Conflict and corruption, exile and loss. The new novelists chronicling modern Nigeria and its place in the world shy from none of it. But it's not just their attention to the big issues that these literary heirs to Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe have in common.
There's the food.
A reader might sniff the exotic in the steam rising from the sophisticated stews of meat and smoked fish and peppers, or the homey dishes of garri - roasted casava flakes. But in describing the textures and smells of the kitchen and the way the making and eating of meals can define an individual's place in society, the novelists find the universal in the details. And in hunger, they find a metaphor for other human yearnings - for peace, for justice, for home.
Or maybe, novelist Sefi Atta said with a laugh, "it's just the time we spend making our food that makes it so significant in our literature."
While several common themes run through their work, these new Nigerians are a diverse group. Their rise brings to mind the late 1990s prominence of debuting Indian writers like Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai who explored similar issues in starkly different ways. Atta is a former accountant who started writing fiction in her '30s; Helen Oyeyemi, now at university in Britain, wrote her first novel while she should have been studying for her high school finals. New York-based Uzodinma Iweala writes in the patois of a barely literate child soldier in his first novel; Helon Habila quotes Sappho in his.
|Nigerian writer Sefi Atta|
Chris Abani, a California-based poet and novelist whose work has been celebrated everywhere from NBC's Today Show to PEN, and Segun Afolabi spent most of their lives abroad. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spent her formative years in Nigeria.
"For me, it was gratifying to hear from people who are not Nigerian, not African, that they saw themselves in the novel," Adichie, perhaps the best known of the new voices from Nigeria, said of her first novel, Purple Hibiscus.
The 2004 chronicle of the toll colonial rule took on one man, his family and his nation won a Commonwealth Writers' Best First Book award and was short-listed for the Orange Prize. This year, Adichie followed with the even more ambitious Half of a Yellow Sun, which was named a New York Times editors' choice. It is set during the Biafran war, Nigeria's civil war that broke out in 1967 - just seven years after independence from Britain - and left over 1 million dead.
"I set out to write books about Nigeria, and Nigeria happens to be a country in which politics plays a major role," Adichie - now splitting her time between public readings for her new book and graduate classes at Yale - said in a telephone interview from her New Haven, Connecticut home.
Politics and literature are often linked. For Nigerians, the model is Soyinka, a larger than life figure with an actor's flair for drama - he has appeared in his own plays - and shock of white hair to complete the image of passionate intellectual. Soyinka once single-handedly stormed a Nigerian radio station to try to prevent a corrupt politician from claiming an election victory. These days, Soyinka speaks out against what he sees as the dictatorial ambitions of Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military ruler turned civilian politician.
Habila, who counts Soyinka among his influences, notes the Nobel literature laureate is "in his 70s and he's still carrying placards in the streets of Lagos.
"Most writers would have given up by their 70s - certainly given up on Nigeria. But not Soyinka. That's a great lesson for people like me," Habila said in an interview at the University of East Anglia in England, where he went as a writer in residence after winning the Caine Prize for African fiction and is now working on a doctorate in the school's highly regarded creative writing program. Nigeria also gave the world Achebe, often lauded as the father of the African novel and Booker Prize winner Ben Okri, perhaps the bridge between younger writers and the Soyinka generation. Nigeria is Africa's most populous country, with more than 130 million people, among them a well-educated, well-travelled, English-speaking elite.
Habila's Waiting for an Angel, a section of which won the 2001 Caine Prize for short fiction, is a searing indictment of Nigeria's brutal dictators.
"You get so embittered under a government that steals, that doesn't care," Habila said. "You keep seeing it happen all around you. It's so, so, so frustrating."
Waiting for an Angel isn't just bitter. It's a love story, and, Habila insists, a story of hope, embodied in the journalist at the centre of its action. "The very fact that he's trying to survive means he believes he can survive," Habila said. Afolabi, the son of Nigerian diplomats who grew up in Congo, Canada, East Germany and Indonesia, takes a less direct approach to exploring politics in his work. When he writes about Africa, he said, "it's from a point of view of someone who's trying to grasp it, from an outsider's point of view."
"I'd never really considered myself as an African writer. I considered myself just as a writer, as most writers do," Afolabi said in an interview over tea in London, where he is based. His peripatetic profile may be quintessentially African. Nigerians have historically been on the move, in search of opportunity or escape from repression. An estimated 15 million Nigerians live abroad today.
Afolabi, who has published a collection of short stories, A Life Elsewhere, and won the Caine Prize in 2005, said he finds the world's citizens are increasingly uprooted, setting cultures up to clash in unlikely places, straining traditional relationships, creating tensions for novelists to explore.
His first novel, due out next year, is set in the Berlin of the 1980s, among a haphazard community of Africans, Americans and Turks, its main character a Nigerian photographer. Afolabi drew in part from what he saw when his parents were posted in East Berlin. "I work from memory," he said. "I think the act of putting words down, trying to remember events, is an attempt to preserve something that's very important from the past."
African writers can find themselves accused of focusing on wars, famines and political failures because that it what Western audiences raised on Joseph Conrad and Live Aid are believed to expect. Atta - who went to school in England and now lives in the United States - said novelists can offer a more nuanced and complete portrait of their homelands, but she makes no excuse for including the bad with the good. Most Africans are living desperate lives, and their stories deserve to be told, she said.
More importantly, she said in a telephone interview from her home in Meridian, Mississippi, Africans connect with her work. Earlier this year, her "Everything Good Will Come" won the first Soyinka Prize, established in Nigeria to honour the Nobel laureate and judged by Africans.
Atta recalls a letter from a woman who took her book on a crowded Lagos bus and ended up sharing the story with another passenger who got caught up in it after glancing over her shoulder. Or another reader who was so angered when a main character left her husband she wrote to Atta: "I will never forgive you."
"That people take it personally, that's surprising to me," Atta said. "That people pay that much attention to what I write."