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.”