by Daniel Brown
A virtual plethora of new African writers is taking the literary world by surprise and by storm. Last year’s Amerikah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ended up on The New York Times’ five best novels of the year, most deservedly (I had not, at that time, read it). The writer’s narrator is a Nigerian woman who comes to America, lives with a struggling aunt, while she pursues her education, living in a one bedroom apartment with the aunt and her son. She babysits, and in the lowest of moments, hires herself out as an “adult massage therapist” the low moment of her life. Because she is not African American, but African, her views of the racial problems in America are taut, brilliant, astute, and often very funny. It may be difficult for us to understand what it’s like for someone black to live in a country where everyone is black (the same may be said for Jews in Israel, a country that was established as Jewish by law). As she begins to succeed, and succeed she does, her ties to Nigeria ebb and flow, although she remains in touch with her very strong mother, and selected friends. She has a series of boyfriends, some white and some black, all increasingly economically successful, and the reader may read her as using these men, but her perspective is that of both a woman and an African, and those perspectives are fresh and essential to understand in this globalized world that has been foisted upon all of us. Although she even ends up teaching at Princeton University, living with what appears to be the dream black academic at Harvard, she will surprise us all by moving back to Nigeria, partly to pursue her early love and partly because her American experiences are insufficiently deep for her identity and her spirit, and she never stops missing her homeland.
Upon her return there, she manages to find employment in the media; she had created a very famous blog in America, but she needs readjust to a much changed Nigeria—but she does so, and, for her, she has made the right decision. Indian writer Kiran Desai, in her award winning novel The Inheritance of Loss, also proposes that the immigrant experience in America for poor Indians may be a miserable one, and the longing for home may well take them there. These return journeys represent a completely new way of looking at the immigrant experience for people of color without money, but in Amerikah the writer proposes a woman who does succeed here, but still rejects the materialism that never wins her over.
Teju Cole has just published his second novel, both of which almost read as fictionalized memoirs. He, too, hails from Nigeria; in his first novel, his narrator is a resident psychiatrist who spends most of his non-working time walking the streets of New York as a kind of modern Baudelaire, that quintessential flaneur. But a black flaneur, Cole proposes, particularly a well-dressed one, may be asking for trouble in a racist society, and he is beaten senseless by a group of whites out for “fun”. Although his friends represent different races and classes, Cole presents him as mostly isolated, although professionally increasingly successful; other issues are important to this novel, but are outside the purview of this review.
Cole’s new novel has him visiting his Nigerian homeland, making its plot theme much like Amerikah’s. Although both writers present a widely changed and pettily corrupt Nigeria, the sights and smells of home are a profound draw for both narrators, protagonists, and presumably both writers. Cole’s almost journalistic style is very different from Adichie’s, but their emotional territory is remarkably similar and probably new for Westerners.
And now comes Dust, a brilliant new novel by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. Owuor has a rather mannered writing style; she feels a much a poet as writer of prose, and must have been a difficult writer to edit, as her descriptions of her homeland, Kenya, are ravishingly beautiful, and almost stand by themselves: she mentions in her acknowledgments that she had an excellent editor who forced her to stay with her plot. And a brilliant plot it is: she uses the founding of Kenya, an early coup in the 70’s to build—no, weave—a tapestry of a novel that is part mystery and part love letter to her homeland. The novel centers around the northern part of Kenya, which if true to fact, is the country’s wildest and least populated. She puts together a cast of characters, built around a brother and a sister, who live in a house that was built by a colonial Englishman, and whose father seems to be a successful cattle thief. Dust is about mysteries within mysteries, about people who were early political activists, and become the center of a failed coup, but that’s just the basic narrative line. Owuor describes landscape, weather, flora and fauna, African traditions and spirits, in an integrated, holistic novel of such profound beauty that although her plot is riveting, I know that I most looked forward to her descriptions of the countryside itself. She also proposes a kind of magical mystery around the central female character, whose ability to survive involves the perception of her knowledge of the spirit worlds.
The great strength of Dust is this combination of poetic, almost Wordsworthian landscape poetry/prose, and the mystery of how a country, newly liberated, stumbles its way to independence. You must give yourself time, as you read this book, as it’s not a quick read, and the author demands our attention in a way that much American fiction does not. Dust is one of the best novels of 2014, so far, but more importantly, for those of us who love fiction and sometimes worry about its future, these three writers alone show such promise that we can feel genuine optimism about this genre’s future.
If you have the time, I urge you to read all three of these new writers’ work. They are all geniuses in the making.