We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
In the recent adventure movie Blood Diamond, set in civil-war-ravaged Sierra Leone, an old man offers a throwaway line: “Let’s hope they don’t discover oil here.” It’s a great, resonant line, and depressingly close to the truth. There is oil in West Africa. So much, in fact, along the Niger River Delta in Nigeria and its land-locked neighbor Chad, that Nigeria is the world’s sixth largest exporter of crude. And just as Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1990s was fed by its corrupt diamond industry, Nigeria’s civil war in the late 1960s and the subsequent procession of military dictators were integrally tied to revenue from Western oil companies. It would be hard to overstate the role of resource-plunder in fueling the greed of repressive leaders, undermining accountable government in nations that won independence mid-century and virally destabilizing West Africa and other regions of the continent.
In this climate of ruined postcolonial promise, some astonishing novels by recent Nigerian writers are questioning what it means to be Nigerian and, by extension, African. This is a tall order: Nigeria, with over 250 ethnic groups and languages, not including English pidgin dialects, is an extremely diverse nation. Also, because of political instability, these writers have often had to live and work in exile. Nevertheless, these new, and newly diasporic, writers cast an eye back toward their literary forefathers, and in particular Chinua Achebe, whose career, spanning the entire history of Nigerian independence, brought literature from the continent onto the international scene. Achebe’s vital and prophetically titled 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, which articulated colonial disintegration and the colonized imagination, remains strikingly relevant as governments, public and psychological health, cultural traditions, and families continue to fall apart in Nigeria and elsewhere on the continent. Whether these new writers explore primarily domestic, socioeconomic, political, or psychological contexts, they grapple most explicitly with the trauma and violence that represent the greatest obstacle to forging a Nigerian identity.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—Achebe’s most direct literary descendant among these new writers—examines the family, the cornerstone of national identity, under siege from fluctuating national allegiances and ethnic conflicts. Adichie invokes Achebe’s postcolonial disappointments from the first line of her 2003 novel Purple Hibiscus:
Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, JaJa, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the tagè.
The novel’s first-person narrator, Kambili—whose name translates loosely as “Let me be” or “Let me choose my life”—chronicles the quest of autonomy and self-direction for herself, her family, and her country, navigating the conundrums and ironies of Nigerian modern life. As such, the novel has much in common with the postcolonial literary tradition (represented at its best not only by Achebe, but by the Caribbean writers George Lamming and Aimé Césaire, and the American writers Richard Wright and James Baldwin) that examined lingering cultural struggles with colonial values; the characters of that tradition are often transformed or destroyed by the recognition of their colonized consciousness.
Adichie explores this territory through domestic violence and from a fictionally atypical, Catholic middle-class vantage point. Kambili’s father, Eugene, is shaped by the remnants of the old-school colonial education, and strongly invested in devout Catholic, Western ideas that consistently devalue traditional Igbo culture and experience. Eugene’s piety justifies his patriarchal values as he physically and psychologically terrorizes his family members. Despite his own domestic tyranny, Eugene supports the community as a local factory owner struggles for democracy and the free press with his subversive newspaper. Mirroring the struggle for nationhood are the forces that prevent Kambili from inventing her life: her father’s abusive and controlling ways, and the Church’s repressive teachings that thwart her relationship with the man she loves, who, inconveniently, is a priest. (Adichie is deft at delineating the incongruous forces that influence her characters and their choices. Although the characters are often stand-ins for social and class types within the country, sometimes too self-consciously, they never sink into their categories.)
Throughout the novel, Adichie creates a mood of surveillance, repression, silence, and swallowed voices at every societal level. The only respite is at the house of Kambili’s paternal aunt, Ifeoma, where Kambili begins to learn to voice her opinions and desires, and question, first privately and then openly, the values she’s been raised with. Ifeoma, a progressive university professor, seems to offer an alternative life in her embrace of Nigerian traditions, Christianity, and feminism, as well as democracy and free speech. But under political and economic pressure at the university where she teaches, Aunt Ifeoma is eventually forced to emigrate to the United States. Again, hope collides with the facts of contemporary African life, and intellectuals, artists, writers, and dissidents leave their countries to earn a living or avoid political persecution.
In the end, familial and social change is brought about through violence—some feminists may even call it revolutionary action—when Kambili’s mother secretly poisons her father, and a newspaper colleague is murdered. Neither act invites resolution, nor inspires much hope. Quite the opposite: they extend the turbulence and violence, tearing everyone even further apart.
Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie’s new, ambitious historical novel, continues her exploration of family and politics. This time the family is coping with war—the Nigeria–Biafra civil war. Where Kambili’s family is repressed, the privileged twin daughters of Igbo Chief Ozobia, Olanna and Kainene, are all talk and self-possession. The women themselves and the men they choose typify ethnic divides as well as national, political, and social ones. Olanna, the beautiful, accomplished idealist, is enamored of a young Igbo mathematics professor, Odenigbo, who is full of ideas of social justice and change (her twin calls him “her revolutionary”), while her wealthy Hausa ex-boyfriend, Mohammed, carries a torch for her. Kainene, an inscrutable plain-Jane, a realist, and a savvy businesswoman, becomes involved with a white English writer, Richard, and an Igbo major, Masa.
When old ethnic rivalries mingled with modern economic resentments erupt into swift genocidal violence against the Igbo people, everyday desires and betrayals test each character’s sense of identity. Adichie’s writing can be too plain, and, at times, her characters overly symbolic, as if surreptitiously fortifying the narrative with lessons in general African history from an African perspective. Kainene, who has the potential to be one of the most absorbing female characters since Toni Morrison’s Sula, barely escapes becoming a narrative cipher, mostly because her relationship with well-intentioned but flaccid Richard never quite makes sense. Nevertheless, Adichie has a remarkable grasp of psychological intimacies and the alchemy of character: the distracting artifice disintegrates as everyone in the end saves and fails one another and themselves. The national turmoil, this piece of history, is very much lived through this family and the people they love and those who love them.
This is particularly true of the 13-year old Ugwu, Olanna and Odenigbo’s houseboy, who is forcibly conscripted into the war. Adichie’s no-frills writing serves Ugwu’s experience extremely well, and his honest, instructive journey is the most compelling of the book. His intensely sensitive perspective lays bare his adolescent desires, the exasperating demands, and the implicit class conflicts of his job. And then, how possible, common, and easy it can be to one day be cooking meals for your family and the next day wake up in a war, complicit in violence that you’d never imagined you were capable of. In fact, Ugwu upends every Western narrative expectation of who will and should ultimately tell this Nigerian story. It is well worth mentioning that none of the main characters leave Nigeria, including the twins, despite their losses and a chance to escape to London.
Half of a Yellow Sun is almost a prequel to Purple Hibiscus and other recent Nigerian fiction in which characters succumb to the pressure to emigrate. The burgeoning immigrant identity and its ambivalences are only just starting to shape the narratives. Chris Abani, arguably the most visionary of Nigeria’s writers (and visionary by any standards), unmasks the disturbing new visage of global immigration and seeks answers to the problems of identity and nationhood in Nigerian—and specifically, Igbo—ritual traditions.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, and its former capital Lagos is home to one of the nation’s (and poised to become one of the world’s) largest slums. This is the setting of GraceLand, Chris Abani’s novel about an Elvis impersonator (who is simply called “Elvis”) who dances for tourists to support his father and himself. Elvis and his father have fallen on hard times; they are forced to move into the slum when Elvis’s mother dies of cancer and his father loses his job, becoming withdrawn and an alcoholic. The title is an ironic, painful allusion to the profound influence of American and Western culture on Nigerian identity.
Much of the novel balances on the tensions between such influences and traditional Igbo ideas. For example, Abani’s teenage Elvis impersonator emulates dance moves derived from the African-American tradition that, in turn, are linked to the West African slave tradition of which he is a modern member. In the novel the personal is not just political: it has become global. And this is true not solely through immigration but also through the colonizing monopoly of images controlled by the West, especially the United States.
In this brilliant and astoundingly vivid novel, Abani gathers all the complexities of Nigerian life, past and present—including Elvis’s mother’s traditional recipes and remedies, American movies and advertising, and a lineup of characters of diverse nationalities and perspectives. He shapes these disparate elements into an epic coming-of-age story that climaxes in political intrigue and torture. This chaotic, bursting-at–the-seams metropolitan tale is contained and unified in part by the chapter epigraphs: located outside the narrative, they meditate on the eucharistic and esoteric connotations of the Igbo kola nut used in hospitality and religious ceremonies. Just as his mother’s notebook—filled with her recipes, botanical catalog, remedies and personal musings—comforts Elvis and anchors his familial identity, the kola nut is the collective’s spiritual cornerstone. Abani’s poetic sensibility soars in these interludes that dramatize how the past, commemorated in ritual and tradition, is the sustaining spirit amid perpetual change and tumult. His rendering of the kola-nut rituals is the still eye of this swirling narrative:
History is at the heart of the [kola nut] ritual, marked in Igbo by the word omenala, which literally means “the way we have always done it.” . . .
There is only one path: omenala.
For the Igbo, tradition is fluid, growing. It is an event, like the sunset, or rain, changing with every occurrence. So too, the kola ritual has changed. Christian prayers have been added, and Jesus has replaced Obasi as the central deity. But its fluid aspects resist the empiricism that is the Western way, where life is supposed to be a system of codes. . . . The Igbo are not reducible to a system of codes, and of meaning; this culture is always reaching for a pure lyric moment.
More than any other writer I have read recently, Chris Abani understands the role of ritual in art and in life as a tool that embraces contradictions and paradoxes, evinces truths and values, and holds every experience in an embracing tolerance. This insight enables Elvis to give unflinching descriptions of hard realities, injustices, absurdities, and violence and still— with no hint of self-delusion or sentimentality—call his home “half slum, half paradise . . . so ugly and violent yet beautiful at the same time” : “There is only one history: Igbo. / But there are things that cannot be contained, even in ritual. / The Igbo have a saying: Oya bu uto ndu. That is the joy of life.”
The absent mother is a recurring element in Abani’s first two novels, as is the Lagos slum in which the protagonists strive to discover their future; however, in the stark, elegiac novella Becoming Abigail, the motif takes on additional metaphorical layers as young Abigail struggles to embody and enshrine her mother’s legacy. Her father seals both their fates when he names Abigail after his beloved wife who died in childbirth. He betrays his fatherly duties in favor of drunken reveries and the daily debilitating ritual of remembrance his daughter’s face offers. In one flashback from her exile in London, Abigail, obsessed with her mother and with Chinese poetry, old maps, and her own compulsive commemorative rituals, lies across an old, crinkled map as if she were the corpse in a crime scene, transposing her body to the contours of countries and rivers:
And sometimes the alchemy of her stare transmuted the [map’s] parchment into her mother’s skin. The landmarks taking on deeper significance. The Himalayas marking the slope of Abigail’s forehead, spreading into the Gobi desert. The hook of Africa became her nose, Australia her bottom lip. And the islands between India and Tasmania became the fragments of teeth bared in a smile. In true Cubist form, the Americas were her eyes. Everything became the imagined contours of her inner life . . . This was . . . Abigail . . . the cartographer of dreams. Of ghosts.
In her bottomless longing Abigail absorbs the historical collective unconscious, personifying the original primordial African diaspora through to the slave-trade-era dispersions to the present, modern-day journeys that she and her generation are forced to take to the West. She symbolizes the erosion of national and local ethnic identity into the monolithic continental identity of Africa—Third World as “problem child” projected onto its nations by the West.
Abigail takes to burning herself, transforming her skin into a personal and collective map of trauma. The burns and the attendant scarring are extensions of her desire to become the living shadow-ghost to her mother’s memory:
Before she began burning herself she collected anecdotes about her mother and wrote them down in red ink on bits of paper which she stuck on her skin, wearing them under her clothes; all day. Chafing. Becoming. Becoming and chafing,as though the friction from the paper would abrade any difference, smooth over any signs of the joining, until she became her mother and her mother her. But at night, in the shower, the paper would dissolve like a slow lie, the red ink . . . leaking into the drain like bloody tears. That was when she discovered the permanence of fire.
The seared lines that course Abigail’s skin tether her to both her mother’s image and the “Motherland.” But they eventually evolve into a pointillist chronicle of her own individual tragic experiences, when an older cousin, who was supposed to help her establish a new life in London, forces her into prostitution. The burn sites become a witness to her identity and the people she’s loved.
Again Abani invokes ritual, but here he begins to question its potential to heal in the face of persistent trauma and loss:
Sometimes there is no way to leave something behind . . . We know this . . . This is the prevalence of ritual. To remember something that cannot be forgotten. Yet not left over. She knew this . . . This. This. This. And what now?
Becoming Abagail is more hopeless than GraceLand and explores a side of immigration not often seen in contemporary literature: the migrant’s experience of exploitation and victimization in explosively growing urban slums. Abani’s negative resolution for Abigail—who in the end must chose between living in exile in England after a traumatic, if morally ambiguous, romantic loss or returning to Nigeria—also suggests the constraints of gender: women internalize and punish themselves while men continue their agency in the world, reenacting, perpetuating, or suppressing their enormous rage and violent legacy.
Modern male aggression and the possibility of its positive transformation is on Abani’s mind in his new novel, The Virgin of Flames. The exhilarating ambition that underpinned his previous work is quite explicit in this experimental story of spiritual rebirth, becoming. The characters are a gallery of the walking wounded, racially diverse, immigrant and native. Abani’s protagist, Black, is a 36-year-old half Igbo, half Salvadoran Los Angeles artist in the throes of a protracted adolescence, that most biological symbol of self-making. Transformation this side of death is always a formidable endeavor, forged in intimacy with the powers of violence or sex—in particular, sex within (let’s face it) the ordeal that is love. The novel is accordingly hallucinatory, and incandescently visceral, though not entirely successful. No matter. Abani is busy being born, and we should pay attention.
Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel Beasts of No Nation and Helen Oyeyemi’s 2005 novel The Icarus Girl seem at first glance to be thematically distant from one another. The child soldier Agu’s story in Beasts of No Nation takes place in an unnamed West African country during a civil war, while Oyeyemi’s eight-year-old Jessamy lives in the privileged comforts of London with her Nigerian mother and English father, with regular visits to Nigeria. Yet both novels present visions of an eroded and unstable Nigerian identity in crisis, in part because each story is told by a clever young child.
Although Jessamy’s physical and familial needs are met in her middle-class London home, she is sensitive and precocious, her psyche registering the injuries of cultural alienation. Being biracial, she doesn’t quite fit in Nigeria either. During a visit to her paternal grandfather’s home there, she becomes unwittingly susceptible to the spectral visitations of TillyTilly, her dead twin.
Nigeria has one of the highest rates of twinning in the world, and twins figure centrally in the cosmology of many of its ethnic groups. Oyeyemi mines the Nigerian twin and spirit-child (abiku) archetypes, just as Ben Okri did in his Booker Prize–winning novel The Famished Road; Oyeyemi also dramatizes what W.E.B. Du Bois first defined as “double-consciousness”—Africans’ and African-Americans’ “peculiar sensation” of living as a minority in a white society. Oyeyemi pushes the dichotomy further by having TillyTilly voice Jessamy’s fears and frustrations at living between worlds, even enacting what seem to be subconscious violent fantasies. At one point, Jessamy struggles with TillyTilly, who finally expresses the psychic terror within:
TillyTilly screeched. . . . "We're twins, both of us, twins. Doesn't that mean something? . . . Land chopped in little pieces, and —ideas! These ideas! Disgusting . . . shame, shame, shame. It's all been lost. Ashes. Nothing . . . There is no homeland. . . . I'm a WITNESS . . . There is no homeland, there is nowhere where there are people who will not get you.
Homelessness—no history, no religion, no food, no family—is a primal human fear. The mostly American myth of immigration has spun this fear into the possibilities of reinvention and transcendence. Yet the reality for immigrants, particularly those who have fled turbulent countries or desperate poverty, is a recurrent and acute sense of severance and loss. TillyTilly’s rant contains faint echoes of the New World slave trade and what the poet Derek Walcott called the “deep, amnesiac blow” it dealt its victims and descendants. It is Jessamy’s Nigerian grandfather who will provide the needed ritual that can not only heal her psyche but also offer hope of a more expansive reconciliation.
There are limits to the narrative use of a child’s perspective—for example, Oyeyemi could have balanced her story to good effect with Jessamy’s mother’s voice, questioning her choices in dealing with her daughter’s problems. Even so, her depiction of the psychic violence of racial and cultural marginalization is unique and valuable.
Uzodinma Iweala follows the dismemberment of the family to its horrific conclusion in his child-war story. Child soldiers are not a new phenomenon, and in the years since independence they have become a growing problem as each country struggles with civil war and oppressive regimes. The escalation of violence and the forced participation of children in the acts of war negate any sense of humanity in Beasts of No Nation; hence the titular and textual theme of beasts and the complete erosion of a national identity. Even the young protagonist’s name, Agu, is only incidentally revealed (he was nicknamed “Teacher” in his previous school life because of his intelligence). The novel cleaves superficially to the tradition of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the martyred Ogoni writer, who first wrote about West African child soldiers during the Nigerian civil war. Saro-Wiwa was one of the Ogoni Nine, executed in 1995 by the Nigerian military for their efforts to obtain compensation for the Ogoni people for the oil extracted from their lands. Like the protagonist in Saro-Wiwa’s 1985 novel, Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, Iweala’s Agu realistically narrates in English pidgin or patois. Beasts of No Nation uses dialect, always a risky artistic choice, but provides a simple and powerfully spare rendering. It is well worth noting that Nigerian English pidgin, which is akin to Caribbean creole, is not necessarily a definitive indicator of the lower classes or education level. More problematic and perilous is the dialect coupled with the pejorative “beast” motif; the novel at times feels like a story about an “issue”—child soldiers—akin to but not nearly as misguided as the issue of female circumcision in Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy. Iweala intends to disturb, but dehumanizing Africans, especially in the West, is not startling and risks distancing the reader from Agu’s humanity at a time when efforts to draw the West’s attention to the continent’s plight must come in white packages (consider the recent digital blackface of model Kate Moss and the “I Am African” AIDS campaign and “We Are All African” Sudanese genocide campaign) or must bring whites themselves into the story, transmuting Africans’ stories to ennoble their lives, as Dave Eggers did in his recent novel about the Sudanese “lost boys,” What Is the What.
Nonetheless, the brief flashbacks to Agu’s past with his family sustain his humanity throughout the book, even when his abusive commanding officer forces him to perform and endure atrocities; they remind the reader of some semblance of life beyond the desperation and brutality of the book’s present. But at the end of the book the question remains: what will become of these generations of young killers with their monumental rage when it is time for them to return to civilian life and rebuild communities and establish families.
The other risk in Iweala’s generic approach to the absurdity and destructiveness of war is that it encourages the idea that Africans—West Africans, Central Africans, South Africans—are all the same. Iweala himself was a victim of similar simplistic thinking: a December 2005 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education attributed his success in attracting the attention of the American media to his privileged family background and education, his mother’s work as a high-ranking Nigerian diplomat and politician, and the fact that he was born in Washington, D.C., rather than Nigeria. The article attacked Iweala’s book for being inauthentic—because of, among other things, Agu’s pidgin dialect (which is, in fact, accurate to his character)—and for distracting Americans from the wider sweep of “authentic” African literature. If white American writers who came from privileged backgrounds or immigrant families were considered inauthentic, much of today’s literary fiction and the American literary canon would be discredited. Indeed, Dave Eggers has yet to raise eyebrows about his authenticity. More importantly, how many American writers are blamed because Americans don’t read or publish enough translations?
Whatever their faults, this new generation of Nigerian writers should be celebrated. They are just beginning to explore their literary powers, and their rendering of the ouroboros of globalization shows enormous promise. In a world where empathy and social responsibility require ad campaigns, and history is quickly forgotten or (in the case of Westerners’ knowledge of African history) never learned, these writers remind us that stories can be powerful cultural barometers, exposing the agony of hijacked souls and leading us to places where we might not merely recover our own humanity, but rediscover it in one another.
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Philosopher William MacAskill contends that humanity’s long-term survival matters more than preventing short-term suffering and death. His arguments are shaky.
In her new book, Danish poet Olga Ravn writes with open love, pity, and compassion for her strange yet familiar creations.
Draconian individual punishment distracts from systemic change and reinforces the cruelest and most racist system of incarceration on the planet.