More than a decade ago, when the young Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was struggling to get her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, published, an agent told her that things would be easier “if only you were Indian”, because Indian writers were in vogue. Another suggested changing the setting from Nigeria to America. Adichie didn’t take this as commentary on her work, she said, but on the timidity of the publishing world when it came to unknown writers and unfamiliar cultures.
.These days she wouldn’t receive that kind of advice. Black literary writers with African roots (although some grew up elsewhere), mostly young cosmopolitans who write in English, are making a splash in the book world, especially in the US. They are on best-seller lists, garner high profile reviews and win awards, in America and in Britain. Adichie, 36, the author of Americanah, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction this year, is a prominent member of an expanding group that includes Dinaw Mengestu, Helen Oyeyemi, NoViolet Bulawayo, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and Taiye Selasi, among others.
There are reasons for the critical mass now. After years of political and social turmoil, positive changes in several African nations are helping to greatly expand the number of writers and readers. Newer awards like the Caine Prize for African Writing have helped, too, as have social media, the Internet and top MFA programmes. Moreover, the number of African immigrants in the US has more than quadrupled in the past two decades, to almost 1.7 million.
“People used to ask where the African writers were,” said Aminatta Forna, author of The Hired Man (2013, set in Croatia). “They were cleaning offices and working as clerks.” Some writers and critics scoff at the idea of lumping together diverse writers with ties to a diverse continent. But others say that this wave represents something new in its sheer size, after a long fallow period. (There were some remarkable exceptions, like Wole Soyinka’s 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature and Ben Okri’s 1991 Booker Prize.) And it differs from the postcolonial wave which brought international acclaim to writers like Chinua Achebe and Nuruddin Farah, among others.
Adichie’s Americanah chronicles the lives of Ifemelu and her lover, Obinze, whose adventures take them from Nigeria to America and Britain. In the US, Ifemelu writes a popular blog about her growing racial consciousness and finds love with American men, both black and white. Back in Nigeria, her friends use the word Americanah to tease her about her Americanised attitudes.
Adichie, who divides her time between the US and Nigeria, has now written three well-received novels and a book of stories. She has amassed awards and has a movie adaptation this year of her novel Half of a Yellow Sun, about the Biafran war. She even made it into a Beyoncé song: Flawless sampled several lines about feminism from a public lecture she gave.
But for all the different themes and kinds of writing, novelist Dinaw Mengestu said that he saw a thread. “There’s this investigation of what happens to the dislocated soul,” said Mengestu, 36, the author of All Our Names and a MacArthur “genius” award winner.
Breaking in isn’t getting easier for everyone, however. Some professionals in the book world say that too many literary publishers would rather put out work by writers from Africa than work by African-Americans because in the current climate the Africans are considered more appealing for what is seen as a “black slot”.
Adichie said she understood those feelings, too.“In the US, to be a black person who is not African-American in certain circles is to be seen as quote-unquote, the good black,” she said.