi’s “Bombay’s Republic” for the umpteenth time, two things struck me: It was quite ‘genre’, and was easily expandable. This impression was further re-inforced when Ben Okri, Man Booker Prize winner and new Vice-Chair of the Caine Prize, in explaining the importance of a short story prize, likened the prose form to a seed, while citing examples of longer works- Don Quixote and Ulysses – that began as short stories.

A self-professed history enthusiast, hence the time and place setting of his story,  Babatunde is currently involved in writing a stage play Sugar, a collaborative effort with four other writers, and a retelling of “the journey of Yoruba culture and religion, as it moved through slavery from West Africa to the Americas, a powerful story of exploitation, resistance and survival”.  It is to be produced by World Stages London next year. So perhaps in answer to Evaristo’s query – “What about crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, more history, chick lit?” –  the stage is finally being set for the diversification of African literature.

Also, besides being a stepping stone into longer form, the short story, in this internet age, holds infinite possibility of re-introducing the continent and portraying its present circumstances both within and without. And platforms like the Caine Prize, while facing their own peculiar challenges, create avenues for renewed discourse. And slow progress is being made, this year’s Caine anthology, African Violet, has been released in partnership with six African publishers, and is available in book stores and in e-book format.

The Ten Thousand Pound Man

Babatunde, who is also a poet and a playwright, is no ingénue, having already achieved some level of success in creative writing – his fiction and poems have been published internationally, and his plays have been staged in places like the Halcyon Theatre, Chicago.

However, on arrival in London, his manner had been shy and earnest.  There had been an almost palpable nervousness about him. When he spoke at interviews and readings, it was with a hesitant intelligence, and he was given to frequent disappearances from the group. He appeared almost incongruous with his witty, tongue-in-cheek and articulate creative alter-ego.

Instead, quite like the character, Bombay, from his prize winning story, “Bombay’s Republic”, who bore with equanimity the probing stares of white natives, Rotimi exhibited very little emotion as he was ushered from his table with Ben Okri to the podium to give his winner’s speech. He spoke of his honour at being awarded the Prize, but mostly of being in such “good company as my fellow shortlisted writers”. Faltering slightly at the end of his memorised speech, he said a simple thank you to all and came down to congratulations and picture taking.

Though he will be the last to admit that winning the Prize and the £10,000 prize money has validated him in any major way, to my careful eyes, by the end of the media circus that surrounded him afterwards, his demeanour had changed slightly. His manner had become more self-assured. He still chose his words carefully, but they were delivered with the manner of one who had realised that people were eager to lap them up. And they were; he had granted no less than fifteen interviews in about two days, some well into midnight. Yes, he admits that it has been a fascinating experience, the importance of which will take some time to sink in, but he maintains that “writing is not about winning prizes but about writing well.”

As he recalls, his first memory of writing was when he created an illustrated story book around age six, but his craft did not actually take off until the early to late nineties when Nigeria was in the throes of military regimes. It was his awareness of events and need for self-expression in the stifling political atmosphere that led him to explore world literature by writers like Leonard Tolstoy, William Faulkner. Tolstoy, he said, “showed me what fiction should be like”. Closer to home, his inspirations came from Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Amos Tutuola. These early influences still govern his craft till today.

While he doesn’t want to be immediately catapulted from Nigeria – as in his last few days in London he makes no secret of his longing to return to his home in Ibadan, there is a limit to the level of success that he can boast in Nigeria, especially as it concerns his work with theatre. “I do not write for Nigerian theatre“, he admits. “Nigeria stages do not have the facilities to support my work”. But he insists that a major achievement of literary bodies like the Caine would be to reduce the distance to Africa, to organise awards within the continent that will be a force for change rather than, as Evaristo puts it, merely “sprinkle fairy dust on a single, lucky writer every year”.

The Five Shortlisters. From left: Stanley Kenani, Jenna Cato Bass, Billy Kahora, Rotimi Babatunde and Melissa Myambo

Five Strangers from One Very Diverse Continent

This year’s shortlist boasted what Jan Hart, Caine Prize facilitator for twelve years calls a “young crowd”. Jenna Cato Bass, who wrote as Constance Myburg, is a twenty-five year old South African film maker, and a publisher of pulp fiction. She infuses this cinematic element into her story, “Hunter Emmanuel”, which is set in Cape Town. In “Hunter Emmanuel” an ex-cop follows the mysterious trail that begins with the discovery of a woman’s amputated leg. Bass, a retired magician with an eccentric dress sense and a passion for collecting odd knick knacks, felt somewhat like Alice in Wonderland on this trip. She admits that it is the first time she has seen her fiction published in any media besides her own Jungle Jim, a magazine she co-founded.

I had spent two futile hours frantically scouring Google Images and Facebook to match a face to the name I was expecting on the morning when I welcomed Melissa Myambo to London. The only thing I knew about her at the time was her gender. I was later to find out that she has a loathing for having her images published online. During the process of the Caine events we took great pains to film her in profile or not at all. Chatty, and with uproarious humour, she could always be counted on to break the tedium of panel discussions with a quirky observation. And she had often maintained that “by far the most interesting thing about me is that I am aerobics instructor, and I teach Zumba dance classes”. Her story, “La Salle de Depart” was inspired by an elegant, dignified Senegalese house keeper she met during her stint in Senegal, and is dedicated to women like the latter who do not have the opportunity to see the world.

Billy Kahora’s “Urban Zoning” is one story whose place on the shortlist I had wondered about. But to hear Billy explain this story of a drunken bank worker who manages to outwit his bosses just when they should be giving him the boot, one realises that it is replete with meaning and references that would be missed if you did not possess local knowledge of Kenya, or were not conversant with terms like “Peri-urban”. Slight, and with the mild irritation of someone who never slows down, Kahora is an editor at Kwani?, a literary outfit established by Binyanvanga Wainana, or The Bing, as Kahora fondly calls him.

Stanley Kenani has been on the Caine shortlist one too many times, he complains. He was shortlisted in 2008 and has seen and done it all before. But as an accountant for the UN, the experience was another opportunity to network with literary types. He lives a kind of sectioned existence, he explains. When he is away from “all the writing stuff” he is just a stuffy collar, who has no one to share his literary interests with; and oftentimes it is just when he is busily “crunching numbers” that his fictional characters come to tap him on the shoulder and request an audience. Writing, for him, has been a means of escape. It earned him a scholarship that has enabled him find a way out of the Malawian village he lived in till he was in his teens. His story, “Love on Trial“, is about a homosexual man discovered in flagrante delicto with his lover in Malawi. What follows is the persecution and prosecution of this character. Kenani confesses to having written this story solely for advocacy purposes: “I wanted to speak for a section of our society – gays. Some are friends, they are can’t come out or even post their pictures on sites like Facebook; and many of them are some of the best people I’ve met. Why are we denying them the freedom we have?”

The Caine Prize brought together five strangers from one very diverse continent, and positioned them as the representation of our varied literary accomplishment. The journey from their respective countries had seen their stories reviewed by twenty-odd blogs across Africa, some of them very scathingly (cue Ikhide Ikheloa and Ayo Olofintuade, two Nigerian bloggers, whose review made for many hilarious interludes among the writers), interviewed by a myriad of UK media outfits, defending and explaining their works at panel after panel discussion.

There were merry parts too: A midnight pub crawl in Soho London, the networking avenues with agents and publishers, and the upper class accommodation at Royal Overseas League, a Commonweath private members organisation, and being feted at the UK House of Lords by Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, member of the House and founder of The Caine Prize. Only the baroness’ declaration that she single-handedly chose the national anthem of Kenani’s Malawi ruffled a few feathers within the group. That and the “less-than-minimum-wage” per-diem.

First published in The Guardian, Nigeria, July 15, 2012

 

 

Africa’s Leading Literary Powerhouse – South Africa or Nigeria?

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African prize-winning authors

Summer 2012 and the eyes of the world turn to the city of London, England. People across the globe sit in beer parlours, shebeens, pubs, washing unhealthy snacks down with tankards of beer and cheering as the healthiest specimens of our nations run, jump and swim faster, higher, stronger.

But why stop at sportsmen? Why not pitch our countries’ plumbers against the world’s, our street-corner hookers, our brain surgeons? Why don’t Liberians sneer at Sierra Leoneans: “The barefoot kids hawking peanuts in your Kroo Bay slums are nothing compared to the former child soldiers weaving through traffic selling groundnuts in the misery of our West Point”? And why not stand our writing ‘athletes’ up against each other in a sort of literary Olympic Games and see which nation ends up on the podium?

And the last was just what we did. The rules: We sourced our data by analysing the winners of major international literary prizes, filleting out all African winners and noting their country of origin. We limited our scope – and therefore our resultset – to awards for English language literature, with a deliberate bias towards prose fiction. Where a writer has dual nationality, as in the case of Zimbabwean-British author Doris Lessing, we favoured the African nation; with Mauritian-South African novelist, Lindsay Collen, we plumped for Mauritius, as this is the country she identifies with.

The following awards were prestigious enough to make it onto our list: the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Booker Prize, the International Booker Prize, the Pulitzer Prize and the Costa/Whitbread Prize (neither of which has had any African winners), the Caine Prize, the Orange Prize, and the various flavours of the Commonwealth Prize.

Divvying up the spoils of these awards by nation certain facts became immediately obvious. South Africa and Nigeria are the 800 pound gorillas of the English-speaking African literary world. Between them they account for two-thirds of the prizes won by Africa. South Africa, though, clearly takes the gold medal, leading Nigeria by 5 awards (including double the number of Nobel prizes). Zimbabwe takes the bronze medal, limping in a distant third.

There may be a conversation to be had about the racial split of southern Africa’s winners. (They are disproportionally white.) Or maybe not: an African is an African is an African.

Analysing the awards by date throws new light on the health of literature in the various countries. Nigeria is currently enjoying a rich renaissance, kicked off by Helon Habila’s triumph at the 2001 Caine Prize. Its near neighbour, Ghana, on the other hand, is caught in the jaws of a terrible slump; the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Benjamin Kwakye’s The Sun by Night won in 2006 is the nation’s only showing in close to 15 years. And if Ghana is in a bad way, Egypt is even worse; Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz is their only international prize winner. And Naguib Mahfouz died in 2006.

Mahfouz isn’t Africa’s only Nobel laureate; Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka preceded him in 1986, Zimbabwe’s Doris Lessing won it in 2007, and in between it was won by South Africa’s literary giants, Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee.

JM Coetzee is, to borrow an ugly American phrase, Africa’s “most winningest” writer, our Usain Bolt: Booker Prize followed by Commonwealth Prize followed by Booker again and followed by Commonwealth again. Oh, and of course there’s that Nobel Prize.

Dicing the data by author throws a different hue on our leading countries: JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer cast huge shadows over the South African scene; Nigeria is a little more democratic – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Helon Habila are undoubtedly the leaders of the new Nigerian pack, but the pack is not far behind.

Viewing the data in this way also reveals the huge flaw in our experiment: where are those grandees of Nigerian literature, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe? Between them, they have a Nobel Prize and an International Booker respectively, but authors such as Karen King-Aribisala loom larger than them with her clutch of Commonwealth Prizes. Ms King-Aribisala is undoubtedly a gifted author, but few would argue that she should eclipse Soyinka and Achebe so easily. Perhaps our analysis would have benefited from weighting being assigned to awards, showing that the Nobel is worth more than the Caine? Everyone knows Usain Bolt won the 200m at the Beijing Olympics – but who remembers who won gold in the 20km walking race? (It was Russia’s Valeriy Borchin. No, I’ve never heard of him either.)

Literary prizes won by African countries

Despite this flaw, we should not throw our results away; they give us a good picture of the health of African literature and of the way literature fits into the larger political and historical jigsaw puzzle. South Africa leads the way and has done so since the end of Apartheid.  And the revival of Nigerian literature coincides almost exactly with the rebirth of democracy in that country. Zimbabwe is also experiencing a second wind, despite (or because of?) its financial and political problems.

And the future? Nigeria seems to be on course to overtake South Africa as Africa’s literary powerhouse. And perhaps Kenyan literature will experience a “Binyavanga bounce” the same way Nigeria had a “Helon boost” a decade ago. And maybe – hopefully – Ghana will rescue itself from the quagmire it has been trapped in for so long.

We will look at the data again in five or 10 years and let you know.

View our data.

 

Female, Nigerian and haunted by Biafra – Is this seat taken?

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I consider telling Chinelo Okparanta that she writes like Chimamanda Adichie, but I refrain, a sixth sense perhaps warning me that this is sensitive territory. I compromise by asking if critics have compared her to any other writer. And it is this question, the last of the interview, that seems to wake her up (our Skype interview is taking place at 6am her time) and reveals the assertiveness that I’ve sensed lurking beneath her calm, soft-spoken persona. “I have been compared to Chimamanda,” she begins; “she’s female, she’s Igbo, she writes important topics. It has been flattering to be compared to her.”

But this association has borne mixed blessings for Chinelo who, like Chimamanda, has found the political history of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War to be the inspiration for a novel she is working on. In a refreshing burst of outrage – one gets the sense that Chinelo doesn’t often let emotions loose  – she explains why this similarity can also be frustrating. “People read your story and say Chimamanda has already written about it. Like when I did the theme of homosexuality in “America” (her story published in Granta Magazine in February 2012) someone pointed out that Chimamanda has done it.”

It is this determination to avoid a copycat label, she says, that has kept her from reading Half of a Yellow Sun, arguably one of the most important pieces of contemporary literature to have emerged from Nigeria. “The way I see it,” Chinelo concludes, “there can be more than one great Nigerian writer. It’s unfair that when you’re African and female they tend to lump you together. Why box us up? American authors can have multiples of themselves, and no one would say someone’s already done that. It’s not a good thing to be limited because there’s only room for one of your type.”

But the similarity with Adichie goes beyond style, or themes, or merely penning recollections of a stillborn nation. It is most apparent in their preoccupation with ‘home’. Like the exiled Okonkwo hankering after Umofia in Things Fall Apart – the one book that most inspired Chinelo as a child –  the national character and problems of Nigeria are never very far from the tips of these authors’ pens despite the fact that both have spent a significant portion of their lives beyond its shores.

Chinelo, who was born in Port Harcourt, admits to never feeling a sense of belonging in America, the country to which her family moved when she was aged ten, despite having lived there for the last two decades. This yearning for home is evident in her writing: “In my stories you’ll always be led back to Nigeria”. Particularly Port Harcourt, the city of her, perhaps romanticised, childhood memories.

Her first return, in her twenties, was the fulfillment of the wistful longing she had borne since she was a ten-year old skeptically beholding the new order of Boston. That excitement that would be expected of any other child had eluded her then, and has failed to materialise in the ensuing years. “I can vividly remember wanting so much to go back and wondering how far away from home we were, and that if I had to walk back, how long it would take me.”

But her eventual return was not devoid of a particular poignancy; with her American accent and her winter-tempered complexion, she stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. She explains this as the dilemma of the diasporan: “In a sense, it was exactly like I had expected, being in a place where you feel you belong. But of course I didn’t, because people immediately look at you and know that you’re not local; it’s sad to know that even where I should fit in, I don’t. Some of us walk around just never knowing where to belong.”

Again like Okonkwo’s Umuofia, overtaken by the albino men and their iron horses, Port Harcourt had transformed in Chinelo’s eyes, it’s population seeming to have increased exponentially. “The place I remember isn’t what’s there now. Memory has a way of idealising things.” And although she maintains a stoic upbeatness – “It is beautiful in a different way.” – her writing belies the claim that this long awaited homecoming was one of fulfilled expectations.

The frequent power cuts, the oil pollution, the public officials needing to be bribed, and the chaos and poverty of Nigeria bleed onto the pages of her stories, and have indeed provided for her their own unique inspirations. She has been particularly devoted to pointing out the subject of “NEPA taking the light away,” sinceaccompanyinga sick aunt to a hospital only for the facility to be plunged into darkness. “It’s not good that people can potentially die in hospitals where suddenly the equipment stop working. I am not interested in politics but I am political in the sense that I will always write about issues that concern me as my way of demonstrating my concerns.”

But it isn’t only the dysfunction that Chinelo manages to chronicle, the identity and values of Nigeria reflect widely. Copiusly employing unexpounded-on Nigerian terms, with some stories like “Runs Girl” and “Story Story” entitled in Pidgin English, Chinelo doesnt worry that this might throw of foreign readers unfamiliar with the local patois,  “Those who will get it will get it, those who want to get it will too. The world is a global village; there are opportunities  to  find things out.”

Some of Chinelo’s characters appear to mirror her personality – a hybrid of ingenious and ingenuous: In “Runs Girl”, a story that juxtaposes oil wealth with national poverty, and religious piety with the inbred superstition of Nigerians, Ada decides to try going out with a “mugu” when burdened with responsibility for a sick mother and dwindling resources. When her debut experience gets out of control, she returns home to her bedridden mother with a tear-streaked but heavily made up face, and with a purse bulging with petro-dollars – payment for the liaison with her client. When I point out that perhaps not many people would go home to their sick mothers in this manner, Chinelo says “She isn’t someone that is worldly wise; and if I were in her shoes, I wouldn’t have the clarity of mind not to do the same.” While Nnenna of “America”, Chinelo says, “knows, like I do, what it is to live with a sort of love that is forbidden, condemned.”

For this school teacher and writer with an MFA in Fiction, examining emotional truth – “not how we’ve been sabotaged, but how we sabotage ourselves” – is the most important consideration in writing. During our interview, she tells truths of her own: being a mother is her greatest ambition;  despite being a writer, she isn’t herself an avid reader; she has a lot of anxiety where public life and public speaking are concerned, and this is the worst thing about being a writer for her; she will always pursue writing in conjunction with teaching because she fears the stereotype of the “starving artist”; she struggles to dredge up a single happy memory of her childhood. And she goes on to describe herself as a solitary homebody whose only extravagance is a daily ice cream treat, and a Macbook that reads back her work in its “little robotic voice”.

Chinelo attributes her start in writing to growing up in Boston as an introverted child: “I was always shy growing up; I had difficulty expressing myself, it might have come naturally that I could express things in writing.” Her future in writing was effectively charted when, as a child, she won a prize for  an essay on abuse. “It seemed I could write so i continued that way,” she says. She, however, moved on to write fiction because it afforded her the opportunity to shrug off her own somewhat shuttered background and acquire other adventures.

Responding to the charge by some critics that modern African writers do not do justice to the continent by portraying Africa as being decades behind what it really is, Chinelo asserts that “Writing will do what writing will. The portrayal of Africa is not something I think authors need to be preoccupied with. It doesn’t mean that just because it doesn’t appear in writing, Africa is not modern.” To Chinelo, the greater crimes that authors commit are a lack of emotional truth and overly-decorative language.

With a short story collection and a novel set to be released soon, Chinelo’s greatest anxiety is the kind of reception she will receive from Nigeria when her books hit the shelves. “I keep being scared that my Nigerian readers won’t receive me well.”

I doubt that she need fear as since first getting published, a critic has praised her thus: “a perfect crafter of sentences. I could read her grocery list and still be satisfied”.In addition, Chinelo is mentored by none other than the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Marilynne Robinson, though she still manages to exhibit the humility of an ingenue who has somehow crashed a writers’ membership club. With a two-book deal made with none other than international publisher, Granta Books, I have the feeling that Chinelo Okparanta is poised to take her place in the pantheon of Nigerian writers who’ve made their mark abroad – as well as at home.

First published in The Sun Nigeria, 9 June, 2012

The Spider King’s Daughter, its author, John Updike and me (A review)

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The Spider King’s Daughter by Chibundu Onuzo

Faber and Faber (2012)

304 pages

Rating: 3/5

Besides being one of only three people to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction more than once, John Updike is also famous for the rules of literary criticism that he published in 1975. And it is with his wise counsel in mind that I attempt the review, below, of Chibundu Onuzo’s The Spider King’s Daughter.

Trying to understand what the author wished to do and not blaming her for not achieving what she did not attempt

I first chanced upon this book, in the hands of a teenage boy on an underground train; he appeared to be reading it with much enjoyment.  As the writer began writing it when she was only 17, I had concluded that this was a novel for young adults. My conclusion was backed by further evidence such as the bold red title font and the colourfully illustrated cover. But nothing on the book info page on the website of its publisher, Faber and Faber, or on Amazon distinguished it as such. I therefore did not approach it as young adult fiction, and quite expected – at my grand old age – to enjoy it as much as the boy furiously turning pages beside me on the train.

I did. Sometimes.

Giving her enough direct quotes so you can form your own impression

Along with the obvious reason – being a Nigerian literature fiend – for my attraction to this book, it was its blurb, a quote from the book, which made me spare it attention among the pile of books ascending to several precarious storeys atop my wardrobe. The blurb read: “I looked at her face while she was bringing out her wallet…she passed me a two hundred naira note with a smile that showed perfect teeth. It would have been so easy to sprint off with her money. I gave her the change before placing the ice-cream on her palm. Someone else would have to show her that the world was not filled with honest hawkers and unicorns.”

This quote pretty much set the scene for the surprise readers get when they realise that the trusting adolescent described above, Abike Johnson, is an anti-hero of sorts, rather than the stereotypical, cosseted rich girl. And that perhaps the “honest hawker” might be the one who has yet to outgrow his belief in unicorns.

Confirming my description of the book with a quotation rather than proceeding by a fuzzy prexis

This book is the combined diary of two young people, set tidily apart with different fonts.  Although Chibundu recounts the same experiences from both viewpoints, she introduces enough discrepancies in their perception and narration of shared events that rarely does it seem that one is being told the same thing twice. Quite the opposite in fact, she uses their disconnected understanding as a tool to progress the plot.

Lists in literature are my new thing, especially since reading the opening of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winning novel, The Sense of An Ending. Chibundu deploys it in The Spider King’s… almost as capably as Barnes: Every morning I wake up and I know exactly what to do. 1) Bathe, 2) Make Sure Joke does the same, 3) Eat Breakfast, 4) Make sure Joke does the same, 5) Ditto my mother, 6) Take Joke to school, 7) Leave school for work, 8) Make sure Joke never does the same.

The individuality of her expressions and the deft deployment of metaphors are thrilling as well. See this: “We had come to Yaba market the home of cheap wooden stalls bowed under the weight of the average Nigerian’s need to look Western for as Eastern a price as possible”, and this: “I offered the pack by reflex… My father taught us to always act like waiters, or hosts, as he preferred to say. He was an effacing man, always scanning the room to look for someone to serve. ‘Offer your seat, offer your drink, offer your mints.’”.

Chibundu works words with the dexterity of a more experienced author. Writers, they say, acquire style as they mature, but reading Chibundu gives me the sense that it is also possible to just have it waiting to be poured into a debut effort. The thought of the kind of genius this writer might have to offer in a few years – if indeed writers do grow into their styles – fills me with excitement.

Chibundu Onuzo, author of the book. Photo: Bill Knight

Going easy on the plot summary

So what’s the story of The Spider King’s Daughter? It’s a bit of that old story of  how rich girl meets poor boy, only like most, it is infused with its own brand of manipulation, scores that need settling, and reasons why poor boy will never be good enough for rich girl.

Sadly, it is in plot and characterisation that Chibundu exhibits the deficiency that marks her as a greenhorn, creating a story that torpedoes just when it should be building up. If I were Chibundu’s editor, I’d lose most of the last hundred pages or so – right from where Runner G reads his father’s letter; and I’d throw Mr T into that heap of discards, too, he really is too confused and confusing to be a credible character: we never find out if his daughter died aged two or six, which insurance company he worked for, if any, nor can we make any sense of his fantastic recollections of an encounter with a prophet.

Chibundu does a wonderful job of developing the complexity of her characters until she abruptly does an about face and begins to expend a lot of effort to destroy all that she has achieved up to this point. Runner G has developed a sense of pride in his situation, and begun to lose the defensiveness that had hitherto shadowed it. Abike finally sees how the less fortunate half lives, and begins to form an empathy for not just Runner G and his family, but other people – indifference is turning to interest and then progressing towards understanding. We are bating our breath for the massive confrontation of old ideals with this newly achieved maturity when Chibundu, perhaps not perceptive enough of this growth she’s spun, dashes our expectations in one ill-executed denouement.

Making sure that my judging the book deficient (in plot) isn’t my own failing as a reader/reviewer rather than Chibundu’s

While this book might be satisfactory for the young adult (that phrase again!) there are several things that could have been done more skilfully. They are:

Unexplained accusations – Abike is accused of turning her father against her half siblings and even her own mother, “You cannot blame her mother, she’s as much a victim as the rest of us”. But we are never told how Abike finagles her way into her father’s good graces and manages to oust everyone else. We need to see how this slip of a girl achieves, at seventeen, this most conniving of feats, and a few rounds of ‘frustration’, and smart-mouthing don’t show it sufficiently.

Flawed resolution – In order not to give this one away, I have to content myself with saying only that that scene that combines the excitement of strangulation, gun totting, and stiletto head-nailing is the weakest in the whole book

Plausibility – There was no emotional truth in two responsible adults being complicit in the plans of a teenager to carry out a murder, and that belated withdrawal of Aunty Precious comes a little too late to stem the damage.

Coincidences – Chibundu should steer away from the coincidences that are often a direct result of wondering whether readers will get it if you don’t smack them on the head with it. How come every one who has ever met Mr Johnson describes him by his birthmark? And why are there so many people connected to him? Somewhere into the first few accounts of him, readers already know what to make of his character.

Besides the matter of a plot that was allowed to go bad, my other grouse is with the apparent “Nigerianisms” in Chibundu’s writing; expressions like “they reached the gate” make it appear that Chibundu is not elevating her vocabulary to cater to global readers. As for dialogue, it needs be said that every character gets a paragraph no matter how little they say, to allow for clarity.

The vaguer sixth: Proclaiming the chemical purity in the reaction between me and the Spider King’s Daughter and its writer

I came to this book with no bias formed, if there were any preceding reactions, it was excitement at reading the work of a young, female Nigerian writer, who had at 19, while grappling with an undergraduate degree in history, managed to secure a two book contract with a major international publisher. My opinion after reading The Spider Kings…, however, is that Chibundu needs to allow herself grow. Not in style, necessarily, she has that aplenty, but in the structure of the craft, and in experience. If for nothing else but to be able to achieve the kind of confident recount that is only acquired through a fair bit worldliness – one that will enable her craft better dialogue than “So what’s your name?”, “They call me Runner G on the road. What’s yours?” “They used to call me Mr T in my office.”

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