Adichie & Flanagan Up for Impac Dublin Award

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah shortlisted for the 2015 Impac Dublin Literary Award - peoplewhowrite

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Richard Flanagan’s 2014 Man Booker Prizewinning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, which earned the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, have been named to the shortlist for the 2015 Impac Dublin Literary Award. Rounding out the list (whittled down from a longlist of 142 titles): Mahi Binebine’s Horses of God, Jim Crace’s Harvest, Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, Bernardo Kucinski’s K, Andreï Makine’s Brief Loves that Live Forever, Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, Alice McDermott’s Someone, and Roxana Robinson’s James Webb Award-winning Sparta.

The winner announced on June 17, 2015 will receive €100,000 (the prize will be split €75,000, €25,000 between author and translator if a book in translation is selected), and a trophy by the Dublin City Council. The prize was founded in 1994 to promote excellent literature written in/translated to English.  Last year, Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Sound of Things Falling, translated from Spanish to English, earned the prize.

No One Gets to Tell Me I'm Not An African Writer

Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Ghanaian-American Writer - peoplewhowrite

African enough. (Photo by Hannan Saleh)

In the past two years, African literature has undergone a renaissance of attention. Articles in the New York Times and The Guardian have noted the growing number of African literary stars; new awards like the Etisalat Prize and the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship have cropped up to fete and foster talent, and blogs like James Murua’s Literature BlogBrittle PaperThe Ehanom Review, Mary Okeke Reviews and AfriDiaspora.com are among several dedicated to keeping their audiences abreast of writers and writerly news from the Continent.

Contemporary African authors are earning global recognition for their work. Zimbabwean NoViolet Buluwayo’s debut We Need New Names has racked up a slew of awards including most recently the 2014 Hurston-Wright Foundation’s Legacy Award, and was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Nigerian-Ghanaian Taiye Selasi, author of Ghana Must Go, was named to Granta Magazine’s list of the Top 20 literary stars alongside Nigerian wunderkind Helen Oyeyemi whose lauded 2006 debut Icarus Girl arguably foreshadowed this renewed interest in new African voices. Nigerian Teju Cole, author of Open City and Everyday is for the Thief, regularly crops up on Best lists, and Nigerian Chinelo Okparanta is fast becoming a force on the literary scene with finalist and shortlist nods for some of the industry’s most prestigious awards.

And then there is Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The author of three novels — Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, and Americanah — and the short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck has earned a bevy of accolades including the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Orange Prize. In September 2013, the film version of Half of a Yellow Sun debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival starringThandie Newton, Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Anika Noni Rose. Two months later, a TEDxEuston talk she gave on feminism went beyond viral when Beyoncé sampled it for the “***Flawless” track on her surprise visual album Beyoncé. Adichie has since released an e-book of the speech. Most recently, Oscar winner Lupita Nyongo bought the rights to make an Americanah movie; Brad Pitt will produce.

But with all this attention has come questions about who has the right to call themselves an African writer. At two panels at the recent Port Harcourt Book Festival, Utah-born Nigerian Tope Folarin, winner of the 14th Caine Prize for African Literature for his short story “Miracle“, was queried about the authenticity of his African identity, even as some in the audience expressed frustration that African writers only get recognition when publishers, critics, and prizes based in the West deem them worthy.

Nigerian author Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani articulates this frustration in a piece titled “African Books for Western Eyes” published, ironically, in the New York Times‘ Sunday Review. Nwaubani points out a truth most writers aspiring to be published face — a truth often felt most acutely by writers who are not white, male, and privileged: “Publishers in New York and London decide which of us to offer contracts, which of our stories to present to the world. American and British judges decide which of us to award accolades, and subsequent sales and fame.”

To give you a real world example of how this cultural gatekeeping plays out, in 2007, an agent I pitched my debut novel Powder Necklace to, told me it sounded “a bit too similar in theme to a YA novel that [African author’s name redacted] (the author of that novel) might be working on herself in the future. I wouldn’t want to step on my own toes in that way, so I should step aside, but thank you very much for giving me a look.” The boldface italics are mine.

Amidst this interrogation of African identity, there is also hot debate about why fluency in English and other Western Languages remain barriers to entry to scribes from the Continent. Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o has been outspoken about how colonizers used language as “the means of the spiritual subjugation” of Africans. In a recent review of the Africa39 anthology, which features new writing from African writers aged 40 and younger, wa Thiong’o’s son Mukoma wa Ngugi devoted much of his reading to this issue.

He writes:

We do not write in our own languages; we write in the language of the departed yet present colonizer. …This is how bad things are for writing in African languages: since its publication in 1958, Things Fall Apart has been translated into over 50 languages, but not Igbo, Achebe’s mother tongue. A close parallel would be if Conrad’s Heart of Darkness had never been translated into Polish — but even then not quite, since Conrad identified and was received as an English writer while Achebe identified and was received as an African writer.

And here is the irony: Things Fall Apart has been translated into Polish. Who will give African literature in African languages a second life, if not some of the 39 writers from this anthology?

wa Ngugi, an Assistant Professor in Cornell University’s English Department, has answered his own call. This month, he announced the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature at Nigerian author Lola Shoneyin‘s Ake Art & Books Festival. “The prize recognizes excellent writing in African languages and encourages translation from, between and into African languages,” the press release says.

The beefs expressed are legitimate — but they are also disingenuous. On the surface, we are talking about the very real problem of Western gatekeepers deciding which Africans to publish and promote, and how to authentically express African life in letters — but beneath the dialogue is an older and unresolved debate about control and privilege. In other words, we are arguing about the fact that the Western world still controls the African narrative, even when it is written by Africans; and we are arguing about the fact that most Africans who are published usually have some tie to the West (born there, live there, work there) that gives them access to some of the privileges afforded to Westerners.

But just as we decry a single story about Africa e.g. impoverished, war torn, ravaged by disease, corrupt, we have to accept that time and circumstance have expanded the definition of an African too, and by extension, the African story. With 12 million souls kidnapped from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade, and millions more in the diaspora due to conflict and economic free fall in their home countries, several generations of Africans have been born outside the Continent or lived abroad for so many years their accents and tastes may be unrecognizable to those that stayed.

Just as the African story lives in Nairobi, Navrongo, Cape Town, and yes, Egyptians, Cairo, the African story also lives in Norfolk, Virginia, Silver Spring, Maryland, Harlem, Lefrak City and Grand Concourse in New York, Bijlmermeer in Amsterdam, Houston, Texas’s Woodlands section, Peckham, Heidelburg, Salvador da Bahia…

The largest population of African people outside of Africa live in Brazil because of slavery. When I visited in 2012 as a BID Fellow, I was pleasantly shocked to find street vendors dressed in African attire selling acaraje (twin to Ghana’s kose) and cornmeal wrapped in corn husks that looked like Ghanaian staple kenkey. Practitioners of Candomble in Brazil have maintained the traditional African religion so faithfully, many Nigerians go and study it there. Who am I, or anyone else, to tell them their stories are not authentically African? Caribbean culture also retains many traditional African religions and foods. Are they no longer African because they practice and eat outside of Africa?

African-Americans are reminded daily they are not American as race-based violence, economic oppression, and other forms of institutionalized prejudice prevent them, en masse, from achieving equality in the US. Perhaps for this reason, companies like AncestryDNA and other such DNA services have found a target market in American blacks seeking to identify their African origins. But even when they find out they are X% Senegalese or Y% Sierra Leonean, they are often held at arms’ length as foreigners in the home countries they reclaim.

African-American poet Malaika Beckford performed a piece at the 2008 UpSouth Festival founded by veteran editor and Homeslice Magazine founder Malaika Adero called “Ghetto Names” that ascribes the monikers many African-Americans give their children to a longing for identity. She says:

“Searching for the Bantu word for ‘beauty’, the Akan word for ‘strength’, the Yoruba word for ‘power’; looking for ‘Oya’ found ‘Latoya’ and ‘Shatoya’. In search of ‘Yemaya’, found ‘Shadaya’. Separation from the Mawu-Lisa called for ‘Tanesha’, ‘Keisha’, and ‘Jameisha’. These are ghetto names. Misplaced, Retraced. African slogans. Reworked goddesses that rollback the syllables of time…” This poem partially inspired my allegorical selection in the Africa39 anthology “Mama’s Future”.

I am only one generation removed. Both my parents were born in Ghana, and were among the three million that left the country between 1966 and 1996 due to a failing economy, unstable government (four military dictators in two decades), and constricted opportunity. Despite their physical distance from Ghana, they raised us with strict Ghanaian mores and even sent us to school in Ghana. (My experience at Mfantsiman Girls’ Secondary School is the basis of Powder Necklace.)  Yet, whenever I go to Ghana (at least once a year, to the purists that demand to know the last time I was there every time I tell them me yε Ghana ni — nyatepe, Ghanatɔ me’nyo.) I am called a “broni” (“white person” or “foreigner”) and harangued about what “we” (real Ghanaians) don’t do/wear/etc.

Ironically, because I visit Ghana so much, I recently went to the Ghanaian consulate to apply for a passport. When I presented my American passport, my parents’ Ghanaian ones, and a completed application form, they told me, “You are already a Ghanaian by heritage. You don’t need to fill this out.” When I asked what I did need to do to get a Ghanaian passport, they said they would investigate and call me back.

The way I see it, Ghana — and Africa — is my birthright, and I will not give it up no matter how many born in Ghana tell me it isn’t. If the country were in a better situation, my parents would not have had to leave, and I would not have had to endure “African booty scratcher” slurs or other identity issues related to my Africanness growing up in the States. I have a vested interest in Ghana (my country) and my continent emerging from the morass of corruption, vulnerability to extremism, and exploitation of resources, and I would like to conscript Africans born in the diaspora too.

What would Africa be if we did not let external forces continue to subdivide us? If African-Americans, Afro-Latinos, Afro-Europeans, Afro-Asians, etc. looked to Africa as a home they felt responsible for improving?

The colonizers were so effective in chopping Africa up, even making sure Francophone colonies neighbored Anglophone so citizens of countries like Ghana and Togo, for example, could not easily communicate with one another in their “official” languages and unite against a common enemy, but in 2014 we can begin to reverse the damage by coming together. Africans can’t afford to focus on where other Africans were born or live, or what languages they choose to speak. Slavery, colonialism, and our own inept governments have displaced too many. If we say those who were born abroad or only speak English, French, or Spanish have no stake, we only do ourselves a disservice.

Chimamanda Adichie & Zadie Smith Would Make the Most Amazing Dinner Guests

Chimamanda Adichie and Zadie Smith_peoplewhowrite

The video won’t be accessible via Livestream starting April 19, 2014. However, you can request it from the Schomburg’s Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division after that time.

Two of my favorite authors Chimamanda Adichie and Zadie Smith came together at New York’s famed Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to discuss Adichie’s National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel Americanah, and the issues of feminism and race explored in the book. The conversation was, of course, riveting. The kind of dialogue you want to have over a glass (or bottles) of wine, and courses of sticky, savory goodness. The type of exchange you need to interrupt with saliva missile affirmations of “Amen!” or “Word!”, and “I hear you, but…” objections.

Watch and talk back to the screen, like I did.

“I think it’s very important that brilliant women step out there and be hot babes.”
I hear you but… what it means to be a “hot babe” has been created and controlled by men to satisfy their own desires, and advanced by powers with an agenda to make money at the expense of women’s insecurities. I think it’s more important that women focus on brilliance than hotness, or better yet that brilliance be equal to hotness.

“I think it’s very easy to confuse something that’s badly written as somehow deep.”
Word! And also easy to confuse writing that isn’t deep as bad.

“I like to say that this is my ‘Fuck you’ book. …in some ways, ‘Fuck you’ to another version of myself. With Half of a Yellow Sun, I was very much — I was very dutiful. I think for so long, I’ve been a dutiful daughter of literature. I’ve followed the rules: ‘Show don’t tell.’ That sort of thing. With Americanah, I thought, you know what? I’m just going to write the book that I want to write.”
Amen!

There’s been a lot of talk / debate about breaking away from the convention of the novel. In a 2008 essay I’m too cheap to pay for called “Two Paths for the Novel“, Zadie Smith “proposed …exposing [realism’s] foundations in white liberal thought, demolishing its bedrock assumptions about meaning, language, and selfhood.” And her latest novel NW was widely reviewed as her attempt to do just that. Likewise, Open City and Everyday is for the Thief author Teju Cole told the New York Times “‘the novel’ is overrated, and the writers I find most interesting find ways to escape it.”

I don’t know that I think the traditional form or structure of a novel has to be totally thrown away. I think it’s about evolving the wheel, rather than reinventing it.

“It’s important for me to acknowledge my class privilege.”
Word. Up. As black women, we undoubtedly live outside the sphere of white male privilege, but as educated, middle-class women we do enjoy certain advantages. It’s easy to see how obtuse the powerful can be when you are in the underprivileged position, but easier to go blind when you’re in the power position. I know people, for example, who are quick to rail against economic inequality in the States, yet are happy to perpetuate it in Ghana so they can continue to hire labor for dirt cheap.

“You very quickly realize you are expected to play the good black, because you are not African-American.”
Yup. The “good black”. And then comes that dawning moment when you’re denied entry into a shop or killed for looking suspicious… and you realize you’re playing a losing game. Through the glass doors of a luxury boutique or on a rainy night, the only thing some people see is your skin — and the generations of stereotypes, junk science, and institutionalized bias associated with it. 

“You can be in love in this country, and still be expected, if you go out, to individually pay for your own food.”
AMEN!

“Really, the only reason that race matters is because of racism.”
That’s right. Race is purely a construct, a figment. I recently read Dr. Yaba Blay’s (1)ne Drop Rule where she breaks down the 16 categories / designations of blackness in New Orleans and profiles people whose appearance don’t immediately indicate “black”. It drove home the point to me that blackness — and whiteness, and everything in between — are political and social identities that shape shift depending on culture, time, and space.

“I think there is a narrative that America likes to tell itself which is that all immigrants should be terribly grateful to have come and should therefore shut-up and not complain. And there are many good things about America, but it’s not perfect and people have trouble adapting and adjusting, and some people want to go home.”
Yes, indeed. One of the things immigrants’ rights opponents miss is that most people would prefer to live and work in their native country than start from scratch in a new land with little to no money, connections, contacts, or family support in most cases. If people really want folks not to come to America, they should start challenging foreign policy that cripples or compromises the economies of certain nations, and look at real reparations for nations that were literally robbed of their men, women, and children to work for free to build other nations. British slaveholders were given payouts when abolition outlawed slavery, and their descendants are still enjoying the financial legacy of this remuneration. What would happen–how would the globe’s economy be impacted–if the African nations that were plundered for the transatlantic slave trade were refunded for the loss?

Chimamanda Adichie Wins 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - peoplewhowrite

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Adichie’s third novel Americanah took top fiction honors at tonight’s National Book Critics Circle Award, beating out Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch which has been a near-unanimous hit, dominating most “Best of 2013” lists. Adichie’s book, which examined race from the perspective of a Nigerian hair blogger, also edged out Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being which also earned a spot on the Man Booker shortlist, Alice McDermott’s Someone, and Javier Marias’s The Infatuations. Americanah is also up for the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction.

Though pop-culture enthusiasts may have firtst become aware of Adichie when Beyonce sampled her TEDx speech on her much-debated 2013 track “***Flawless”, the Nigerian author has commanded literary attentions since her debut. Publishers Weekly called her 2003 novel Purple Hibiscus “lush, cadenced…accomplished”, and it was longlisted for the Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Baileys Prize).

Her sophomore effort, 2007’s Half of a Yellow Sun earned the the Orange, and has been adapted into a feature film starring Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, and Tony Award-winner Anika Noni Rose set for release later this year. Adichie’s 2009 short-story collection The Thing Around Your Neck was also well received.

National Book Critics Circle Award Winners_peoplewhowrite

The winners in all other competitive categories are:

AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Amy Wilentz’s Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A letter from Haiti

BIOGRAPHY
Leo Damrosch’s Jonathan Swift: His life and his world

CRITICISM
Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading

NON-FICTION
Sherri Fink, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a storm-ravaged hospital

POETRY
Frank Bidart’s Metaphysical Dog

Visit Bookcritics.org for more details.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Donna Tartt Among 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - peoplewhowrite

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

On Monday, the National Book Critics Circle announced 30 finalists for their 2014 awards ceremony on March 13, 2014 at 6p which is free to attend and open to the public. The list includes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Americanah, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being which also earned a spot on the Man Booker shortlist, and Donna Tartt‘s pretty much universally-lauded The Goldfinch. A few of the finalists below:

AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Sonali Deraniyagala, Wave (Knopf)
Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby (Viking)
Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped (Bloomsbury)
Amy Wilentz, Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A letter from Haiti (Simon & Schuster)

BIOGRAPHY
Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia: War, deceit, imperial folly and the making of the modern Middle East (Doubleday)
Leo Damrosch, Jonathan Swift: His life and his world(Yale University Press)
John Eliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (Knopf)
Linda Leavell, Holding on Upside Down: The life and work of Marianne Moore (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Mark Thompson, Birth Certificate: The story of Danilo Kis (Cornell University Press

CRITICISM
Hilton Als, White Girls (McSweeney’s)
Mary Beard, Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations (Liveright)
Jonathan Franzen, The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus, translated and annotated by Jonathan Franzen with Paul Reiter and Daniel Kehlmann (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Janet Malcolm, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Franco Moretti, Distant Reading (Verso)

FICTION
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah (Knopf)
Alice McDermott, Someone (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Javier Marias, The Infatuations (Knopf)
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (Viking)
Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (Little, Brown)

NON-FICTION
Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the manhunt that brought him to justice (Norton)
Sherri Fink, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a storm-ravaged hospital (Crown)
David Finkel, Thank You For Your Service (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
George Packer, The Unwinding: An inner history of the new America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the prison of belief (Knopf)

POETRY
Frank Bidart, Metaphysical Dog (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Lucie Brock-Broido, Stay, Illusion (Knopf)
Denise Duhamel, Blowout (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Bob Hicok, Elegy Owed (Copper Canyon)
Carmen Gimenez Smith, Milk and Filth (University of Arizona Press)

Get the full list of finalists here. If you’re in New York, plan to attend the free finalist’s reading on Wednesday March 12, 2014 at 6p, New School University, 66 West 12th Street.

Beyonce Sample & New York Times Shout Boost Adichie's "Americanah"

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Adichie’s third novel Americanah was already doing quite well.  Since its release earlier this year, it’s enjoyed a steady stream of almost unanimously favorable reviews and has been ranked among the low thousands out of the millions of books on Amazon. But the combination of Beyoncé sampling Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists” TEDx Talk on her album released on December 13th, and the New York Times ranking it among the top 10 of 2013 has caused the book to leap 682 spots on Amazon’s ranking system in just 11 days.

The Atlantic‘s Robinson Meyer tracked the book’s progress from 5pm December 12th, hours before Beyoncé surprised fans and the music industry by simultaneously releasing 14 new songs and 17 music videos without advance hype, through yesterday: “At 5 p.m. on December 12, 2013—the day before the album came out—Amazon ranked Americanah #861 of all hardcover books,” Meyer noted. “Five days later, the book was ranked #632. Today, the book is ranked #179.”

Meyer put the rise in context, crediting the Times as well:

Moving with such speed through the top 1,000 books on Amazon is a slog, because books in the top couple hundred slots sell much more than books in the low thousands. It’s much harder to advance from #200 to #199 than it is from #2,000 to #1,999.

But if you look at the chart of historical sales rank data, you’ll see Americanah had already shot through the rankings before the release of Beyoncé. On December 1, the book was ranked #3,873; On December 6, it was ranked #1,811. It fell another thousand before the release of Beyoncé. What happened?

This: On December 4th, the New York Times called Americanah one of the top 10 books of 2013.

Head to The Atlantic to read Meyer’s full story.

Elizabeth Gilbert Calls 2013 "The Year of the Woman Writer"

"Eat, Pray, Love" author Elizabeth Gilbert declares 2013 "The Year of the Woman Writer" - peoplewhowrite

Elizabeth Gilbert

“2013 = THE YEAR OF THE WOMAN WRITER!” Elizabeth Gilbert posted on her Facebook page last month, adding, “…what a year 2013 has been for female authors!”

Citing Alice Munro’s Nobel win as the cap on a year of stellar writing by women, Gilbert listed Donna Tarrt, Jesmyn Ward, and Rayya Elias, among a list of the authors of her favorite 2013 books. “Somewhere in the vast library of heaven,” she continued, “George Eliot, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton and a bunch of other fantastic female phantasms are having a celebratory bottle of champagne, smiling proudly over of us.”

Her declaration seems especially timely not only because of the preponderance of acclaimed female authors that received recognition this year (see Man Booker winner Eleanor Catton and the illustrious literary ladies that shared the shortlist of six with her: NoViolet Buluwayo, Jhumpa Lahiri and Ruth Ozeki, for example), but also because of the sheer volume of column inches and internet bandwidth given to issues directly related to women. This year, it seemed pop culture was particularly obsessed with the challenges impacting women’s lives from how decisions regarding marriage and fertility impact workplace ascendancy, to questions of sexual objectification.

It started with Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller Lean In, released in March. The Facebook COO’s book reignited the “woman’s place” debate for a new generation, adding to the ongoing viral discussion sparked by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s June 2012 article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” It seemed every outlet had to weigh in with the Wall Street Journal‘s Nikki Waller quipping “We are in a bull market for think pieces about Sheryl Sandberg,” in a post rounding up coverage of the book from Cosmo to Forbes.

Miley Cyrus’ infamous twerking episode at MTV’s VMAs poured gas on the conversation, eliciting fiery back and forth across the web. The New York Times‘ Jon Caramanica advised Cyrus’ detractors to “Get Back, and Just Let Miley Cyrus Grow Up” while Entertainment Weekly ran  Sinead O’Connor’s open letter to the young star in which she warned Cyrus: “you will obscure your talent by allowing yourself to be pimped, whether it’s the music business or yourself doing the pimping.” Then there is all the grousing going on about Beyonce’s decision to sample writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx Talk “We Should All Be Feminists” on her surprise December album.

Writer Lauren Sandler waded into the wider conversation alleging female authors might do better with just one child — drawing instant clap back from authors Zadie Smith and Aimee Phan among others who also happen to be mothers. Meanwhile, J.K. Rowling (who opted not to write under her name Joanne because “her publisher, Barry Cunningham…thought that young boys might be wary of a book written by a woman”) released a new book under a more explicitly male-sounding pen name “Robert Galbraith.”

Though Rowling was clear her reason for publishing her latest bestseller The Cuckoo’s Calling as Galbraith was because she “wanted totally unvarnished feedback,” it’s hard not to wonder why she didn’t choose a female pseudonym. Does she feel adult male readers would also be wary of a book written by a woman — just as George Eliot née Mary Anne Evans did when she was writing in the 1800s? If so, Rowling might not be wrong.

This summer, sci-fi writer Ann Aguirre expressed deep frustration and anger at sexist attitudes aimed at her by both male readers and male writers. Likewise, VidaWeb.org noted that, in 2012, male reviewers (the gender of most literary reviewers) disproportionately reviewed books written by men. Author Jodi Picoult tweeted about the phenomenon this summer: “Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.”

So, yes, 2013 was a great year as far as stellar writing and bestsellers by women — just as 2012 was, but it’s obvious our culture has a lot more growing up to with respect to women’s stories. We’ve always had talented female writers. If there is a celebration going on in heaven, I’d like to believe Phyllis Wheatley and Christina Rosetti, are also clinking glasses with the heroines of prose Gilbert mentioned. Here’s hoping the male readers and reviewers who might be just a little bit wary will catch up in 2014. And here’s looking to a day when the next Mary Anne Evans and Joanne Rowling won’t have to worry about their gender detracting them from being taken seriously either way; when our literary mothers, sisters and daughters can toast to something else.

Beyonce Sampled Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TedX Talk


By now, you have likely heard that Beyoncé released a surprise album on iTunes at midnight on Friday, December 13, 2013. And in addition to the usual samples and collabos, Ms. Knowles incorporated Chimamanda Adichie’s TedX Talk “We Should All Be Feminists” (embedded below) on the track “***Flawless.”

The maverick move is a brilliant extension of the singer’s brand as a complicated woman grappling with both the societal pressures on females (and celebrities) to be flawlessly beautiful, and the enduring legacy of second wave feminism which stigmatized the ideal of female domesticity and certain expectations of femininity (including beauty). It expands her brand as well, forcing thought snobs who might have heretofore dismissed the singer as an empty-headed pop-tart lacking in gravitas to rethink their sniffs at popular culture.

But it also exposes Beyoncé’s fan base — and the American mainstream — to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and by extension, an aquifer of intellectual ideas and culture, should they choose to tap it.

Adichie is not necessarily hurting for publicity. She is the award-winning author of four works of fiction, all of which have enjoyed the most high placed critical acclaim. Her latest novel Americanah has sat atop several Best of 2013 lists and her novel Half of a Yellow Sun has been adapted into a film starring Golden Globe nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) and Thandie Newton.

Adichie’s books document and interrogate Nigerian culture — both in history, in contemporary Nigeria and the Diaspora. She’s also given another much-applauded TED Talk called “The Danger of a Single Story” that challenges assumptions and stereotypes about African culture, among other things. With the eyeballs and eardrums that Beyoncé commands, perhaps there will be expansion of narrow views about black culture, especially African life.

Perhaps most exciting — and a little daunting — this unexpected collaboration confirms the same ol’-same ol’ marketing plans (for writers and pop stars) are in dire need of refresh. It can be done simply. Recording artists have sampled speeches before and writers have performed with singers before. But there needs to be consistency around thinking past convention. The culture (“high” and “pop”) craves — and needs — it.

Trapped in a Conversation We Didn't Start

Brian Bwesigye wrote "Is Afropolitanism Africa's New Single Story? Reading Helon Habila's Review of 'We Need New Names'" - peoplewhowrite

Brian Bwesigye

A friend recently shared Brian Bwesigye’s compelling piece about author Helon Habila‘s review of NoViolet Buluwayo’s Man Booker shortlisted debutWe Need New Names. Bwesigye argues that Habila’s critique of Buluwayo’s novel is steeped in “Afropolitanism“–a concept whose origination is attributed to Ghana Must Go scribe Taiye Selasi. He adds, Habila’s position is in ironic danger of constricting the African experience in literature to “a single story,” a phenomenon writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie eloquently alerted promotes viewing the world through a myopic, self-centered lens.

If you haven’t listened to Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” check it out. In short she explains the single story as this: “Show a people the same way over and over again, and that is what they become.” She elaborates on the danger: “It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.”

What struck me in Bwesigye’s piece were the self-defining terms we’ve created or come to cling to. Selasi’s “Afropolitan.” Habila’s “post-nationalist.”

They conjured the many terms African Americans have claimed to wrestle their/our identity from white Americans.  “Negro.” “Black.” “Black-American.” “Afro-American.” “African-American.” “Nigga.”

All of them make me faintly sad.

I get why classification is rife. I have written in earlier posts that I am delighted to be known as an “African writer” because I feel there is just as much pride in it as being an “American writer.” It’s a statement in acknowledgment–and defiance–of the cultural allusion that certain identifiers are better than others. But even in this defiance, I too am trapped.

In the world we live in, it would be naive of me to demur racial, gender, national, et al classifiers as meaningless–though race in particular was constructed–because over the history of humankind they have come to be embedded with layers and layers of meaning.  But what saddens me is that these (self-)identifiers are reactions to an overarching definition that we still seem to lend the most authority and credibility–the patriarchal, Eurocentric/American one. From the days of colonialism and slavery through today, blacks and all people of color have been trapped in a conversation–about ourselves!–that we didn’t even start.

Would we call ourselves Afropolitan, if the trope of the uneducated, untraveled, unexposed, wretched African hadn’t been so indelibly inscribed into our collective cultural consciousness by the Eurocentric storyteller? Would we be post-nationalist if we had not been forced to seek escape from volatile socioeconomic and political conditions; these created by a legacy of pernicious Western foreign policy and poor governance at home?

Would we, with a complexion spectrum that ranges from the deepest dark to the brightest light, call ourselves “black”? Would we allow white Americans to get away with calling themselves just “American” while people of color hyphenate? Would we tolerate the lumping of vastly varied cultures into the catchall “people of color?” Would we be claiming the term “nigga” for ourselves?

One of the most annoying things to me is to read a white character described simply as “he” or “she,” while anyone of any other color has to be explained. It happens in conversation too. This has been the norm for so long, it becomes almost comical when you become embroiled in the PC-version of the conversation, or when newscasters trip over themselves to say anything but a perpetrator’s race when reporting a crime.

I am preoccupied these days, in my writing and in my life, with getting to who we were before slavery/colonialism became the dominant narrative of the historic black experience. Who are we now? Though there are shared origins, histories, and experiences, I think the operative word is “we”. There is no single definer or identifier. There is so single story.

Chimamanda Adichie on Chinua Achebe's New Book

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Chinua Achebe's new book

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reviews Chinua Achebe’s new memoir There Was a Country

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun reviewed legendary writer Chinua Achebe’s new memoir There was a Country for Nigerian publication Premium Times with frankness– ” I wish THERE WAS A COUNTRY had been better edited and more rigorously detailed in its account of the war. But these flaws do not make it any less seminal: an account of the most important event in Nigeria’s history by Nigeria’s most important storyteller.” — and uses the review as an opportunity to interrogate the varying memories of the Biafran war. It’s fascinating to read her take on one of her literary heroes, the author of Things Fall Apart; and no less riveting to read the impassioned comments, one of which “start[s] off by advising” Adichie to “stick to literature”.  As we writers know, writing has never been about sticking to literature.