New generation of Nigerian novelists emerge

Writers are diverse group; subjects range from food to politics

Posted: Friday, December 15, 2006

LONDON - Conflict and corruption, exile and loss. The new novelists chronicling modern Nigeria and its place in the world shy from none of it. But it's not just their attention to the big issues that these literary heirs to Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe have in common. There's the food.

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A reader might sniff the exotic in the steam rising from the sophisticated stews of meat and smoked fish and peppers, or the homey dishes of garri - roasted cassava flakes. But in describing the textures and smells of the kitchen and the way the making and eating of meals can define an individual's place in society, novelists find the universal in the details. And in hunger, they find a metaphor for other human yearnings - for peace, for justice, for home.

Or maybe, novelist Sefi Atta said with a laugh, "It's just the time we spend making our food that makes it so significant in our literature."

While several common themes run through their work, these new Nigerian writers are a diverse group. Their rise brings to mind the late 1990s prominence of emerging Indian writers such as Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai who explored similar issues in starkly different ways.

Atta is a former accountant who started writing fiction in her 30s. Helen Oyeyemi, now a student in Britain, wrote her first novel while she should have been studying for her high school finals. New York-based Uzodinma Iweala writes in the patois of a barely literate child soldier in his first novel; Helon Habila quotes the Greek poet Sappho in his.

Chris Abani, a California-based poet and novelist whose work has been noted everywhere from NBC's "Today" to International PEN, and Segun Afolabi spent most of their lives abroad. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spent her formative years in Nigeria.

"For me, it was gratifying to hear from people who are not Nigerian, not African, that they saw themselves in the novel," Adichie, perhaps the best known of the new voices from Nigeria, said of her first novel, "Purple Hibiscus."

The 2004 chronicle of the toll colonial rule took on one man, his family and his nation won a Commonwealth Writers' Best First Book award and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. This year, Adichie followed with the even more ambitious "Half of a Yellow Sun," which was named a New York Times editors' choice. It is set during the Biafran war, Nigeria's civil war that broke out in 1967 and left over 1 million dead.

"I set out to write books about Nigeria, and Nigeria happens to be a country in which politics plays a major role," Adichie said in an interview from New Haven, Conn., where she is in graduate school at Yale University.

Atta, who went to school in England and now lives in the United States, said novelists can offer a more nuanced and complete portrait of their homelands, but she makes no excuse for including the bad with the good. Most Africans are living desperate lives, and their stories deserve to be told, she said.

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