Among the several new writers to receive prominent notices lately, the names of some of those accorded high acclaim have included Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Zakiya Dalila Harris and Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi. Who? you might well ask if, like me, you are struck by the foreignness of the names of these American writers.
However, in the present circumstance of Western culture anxious to appear diverse and without racial prejudice, publishers and reviewers seem eager to spotlight writers with exotic names. It is a form of awarding reparation to a minority that, for decades, has been victimised as aliens in the West.
It goes back to the 1950s, in the early post-colonial days soon after the end of the British Raj when, among the earliest coloured immigrants to England, were writers with names that the English found unpronounceable. This obliged some of them to adopt different strategies in order to win the attention of magazines and publishers. One was to convert one’s name to make it sound like that of the English.
A poet who went by the fancy, double-barrelled name of George Awoonor-Williams — and appeared in public impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit, thus projecting himself as an upper-class Englishman — turned out to be from Ghana. Another, named Edward Brathwaite, happened to be from Barbados.
But by the late 1960s, when the civil rights movement in the United States gave proper legitimacy to citizens of African or Caribbean origin and publishers began to celebrate black authors, George Awoonor-Williams began to publish as Kofi Awoonor, and Edward Brathwaite as Kamau Brathwaite. They appeared in public no longer in European suits, but dressed like noble African chiefs in rich, magnificently embroidered robes. Names that had been hidden because they were a distraction were now flaunted as banners, leading a charging cavalry bringing tribal wisdom to the old world.
One consequence of the overreaching by publishers, who then rush to promote such a tribal group for the immediate profit their work generates, is that the past suppression or neglect of that group itself becomes a highlighted narrative, with the projection of insulting grievances suffered during colonial rule to be thrown back at the former rulers, in their language, as the heart of the story. Every such promotion, accepted tacitly as just reparation, pays no regard to literary art, but primarily advances the work for its implied humourless whining about racial injustice.
One of the brightest stars in this African firmament — if I may be permitted to echo the style his admirers hear as literary art — was Chinua Achebe, who, as a writer in the English language, had little to recommend him. The best line in his first novel, Things Fall Apart, is its title, which is a quotation from W.B. Yeats. But Achebe’s own text, with its “...as slippery as a fish in water...” on its very first page, seems written by one who has not understood that, in literature, ideas are not conveyed by clichés, but by a phrasing that is both precise and inalterable and yet simultaneously charged with ambiguity.
Unfortunately, most readers don’t understand this either. They are easily impressed by their own simplistic comprehension of ideas that appear to conform to what they already know. No doubt, Achebe is to be admired for standing up for the cultural identity of an African tribe. That it is not given to what the invading Europeans considered the work of savages, but such a revision of history which no one denies is important, does not, therefore, become a novel of literary worth. And to scatter some native phrases in the novel, spoken in the tribe’s local dialect, does not make it original; it only fulfils another formula that gratifies a simple-minded audience’s expectations.
But Achebe never seems to have appreciated that there’s a great divide between the language that goes into the making of a novel and the shoddy prose put together by the journalistic telling of a story. Come to his last novel, Anthills of the Savannah, and the same thoughtless style invites you from its very first page — where we read: “Briefly our eyes had been locked in combat” — not to be bothered by clichés. It is a form of humourless seriousness common to writers who delude themselves that they are in the vanguard of the disseminators of world-changing ideas.
This kind of nationalistic variation of a formula long established by popular English and American writers — with the English language now spiced with the tribal jargon of the new writer’s country of origin — has proved so successful that there is not an annual list of notable novels that has not one or more of them.
There has been a succession of them in recent years not only from several African countries — all the way from Somalia in the east, down to South Africa, and up the west to Ghana and Nigeria — but also many from Pakistan and India, and migrants fleeing to England or America from the horrors in the Middle East.
Invariably, instead of any serious critical evaluation, what is written about these works highlights their socio-political content, which is often little more than a sketchy illustration of some current news on television.
A very recent example of this has been the promotion during the Covid-19 pandemic of novels dealing with climate change, which have been given the generic group label ‘cli-fi’. Western capitalism, always eager to promote a product that sells, is no doubt happy with the new brand, whatever the name of the novelists who produce it.
At the same time, like footballers parading their goal-winning player on their shoulders in a victory lap round the stadium, the middlebrow readership, rejecting — if it thinks about it at all — as elitist any work it sees presented with an aura of being progressive, goes on elevating the local mediocrities to bestseller stardom.
The columnist is a literary critic, Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas and author of the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions Veronica and the Góngora Passion
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 1st, 2021