Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Review of In Dependence by Toyin Akinosho (first appeared in his Artsville column for The Guardian

Manyika Sets The Tone For 50th Anniversary Debate

BY releasing a novel based on the heady idealism of the late 50s and early sixties, exactly a year before the country's 50th anniversary, Sarah Ladipo Manyika has set the tone for the conversations around the 2010 celebrations. In Dependence, the story of a confident, self assured Tayo - the Nigerian student in search of the golden fleece –and Vanessa, the British lady who falls madly in love with him in Oxford - is the kind that prompts the reader to continually ask "So how did it go so horribly wrong?" 50 years ago, West African students in Britain were already questioning what credentials British filmmakers had to narrate a Nigerian documentary "without the Africans having the benefit of telling their own story".

A young British girl was afraid to become a reporter in Africa because of the talk of indigenisation sweeping through the continent. But the emerging middleclass was eager to invite expertise from anywhere. "There's so much to be done on our continent", Tayo's statement on the book's page 63, recalls Mobolaji Bank Anthony's invitation to J. Brandler in London, as reflected in Brandler's insightful biography of Nigeria: Out Of Nigeria: A Giant's Toils. Just as Chimamanda Adichie's Half Of A Yellow Sun can be said to summarise most of the civil war literature that came before it, so you do find narratives in Manyika's novel that remind you of passages in Soyinka's Ibadan, Brandler's Out of Nigeria, and the "sweeter", earlier parts of Oluremi Obasanjo's Bittersweet: My Life With Olusegun Obasanjo. There is hardly a forty-nine year old Lagosian, today, who is not nostalgic about the day he first went to the Apapa docks, as part of a family welcoming party, to receive an old cousin, just returning from England, on the famous Aureol. Reading Manyika, it all seems like the stars were lining up for the continent in the sixties. But now, with everything having turned out awry, it is people like Vanessa's conservative father, quoted as saying "And frankly, if you look at the mess in the rest of Africa, South Africa is doing well by comparison", who are having a laugh at the moment.

As a contribution to the narratives of the Nigerian immigrant experience abroad, In Dependence is a break from the two standard interpretations. The first theory is that the first generation immigrant is, for a considerable amount of time, so uncomfortable in his surroundings that most of the drama played out in the prose or drama stems largely from this discomfort. This is what you get from reading Onukaba Adinoyi Ojo's drama, Her Majesty's Visit, Segun Afolabi's Monday Morning and the title story in Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck. The various nuggets in the stories in Lawless, Sefi Atta's Noma award winning collection, also support the thesis. The second theory is that children of the immigrant are so much masters of the surrounding that they even dominate it. These are not Nigerians exactly: they are British or American or whatever. The strange eight year old Jess in Helen Oyeyemi's Icarus Girl fits this mould, so do the twins in Diane Evans' 26A as well as the philandering Oxonian in Diran Adebayo's Some Kind Of Black. What has not been part of the mainstream storytelling in Nigeria's Diaspora literature is a character like Tayo, the protagonist in In Dependence, who goes to England on scholarship to Oxford, just at the expiration of his secondary school studies in Nigeria. He has no hang ups; he has never experienced want; he is not looking for a job. He takes charge of things from day one, even though he is the first person from his family, who will study abroad. Is this about the spirit of those times? Or is it because of his age? There have been Nigerians who have gone abroad for further studies and even gone on to teach in ivy league schools and the stories they narrate (out of bound pages of a novel), are stories of uncertainty about the human landscape around them.


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