West-centric Discussions on Afrocentric Literature

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Gule Wamkhulu at the Blantyre Museum, Malawi
Storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit — in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the university or wherever.
Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah 
It often happens that I’m reading book reviews on African novels and I have to stop myself from responding to some, to be honest, quite offensive and useless criticisms. I read reviews that were obviously written through a Western lens and it shows. I’m a fair person and I don’t expect readers to always find the content of their reading accessible, but honestly, we need to change our mindset when reading cultures and groups of people we aren’t familiar with. I always find it necessary to begin such posts with a disclaimer and my disclaimer is that these are just my observations and I speak for myself and nobody else.
When it comes to book reviews, Two of the books I’ve come across that get the most flak from readers have surprisingly been Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and I’d like to say a little something about these books.
To appreciate Things Fall Apart, it’s probably best to know a bit about colonialism. Even if you don’t, if you’re a careful reader it shouldn’t be too difficult to pick up the ills of colonialism when you read the story of Okonkwo and his village of Umuofia. When one reads the book, one will note that the structure of the book is not like a “conventional” novel. Through your reading you will note that humour is important in African culture, and so is orality. Even if there is some content that the reader doesn’t understand, one would hope he or she possesses enough curiosity to look it up on the internet; even a paragraph from Wikipedia is better than nothing.
Adichie’s Americanah seems to come up a lot in conversation too. So many naysayers for some reason seem to have issues with the hair mentions, of which there are quite a few. One reviewer asked how could Ifemelu, who is apparently an intelligent black woman, be so “obsessed” with hair?  Hair IS important to black women and education has nothing to do with it. Adichie is a very intelligent woman and writer who clearly understands black hair politics in all its complexity and I’m grateful to her for writing it in to her novel.The criticisms I’ve seen levelled at Ifemelu’s womanhood arise because so many see her through Western lenses.  When Western feminism is thrust onto female African characters, we are admitting that we only see one way of womanhood instead of the diversity. We are also forgetting the fact that Africa has different social structures and systems, and what works in the West doesn’t always work there, and vice versa.
 Another criticism I came across fairly recently was the issue with  names. Names are a sensitive point for so many of us. Names mean something. Neither of my names are African because of colonialism and imperialism, but many Africans do have traditional names that have beautiful meanings.In the book Roots, when Kinte was born and given his name, this is what Alex Haley wrote: “It would have to be a name rich with history and with promise, for the people of his tribe-the Mandinkas- believed that a child would develop seven of the characteristics of whomever or whatever he was named for.”
 This clearly shows how important names have always been traditionally.The fact that Adichie and Achebe use Nigerian names in their books should not surprise people, nor should we wish the names were English so we can easily remember them. There have been plenty of rejoinders about how Russian names with their patronymics and alternative spellings and nicknames also confuse people but most people see War and Peace as a challenge, as they rightly should. I’m trying to be patient and understanding, and I don’t deny coming across new names is difficult but I’d rather make an effort to try to learn something I’m not familiar with.

If I  read diverse literature and I come across some thing I don’t  understand, instead of brushing it off and calling it stupid, I know the best thing I can do is stop and acknowledge my blind-spots, maybe do some research on my own.If done right, reading diverse literature should create empathy.Non-Western writers should never have to bow to demands from readers to whitewash their writing and make it more accessible while diluting the story and its power just to be accepted and more marketable. That’s been the problem for so long, and writers are now writing their cultures proudly, and that’s a beautiful (and important) thing.

To me, a lot of these faux criticisms this just drive home the point that due to the lack of diversity we have been used to, the Western way is still very much the default;  the lens through which we judge the world. We still ask questions about where the Nigerian Oscar Wilde is; we call books the African Ulysses, as if the West is the benchmark the rest of the world should be measured by. It’s definitely time for us to change our mindsets ans challenge what we think of as “normal.”

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21 thoughts on “West-centric Discussions on Afrocentric Literature

  1. A beautifully written and erudite post, Rowena, I’m saddened to hear that there are such blinkered grounds for criticism out there.

    Things Fall Apart is one of the most powerful books I’ve read. Americanah is on the TBR pile – I have high hopes, I’ve really enjoyed Adichie’s other novels.

  2. A very powerful post, Rowena, and having myself encountered some depressing responses to ‘Americanah’, I think your observations are spot on.

  3. Brilliant post, Rowena. I really do enjoy hearing your thoughts on these issues. The issue with names is one that I face consistently, and painfully in real life as well. Names are as important and sgnificant in my culture as they are in African societies.I loved Americanah, and even though I am not a black woman, I did understand and appreciate the hair politics. As you say, a little use of Wikipedia, a pinch of empathy and a little effort by readers can go along way.

    1. Thanks so much, Vijayalakshmi:) I’m so glad you enjoyed Americanah! I’ve always loved reading books that were not of my culture because it’s great to see how other people do life. Unfortunately diversity does seem to be a threat to some

  4. Excellent post Rowena. One of the things about having privilege (and as a white western woman, I know I have considerable privilege) is learning to see it and realise how it blinds you to the richness of experiences going on all around you. To my thinking, reading is a route to understanding, to learning about different experiences and becoming empathetic to the miraculous diversity of life. It is a learning experience. Like you mention in your blog, if I don’t understand something in a book it is an opportunity to look it up, to learn something new. A gift. But I have seen people who read, who engage with art and cinema, TV, as a way of validating their ‘rightness’, the superiority of their culture. Unfortunately many of the accolades like prizes, academia, feed into that rather than opening us up to a range of experiences and ways of thinking. I’m surprised at the criticism levelled at Achebe and Adichie (Chimamanda is one of my personal heroes, such an extraordinary woman) but thankfully both are more than capable of speaking for themselves, and unafraid of telling their stories exactly the way they choose to. Did you see Chimamanda’s live chat on the Guardian? She is cuttingly perceptive, as always: https://www.theguardian.com/books/live/2016/aug/01/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-webchat-half-of-a-yellow-sun

    1. Thank you! Sorry for the delay, I was on vacation. I really liked reading your comment and I agree with what you said about how reading is a way to create empathy and understanding. And yes, you’re right, I’ve also seen people who read a lot, not to expand their worldview and understanding but to find words that validate how “correct” they are about certain things. Thank you for then link to Adichie’s live chat, what an amazing woman!

  5. I loved this post. I can’t really understand someone saying those things about Americanah. I am a passionate fan of that book. I recently came across a review of it where the blogger called it a “polemic disguised as a novel.” I didn’t find that to be the case. I found it to be a moving, absorbing look at racial constructs in America and England, along with a coming of age story and beautiful love story. So a novel can’t include social critiques? Since when?? That review irritated me, despite coming from a blogger who I generally enjoy. We all need to be aware of the lens through which we read.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Laila! Oh my gosh, what an awful way to review Americanah! I agree with how you described it because that was essentially how I read it. I found Adichie to be so insightful and I was glad that she was able to write about race in a nuanced manner

  6. I like this comment. I would like to add to thus discussion that although it is often true that a western centric bent has been projected onto literature, it is also true, in my experience, that a western centric reading of literature through a post colonial lens can mean that we miss potentially subtle resistance to colonial habits and prejudices which is very visible in the work of writers of the period. I read Things Fall Apart as an undergraduate, but l am thinking of texts such as Heart of Darkness, or Waiting for the Barbarians, which l found both went beyond the boundaries which were placed upon them by the time and place they were written in. As an undergraduate l argued that writers were above this constricting social pressure, and l still believe this. I found Things Fall Apart a powerful text, and l think the title is taken from the verse of a poem, l forget by whom. Using the signifier, l, l realise that potentially this places me as western descendant of colonists in this comment and like Rowena l was acutely aware of this, and began some of my essays by drawing attention to my western-centric perspective; however as writers l hope we transcend this fixed and limiting subjectivity, and when it I important to the message in our writing, that we deliberately work to transcend any status that may be projected onto us; although, having read Freud censoring himself, l am aware that there is always unconscious bias. Thank you, Rowena for your insightful post.

    1. Thank you, Hermione! I love your thoughtful comment, it’s one I hadn’t thought of before. Yes, Things Fall Apart comes from a Yeats poem, I can’t remember the title either. I’ve often found, in my own research, the importance of situating oneself as a way for the reader to realize that one’s angle isn’t wrong, it’s actually correct to one’s life experiences etc. I hope that makes sense.

  7. Thank you so much for this post. I love your War and Peace example; that book made me fall in love with Russian names. Names do make all the difference. I remember reading one of Adichie’s books and wishing that she had used English or simpler names, because I was struggling to read those powerful Igbo names and I’m Yoruba 😀 . But then the characters wont be the same. The name meanings add to their personalities and the setting of the story.

    Just a side thought: I recently read The Fishermen, and though Chigozie Obioma is a good writer, I got a little bit irritated at how much he took time to explain certain slangs and cultural practices. I suppose most people don’t mind but I found that the explanations took something (I don’t know quite what….maybe mystery, enigma or magic?) out of the book. Halfway through, I realised that the book (in its entirety, not just the explanations) seems to have been written for a Western audience rather than my Nigerian mind. He didn’t really seem to take us into consideration at all in his writing. And I find that this is the sort of book that tends to get nominated for awards.

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! I know what you mean, I think maybe it is natural for us to want to read names we feel more familiar with, or names that are easy for us to remember, but like you said, the characters wouldn’t be the same. Also, really interesting point you made about Obioma writing for a western audience! I read The Fisherman and, to be honest, I wasn’t taken by it at all. Thanks to your comment I think I know why. I’m not Nigerian but I am African and I was raised on Achebe et al so I appreciate African lit that doesn’t pander to the West.

  8. I loved reading this! Americanah is amazing, and so are all of Chimamanda’s books. I don’t understand how someone can read a book set in Nigeria and expect English names – like, why are you even reading it?

  9. I honestly didn’t have any trouble with the names in Americanah. The names Chimamanda uses are usually beautiful and memorable! Ifemelu, Obinze, Olanna, Kainene. Sure, it took me a little while to get used to them, but now I will never forget them!
    Even though I am a westerner and see most things through a western lens, I would never criticize literature because it doesn’t pander to western sensibilities. I usually tend to enjoy a book more when it does so! I actively seek these books out when I’m craving a perspective starkly different than mine. Foreign phrases and unfamiliar customs aren’t going to make me shy a way a book, they’ll just encourage me to open up a new browser window and do some research when needed. That’s one of my favorite things about reading — when I get to learn something new. But I guess many readers don’t do this 😦

  10. Fantastic post, Rowena! So many key points like names and politics of hair and so much has been written to educate us in the West and still these obvious points cannot even reach most people and readers. Looking at goodreads reviews can be absolutely awful, a real education about people lacking any respect or willingness to rethink their position.
    And then of course, having learned these basics, in reading for example African literature, I cannot trust my knowledge or education to always let me know if a work is keyed towards Western audiences, if immigration narratives reiterate stereotypes etc. Now the hard work really starts and luckily I’m finding more African book bloggers to learn from.

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