An ambitious Nigerian novelist has two formidable giants to contend with—Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in 1986, and Achebe, the Man Booker International Prize, a lifetime achievement award, in 2007. Together, Soyinka and Achebe have captured the collective emotions—of rage at the colonial power, the aspirations of a newly independent nation, and the frustration of those dashed hopes—in plays, poetry, fiction, and political criticism.
Military dictatorships, a civil war, rampant abductions, corruption at all levels, and bursts of violence make the Nigerian landscape unbearably gloomy, looking like the sepulchral flames of gas being flared across the Niger Delta, day after day. Fear and despair, one would think, are the dominant themes in the country. Soyinka has eloquently articulated this climate of fear, most memorably in his Reith Lectures at the BBC in 2004. Pointing the blame where it belongs—at home, not abroad—Achebe has said, more pithily: “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian land, or climate or water or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example, which are the hallmark of true leadership.”
Young voice: The new novel by Adichie, 32, is about the dynamics of marriage and family. Bloomberg
And yet, even the depth of misery can spur a burst of creativity. This decade has shown the second flowering, or renaissance, of Nigerian writing. Soyinka’s magnificent oeuvre and Achebe’s in-your-face wisdom have only encouraged the new writers. Undaunted by their reputation, they have built upon the foundations to enrich the storytelling traditions of Nigeria.
In 2001, Helon Habila won the Caine Prize for African writing for the early parts of what later became the novel, Waiting for an Angel. It was a searing account of Lagos, in which a young journalist finds his room-mate driven to insanity after being beaten up by security forces for no reason; his first girlfriend being forced to marry against her wishes; and the gradual politicization of his neighbourhood threatening bloodshed ahead. Two years later, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, an intense drama about an overbearing patriarch and the wounds he inflicts on his family, and the healing that follows.
In 2005, barely out of her teens, Helen Oyeyemi published Icarus Girl, about Jessamy Harrison, an eight-year-old child, and her inability to cohabit the world her mother left behind—Nigeria—and her father’s home, England. Adichie’s next novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, was published in 2006, and duly won the Orange Prize for Fiction, given to women writers. Here, Adichie focused on multiple relationships, involving a professor, a politician, a British expatriate and a house-boy, set during the failed war for Biafran independence of the 1960s. That war formed the backdrop of an exciting debut, of Uzodinma Iweala with the novel Beasts of No Nation. Agu is a boy who knows enough English to create a blunt argot that Iweala uses to superb effect, showing us the brutalization of the Biafran war through the eyes of the child soldier (Iweala has worked to rehabilitate Nigerian child soldiers). Shorn of all innocence, these children turn into beasts.
Achebe won the Man Booker Prize in 2007, the year that saw three prominent Nigerian novels being published. Habila wrote Measuring Time, which was about another dominating father and his cowering twins. One son manages to escape and becomes a soldier; the other becomes a local historian. When tensions rise, the soldier returns, only to face the complexities that conflict imposes. The same year, Oyeyemi returned to the ju-ju (supernatural) themes found in her writing, with The Opposite House, about twice-removed migrants—Africans who went to Cuba and then found themselves in London. The ghosts and spirits Oyeyemi writes about recall the Yoruba beliefs and myths Soyinka writes about in Ake: The Years of Childhood (1982) and, indeed, some critics have wondered if Oyeyemi’s repertoire is limited. But she is young, with a long writing future ahead of her. This year, Adichie has returned with a collection of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck (see Leaving home below).
The icon: Achebe is one of Nigeria’s towering literary figures. Bloomberg
Three themes emerge: dominating patriarchs; violent rebellion; and the use of ju-ju, the so-called black magic, to transform the present. Nigeria is hierarchical and patriarchal, and age is respected so much that men in their 30s are called “boys” and men in the late 40s represent “the youth group”. Companies and governments negotiating land transfer do so with men who call themselves kings of their area, who are invariably over 60, and who believe in the god-given right of deciding the future for the entire community. They are backed by an army of unemployed youth, with easy access to guns and drugs, who wreak havoc. Villages describe conflict with other communities as “wars”. Boundaries become narrower.
This tension offers enormous possibilities for sensitive writers, who focus on characters that rebel; and to deal with internal turmoil, some characters turn to the supernatural. Rebelling against the powers-that-be leads to conflict, and it is not surprising to see the Biafran war forming a classic backdrop for these writers, born in the quarter century between 1960 and 1985. War’s devastation of the human spirit is the overarching theme.
Indeed, each of these novels has been circumscribed by the writer’s lived experience—abroad, as in the case of émigré writers, or drawing on Nigeria’s troubled past and present. It is in this respect that Biyi Badele’s Burma Boy (2007), about Nigerian conscripts sent by the British to Asia to fight the Japanese in Burma (now Myanmar), is unusual. Burma Boy goes truly global, shedding light on African efforts in World War II. Melvyn Bragg, in The Soldier’s Return, told the story of the British soldier in Burma. Amitav Ghosh, in The Glass Palace, brought to life the men who joined Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. But the British army in Asia had many African soldiers—boys such as Ali Banana, who was 14, and modelled on Bandeye’s father. These soldiers were yanked from tropical Africa and sent to fight wars in remote parts of the world, and suffered a combination of diseases, humiliation and racism. Their stories have remained hidden.
Through the eyes of children—as soldiers, as possessed spirits, as witnesses, as obedient sons and daughters of dominant fathers—Nigeria’s new generation of novelists are seizing their moment in history. The stories they tell are painful, haunting, cruel, even grotesque. But they help us make sense of the complex reality of Africa’s most populous nation.
Salil Tripathi writes the fortnightly column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.
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