Wednesday, August 04, 2010

On the Igbotic....

A gracious review of The Thing Around Your Neck on this excellent Ghanaian literary blog. Kinna comments,

"Although I appreciate the universality of her themes, I find Adichie’s insistence on situating every story she writes in the Igbo community unsettling. For an African like me, who looks to a unified view of the continent, who sees Africa as greater than the sum of its individual groups, I had hoped that Adichie works would reflect the diversity that is Nigeria."

This opens up an interesting and contentious topic. On the one hand, one might say that the best writers write about what they know - in this case observations of middle-class campus life in the South-East of Nigeria, and more recently, elements of diasporic experience in the US. On the other hand, the writer's mettle can perhaps only be truly tested when they venture well beyond their spatio-temporal comfort zones. One might then wonder why the kaleidoscopic everythingelseness of Nigeria is bracketed out in favour of what is sometimes referred to as 'the Igbotic': the obsession with a particular culture, a specific narrative and what amounts to a single story.

I sometimes dream of a book which demonstrates the colonial/post-colonial artifice of ethnicity and 'tribe' on the continent. In Nigeria's case, a tome exposing the myth of indigeneity is sorely needed, but that's another topic. In terms of story, both within Nigeria, the sub-region and across the continent, building up strands of connectedness and interconnection has to be the way forward, as Africa increasingly learns to talk and listen to itself.


Myne Whitman 1:15 am  

Interesting. One should bear in mind that a writer decides on what to write and not the readers. Almost all of Stephen King's novels are set in new England America, Maine to be specific. And this writer want CA to write about Ghana or SA?

I will advice them to be read more widely, there are many more authors than win the Orange or Commonwealth prizes. I love the Pan-African idea but in a way that necessitates a putting away of individual cultures. Ghanaian and other African writers abound to give us a plurality of stories.

I have other criticisms about this thing about your neck as I have just finished it. Will be up on my blog soon.

Anonymous,  8:33 am  

Excellent blog. Thanks for sharing all these treasures you find Jeremy. This author's blog kept me up reading the whole night. I am definitely going to order Imagine This and Tropical Fish.

How do we get your books in Warri?

Anonymous,  9:08 am  

If she is an African-American writer setting her novels in inner-city America, would such a question ever arise?

The genius of Adichie's writing is the ability to extract universal themes from an otherwise parochial setting and therein depict the universality of humanity. Of course, the complexity of Ibo (and most other African) culture also offers a rich tapestry for extraordinary and diverse story telling.

The worst thing that a writer can do is to dilute his/her writing with an essentially ephemeral treatment (or mistreatment) of relatively unfamiliar settings.

Anonymous,  7:49 pm  

Chimamanda is Igbotic to the core and proudly so. I hope she won't end up boring the rest of us with her ndi'igbo and pan africanist stance. I sometimes find her writing and her persona a bit too contrived. She is too typical. We ne variance abeg!

Amalinze,  2:30 pm  

...nna leave de gal biko!!!

Chi,  3:20 pm  

on igbotism - i grew up in enugu in eastern nigeria so i can relate to her. those that grew up in a place like lagos could have a wider understanding and appreciation of nigeria as a whole. but growing up in a place like enugu or nsukka, all we know and experience is igbo people and culture. she did try to incorporate other ethnicities but only in the context of campus life as she knows it.

on the need to diversify character and place - sorry i found that criticism to be laughable. should chinua achebe have set more of his novels in east africa? if you want to read about south african authors, you should read a south african writer. for the most part, africans on the continent have been quite insular until recently. and pan-africanism is stronger outside the continent than within it.

in fact to attempt to jump from one culture to another, an author runs the risk of stereotyping because it will be the fastest short cut.
see what happens when nigerians were portrayed in that south african whose name i will not mention.

Anonymous,  3:48 pm  

Africa is a very diverse continent ethnically, we have different cultures and they should all be individually promoted instead of promoting the farce that is called "pan africanism" that seeks to homogenize all 800 million Africans.

Jeremy 4:16 pm  

In all this, it would be helpful to remember that the concept of "Igbo", "Yoruba" and so on as separate ethnicities was an invention that emerged during the Colonial era. It was suggested very recently that the Igbo language itself might last another 50 years. Whether or not this is true, the fact that it is talked about reminds us of the transience and provisionality of all our identities.

I find it quite predictable and depressing that a few of the comments seemed to be affirming ethnic insularity, suggesting that its better that Igbo writers confine themselves to "promoting" Igbo themes. As if writing was ever about promotion! Which writer thinks like this?

Should Chinua Achebe have set one or more of his novels in East Africa? Why not? Should a South Africa writer write about Nigeria? Why not? Should Nigerian write about South Africa? Why not? Writers in many other parts of the world do not set themselves artificial limits on the time or place about which they want to cover in their writing. Why on earth would African writers want to be so limited in their outlook, reducing themselves to a single story?

Eghosa Imasuen 3:15 am  

I believe there should be no artificial boundaries. But one has to write what one 'knows'. Knowing, in this sense, either through personal experience or the intense joy that comes from researching obscure material. That said, the opinion presented by the blog could be intepreted as assuming that because colonialists presented us with artificial boundaries that no boundaries exist in Africa, between African peoples, between Africans themselves. I do not presume to defend an insular writer who refuses to write about the other tribe because they are 'the other,' no. But I believe that the niches exist, and are filled, whether knowingly or otherwise, by writers who have chosen to tell their stories.
And the terms you consider to be colonial inventions meant to divide, Igbo and Yoruba, actually united diverse peoples and tribes that shared a slight similarity in language, so, Jeremy, we can say an Oshogbo man writing about Ondo settings and people is following your advice and ignoring boundaries.
So maybe when the writers interested in urban themes finally break through, we can have truly African fiction, concerned with universal themes of disconnectedness, etc. But wait, these guys already exist. Then we should consider convincing them to switch place-names in their subsequent fiction, so that the universality of theme and purpose can be helped by the vagueness of spatio-temporal ambiguity.
No, I disagree. Let the honest writer write with an openness that gives her work universality no matter where it is based. And let those brave enough to tell all stories do so. But let us not ignore our differences; let us not ignore our diversity. Because, though this is not what you suggest, J, some would seek to only see this supposition in this post.

chidinma,  6:20 pm  

I don't believe ethnicism is a colonial invention. It's something that has been. That maybe it wont b again in d future doesn't make it a man made institution. D only crime of colonialism was merging different ethnics together with no regards or respect for their culture.
Personally, I feel that diff experiences make diff writers go into writing. For Chimamanda, I like to think it was for love of her culture, and subsequently its language. This is who she is. It is what made her. The fact that she is on top of what she's doing, I believe, is d essential thing.

Anonymous,  11:42 am  


The Ibo population of about 25 million is more than the COMBINED populations of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland -- as is the Yoruba's estimated 30 million population (and even more for the Fulani and Hausa, among others).

These are actually ethnic NATIONALITIES, with their own distinct nation-states and institutions (political and cultural), built upon ethnic and linguistic commonality and occupying distinct and largely contiguous areas, that long preceded colonial rule.

Accordingly, rather than "inventing" these ethnic groups as separate entities, colonial rule actually sought to minimize their distinctiveness primary for administrative convenience (and to emphasize such distinctiveness only when politically convenient).

Anonymous,  9:06 am  

Why should one write about an enviroment he or she knows nothing about? Why should Adochie be writing about my home state of Ekiti when she has probably never been there before. This skewed sense of ethnicity that there is "one" Africa is the reason why Westerners misunderstand our continent and the main reason why colonization destroyed the African continent: it sought to force different nation states together into an unholy matrimony (or shotgun marriages) hence all the civil wars and dysfunction we have today.

Anonymous,  9:06 pm  

Someone like Cyprian Ekwensi was able to write books based in Northern and Western Nigeria so well despite being igbo because he was born in the north and schooled in the West.

I am an Igbo girl who have lived and schooled in Lagos, Benin, Akure and Enugu. If I had the gift of writing I feel quite confident that I would write well about a yoruba or Edo character.

CNA on the other hand lived and schooled in the East before leaving for the US. So I do not see how she can write about any ethnic group without doing them some injustice.

She is still young and has only published 3 books so far so let us give her time. She spends a lot of her return trips to Nigeria in Lagos so who knows her next book might be about a Tope or an Alero. And if she chooses not to write about any other ethnic group its her prerogative.

In the meantime if people are sick of reading about Igbo culture there are other wonderful African writers too Lola Soneyan, Sefi Attah, Helon Habila ....

Chi,  2:30 am  

Jeremy...thanks for the response. I think you misunderstood my main point. Which simply is: A writer SHOULD NOT be criticized for choosing to write about what they know about first hand. If they decide to branch out of their comfort zone, do diligent research and write CONVINCINGLY about another culture then of course it's welcome and refreshing.
But an author does not get a congratulatory pat on the back simply for writing outside his/her culture. The writer should only be applauded for producing a high quality work of literature. And that is why I say is that it is laughable to suggest otherwise.

Chinua Achebe did just fine writing mostly about the people of Eastern Nigeria. He should only write about East Africa if he wants to and not just to fulfill somebody else's Pan-African vision. There is no shortage of writers from East Africa. I can read them instead of waiting on the shadow of Mr. Achebe's pen to darken that corner of the map....haha

Eghosa, thank you for pointing out the "unviersalities" that a good story can encompass. I agree. Why should it matter so much that the characters are ONLY "Igbo" when the story resonates with a large group of people or gives some insight into the culture in which it takes place?

Marin 8:53 am  

I am quite shocked that you would suggest that the various ethnic groups in Nigeria were not distinct until colonialism. Please tell me you were joking?

Felix 8:38 pm  

She really did justice to the book. The novel already has attracted a lot of positive reviews on blogs and even merchant sites. She writes with a Nigerian background because that is where she grew up.

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