Tag Archives: Nigeria

Booker Prize 2015: Fractured Families

Families have always provided a rich vein of inspiration for authors looking to examine people, and this year’s Booker Prize longlist shows that there is no sign of that slowing down. I want to talk today about two quite different novelists—a first-time Nigerian man, and a well-established Irish woman—who are both interested in how families in their respective contexts cope with stress.

Despite being a first novel, The fishermen never feels anything less than steady and assured. It is a fairly simple presence: one day, four brothers are out fishing at the local river—a forbidden pastime. On their way home, the local crazy man, Omi-Ala, tells the oldest that he will be killed by a fisherman. This sets off a chain of events that will, inevitably, change the family in ways no one could imagine.

At first glance, this might sound more Harry Potter than Booker longlist. But in Akure, where God is king, and human law seems flimsy at best, these four brothers are free to roam the streets, particularly since their father has gone away for work, and their mother is left at home with the two youngest children to look after. And so, in the absence of any steadying force in their lives, these boys are completely and utterly enthralled by the stories of Omi-Ama and his abilities. The oldest is no more than 13 or 14, an age where these kinds of stories really get into your head and mess you up. And so it is with Ikenna, who really truly believes that one of his brothers is going to kill him.

What is perhaps most terrifying about this is that at each step of this descent into madness, for these brothers, their actions are completely logical. What begins as a little bit of innocent rebellion against their clearly insane older brother slowly and carefully turns into something far more horrific—and though perhaps in the hands of a lesser author, these actions could be considered contrived, Obioma’s ability to turn the screw on his reader so methodically is perhaps the greatest strength of The fishermen. Though the characters are well-drawn throughout, it is the narrative structure that is perhaps most impressive here. Despite the chaotic nature of the city in which they live, and indeed the lives of the brothers themselves, it is easy to be caught up in the suffocating atmosphere of a household living in fear.

And yet, much of the writing is lyrical. Obioma begins each chapter with a beautiful metaphor that he spins out throughout the entire chapter, never letting up. Contrasted with the quite intensely psychological violence that is taking place both within and without this family—while the four brothers bear the brunt of this violence, their mother’s rapidly deteriorating mental health in the face of what she is attempting to control is another subtle but necessary touch—this style never veers toward feeling flowery or purple.

If The fishermen is the story of a family slowly unravelling, then The green road is its mirror image. Anne Enright has always been known for her ability to get inside the workings of a family (which is why The gathering won the Booker in 2007), and this novel is no different. But while The fishermen is about one family living under one roof, The green road explores what family means when each member is scattered around the globe.

The first half of the novel is essentially made up of four short stories: seemingly keen to move out of home as early as possible, the Madigan children find themselves far away from their country home, unwilling to think of their mother left behind. Dan runs to New York in the 80s after a failed stint as a student priest—the biggest problem being his love of men. In the 00s, his brother Emmet has run away to Mali, and though he thinks he has found his soulmate in another aid worker, he cannot seem to find the right way to talk to her. Constance is stuck at home with a husband who loves her but doesn’t seem to care that she is spending the day at an oncologist. The youngest, Hanna, has just had a baby with a man, though is finding it hard to come to terms with this, particularly since it also means coming to terms with her drinking.

Each of these sections, by themselves, is a perfect slice-of-life story that draws each character perfectly. None of them seem to be able to have a functional relationship with their significant other, and struggles to reconcile what they want from life with what they have. Despite being on the other side of the world, Dan struggles to come to terms with who he is, and this leads to perhaps the most touching part of the entire novel—a tiny but perfectly formed look at how the AIDS epidemic ravaged an entire community that spent years looking over its shoulder in an attempt to see who was next.

The second half of The green road, however, loses some of the momentum that had built up over these vignettes—as these characters gather for a combined Christmas, Enright has to change gears to allow all four—five, in fact, if you include their mother—characters their place on the page, and doesn’t quite manage to pull it off. Rather than ending with a sense of purpose—whether positive or negative—the narrative trails off as these characters, so vivid in their own lives, are forced to act as search and rescue for their frail mother, who has wandered off into the wilderness. Maybe, though, this loss of individuality in the family setting is what Enright wants us to see: forced by a false sense of duty when coming together as a family unit, there can be no space for individuals wishing to strike out on their own.

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Americanah (2013) – Chimamanda Ngozi ADICHIE

It’s been seven years since the release of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s excellent novel, Half of  a Yellow Sun. It has become so popular, it is about to be released as a film, which I am very much looking forward to. I loved it, and was very excited to hear that she had finally written a new novel. What made me even more excited, though, was that this was to be a book about race in modern America: something that interests me greatly.

Ifemelu and Obinze meet each other in high school, and quickly fall in love. But when Ifemelu is accepted to an American university—a dream Obinze has had for many years—their relationship peters out as Ifemelu finds herself in a new and strange land. As she settles down into American life, she quickly realises that this is not the land of the brave and free at all. Particularly if you are not white.

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way: I don’t think Americanah is going to be as popular as Half of a Yellow Sun, but to be fair, I don’t think Americanah is as good as Half a Yellow Sun, particularly if we critique it in terms of what we expect from the modern novel. Anyone reading the blurb and expecting a love story spanning decades and continents is going to be sorely disappointed. The relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze is nice at the beginning, but once the two grow up and Ifemelu moves to America, there is a sense that their relationship has come to a natural end, a move that makes narrative sense. The scattered chapters we get of Obinze’s new life without Ifemelu simply distract from the main thrust of the novel.

But in many ways, this shallow love story is not the point of the novel. Adichie has spoken before in interviews about the two kinds of black America: African-Americans, people whose ancestors are slaves brought from Arica during the slave trade era; and American-Africans, people who have migrated from all parts of Africa in the twentieth century, either to escape persecution and unrest, or simply for work or education. To many non-black Americans, there is no difference between the two groups. In response, it seems, Adichie has written a book about the second group of people—the African immigrant coming to America.

It could be argued that this novel is the immigrant take on the Great American Novel. This is certainly not a novel of Nigeria—of that, there can be no doubt. It is a novel about ostensibly the most prominent divider of American society—skin colour. From Ifemelu’s first experiences of going to America to try and get a better education, Ifemelu is privy to incidents that are awkward and painful to read, no matter how well-meaning some participants might be.

Perhaps the first hint that Ifemelu is being discriminated against because of the colour of her skin is the face that she cannot seem to get a job, no matter how often she applies, no matter how well behaved or well-presented she is.

I keep wanting to call Americanah an angry novel, though I’m not sure why. In many ways, it reads like Adichie finally releasing some of her own pent-up anger about how she has been treated by people in America. As an author surrogate, Ifemelu acts as a cipher for Adichie, and it’s not hard to extrapolate many of Ifemelu’s feelings and thoughts to Adichie herself.

As I mentioned in my review of Questions of Travel, it’s nice to see that we’re getting good novels about the internet. Adichie deftly draws the disconnect between real-life and blog Ifemelu, particularly in relation to her speaking about her own feelings about the way she is treated in America. And lo and behold, her blog suddenly becomes a site for other people with similar stories to come and share their own experiences in a country still divided quite sharply across racial lines. It is not until the latter half of the novel that we get to read some of these blog posts—which is a shame, because many of them are mini-essays talking about race in modern America. It would have been great to have one at the beginning of each chapter, scattered throughout the book as food for thought.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t necessarily consider Adichie to be a great stylist of the English language—she is not a bad writer, but I don’t go to her novels to find vast tracts of lyrical prose pushing the boundaries of the English language. In many places in Americanah, she almost veers off into a tone suggestive of personal non-fiction. No, I don’t really know what I mean by that either—tonally, in many places, it reads less like a novel, and more like a non-fiction piece about race and representations of race in America. It’s very odd, but it’s a testament to Adichie’s passion that it never feels too out of place.

That is not the point of her novels, anyway. Interestingly, Adichie makes reference to this in the novel itself, suggesting that people writing about race in America can only do so if they do it in an indirect, lyrical way, so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of the (largely) white audience for whom they are writing.

Perhaps the biggest problem I have with the novel is the way in which Adichie seems to gloss over the racial tensions that still exist in Nigeria. She sets up Nigeria as a place where everyone is Nigerian, and America as a place where not everyone is necessarily American. This is a weird thing to assert, particularly considering the fact that the novel for which she is most famous is a novel about the Nigerian Civil War of the 1960s, the effects of which are still being felt in modern Nigeria. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that the lines between the three main ethnic groups, the Igbo, Yoruba and Harusa remain in sharp relief. Racism and discrimination against people because of race/tribe exists in every country, so the slightly idealised version of Nigeria presented here rings a little hollow at times. Of course, once you read the end of the novel, which seems to advocate a return to the homeland, then this makes more sense.

I have no idea how to review this. As a novel, Americanah shouldn’t work: the characters are little more than ciphers for Adichie to get her message across; the pacing is all over the shot, particularly the final return to Nigeria; and the structure doesn’t quite work. But I don’t care. This is an important novel, if not for the way it is written, but for the potential it has to start a conversation, not just in America, but in the West, about race and immigration.

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Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) – Chimamanda Ngozi ADICHIE

Perhaps I’m just becoming more cynical in my old(er) age, but I think a lot of people read novels like this one for one of two reasons: they feel they should, because it’s written by an African woman; or because they think they’ll get brownie points for reading something as exotic as an African woman writer. And knowing that this book was quite popular when it came out, I was expecting a good, but not great novel, about how hard it is to be a woman in Africa. Basically, I was expecting something not covering any new ground. Turns out I was way off.

Civil war is brewing in Nigeria. It is the 1960s, and southern separatists are wanting to secede, and start afresh. Ugwu is starting a new job as a houseboy. Olanna is moving in with her partner, both lecturers at a university. And Richard has come from deepest, darkest England to Nigeria to report. As the political and social situation in the country deteriorates, these three very ordinary people are caught up in a war that will change their lives forever.

Adichie’s portrayal of Africa is refreshingly unique. We are not subjected here to dismal descriptions of the slums of Nigeria, of the hordes of people suffering from HIV/AIDS, or from repression from the white colonial powers. Here, we get middle class Nigeria, full of intelligent, witty people, who are truly trying to make their country better. And this is the Africa that we just don’t see often enough, whether in the news or in literature. Of course these things happen – Africa is a troubled continent. But for Adichie, who was brought up in Nigeria by middle class parents, but university educated in America, this is just as much “the real Africa” as any other experience.

Indeed, this novel isn’t even really about the Nigerian civil war. It is, of course, an ever present menace, particularly in the latter stages of the novel, but I don’t think the focus is there. The focus is on what people do when forced to make difficult situations, when their comfortable, everyday lives are stripped from them, and they have to fend for themselves. Of the three main voices, it is Olanna who struggles the most with this upheaval. But it’s not just the war that’s affecting her – it’s her husband’s infidelity, and indeed, her own. It is the human relationships that maintain focus here, not the war.

This is not to say that the war is sidelined in favour of crappy soap-opera style adultery among the cast. For someone like me who has no background in African history, there is an interesting lesson to be learned here. Nigeria, like so many of the postcolonial, created countries of Africa, has internal conflict brought about by several different tribal groups being forced to coexist. And the civil war that is borne out of it, that is the subject of Half of a Yellow Sun, is an important part of history, and one that should be investigated and discovered by people who aren’t Nigerian.

The spectre of colonial power is not as strong as one might find in other African literature. The only white character, Richard, is not what you would call a cultural imperialist. He is deeply empathetic, to both individual people, as well as the Biafran cause itself. His subtle rejections of white African society, and his eventual willingness to be identified as Biafran, are portrayed here as kind. He is not a strong man; instead, he is a frustrated writer, a passive man who goes with the flow, yet there is strength underneath. Above all, he is fallible, and his own infidelity is something that also shapes the way these characters deal with the war.

For a long time, I think, Western readers’ views of African literature have been too closed-minded. Whose fault this is, I don’t know – the publishers for not publishing things that can’t be easily marketed as “African literature”, or the readers who simply read these things because they feel they should. Don’t read Half of a Yellow Sun because you want to read an “African novel”. If I say it’s much more than that, be aware I’m not trying to put down the vast numbers of African novels that have come before it, and done so much to educate us. But this is, hopefully, the beginning of a new kind of African novel – where people deal with situations that are not necessarily uniquely African, but more universal.

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Things Fall Apart (1958) – Chinua ACHEBE

Having read Achebe’s essay on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness last year, I felt that the time was right for me to explore some of his earlier fiction works. And what better place to start than with his first, and definitely most famous, novel, Things Fall Apart.

Okonkwo is a young man in the village of Umuofia, somewhere in Western Africa. He lives with his three wives and their children in relative harmony, and he is considered a strong man in the village – partly because of his wrestling prowess. As he moves up the village hierarcy. however, something happens that will see the eventual fall of Okonkwo’s name in the village, as everything he thought he knew about life and the world around him is changed forever.

So much contemporary post-colonial literature that deals with interactions between native tribes and the invading conquerors seems to be so angry – there is clearly still a lot of feeling about these issues. And quite right, too. Yet Achebe manages to make his novel about Africa, without resorting to an angry diatribe about the negative impact of the colonising powers on his lands that so many authors feel the need to spurt forth these days. Which is a shame, because this can often lessen the impact of the inevitable finale – something that Achebe manages to keep intact. When the colonisers finally arrive at this village, at the same time that Okonkwo is returning from his exile, their actions are initially met with laughter and mild annoyance – once the big stuff begins to happen, though, everything goes downhill. And Achebe doesn’t seem to place the blame squarely at the feet of the colonisers – he sees it as a combination of the colonisiers, and the gradual weakening of the men of the tribe, which Okonkwo himself tries to stamp out.

Gender roles within this village, and the role of masculinity, are central to this novel. The women of the tribe are expected to marry for money and dowries, and when they do, they are expected to look after the children and their husbands. Those women who do not follow these rules are severely punished. Mind you, there’s some pretty terible punishments for other things out of their control, such as giving birth to twins.  Again and again, everything that is going wrong is blamed on the women. Im contrast, the men of the village are expected to be strong, tough, and warrior-like. Okonkwo particularly is worried that his son is not tough enough, and goes out of his way to try and toughen up his son, for fear of him becoming ‘womanly’. There seems to be this fear of weakness, a fear that, by not being strong, you will shrivel up and die. Which, I suppose, is what would happen. There doesn’t seem to be any room for much variation, for individuality, for very much. And yet, these people are content and happy with their lives. They have good company (restricted to one’s own gender), swift justice (there’s an excellent court scene that renews your hope in gender equality – just), access to food and water (for the most part) and, no doubt, an excellent view from the back porch.

Achebe has achieved fame because of his nationality and culture. As has Things Fall Apart. As with so many authors who come from outside the mainstream, it would be easy for him to ride on this, and simply write a story with some local flavour. Fortuantely, he has not done this in Things Fall Apart. While culture is a vital part of the novel, it is not the focus. Instead, we get a very understated, very relaxed look at gender roles, how this affects interaction with other people, and interaction with the world around us. Oh, and the last sentence is one of the greatest ever.

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