I make no secret of the fact that books were my first love. My relationship with literature was in some senses about escapism. I sought narratives which provided me an alternative to my lived experience, stories that comforted me in times of destitution and made me the protagonist in adventures I could never conjure up in my teenage mind. My school librarian doted on me for being such an avid reader that she made me head junior librarian, this I wore as a badge of honour. I read the vast majority of books in our library’s fiction category and took full advantage of the Library’s maximum lending allowance.
However, at the age of 15, something made me completely change how I saw myself in the literary context. I was going through quite a process of self-discovery particularly with my race and gender and unfortunately the books at hand were unable to support me at that stage in my life. It was becoming apparent that I could no longer position myself in narratives about white middle class girls and their experiences. I started asking, what about black African girls with braids who have to do chores when they get back home and run errands for their parents and older siblings? Where were the characters that had to navigate teenage angst in Britain whilst dealing with racist bullying and taunting? What about black girls who dread getting their hair done because they hate the smell of relaxers and how much they burn? And girls who love to eat okra soup and pounded yam for dinner? What about me?
This problem became most evident at a book club session in school. We were all given Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses to read and it was my first time reading one of her books. It is safe to say that, that book changed so much for me. I remember coming to the book club with nothing but praise for Blackman, lauding her for putting ‘a spin’ on racism and providing a different perspective. However the reaction from my friends gathered around the table was anything but elation. The other kids were uncomfortable with the idea of racism being targeted towards whites; they were uncomfortable with the notion of being treated like black folks.
Regardless, I left that book club meeting shaken. From that day I resolved to only read books that reflect experiences that I could identify with. Our school librarian –although white and elderly – supported me wholeheartedly in my endeavours, introducing me to black female literary giants such as Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, whose work were few and far between in our small library. I was enthralled, taken by these relatable tales of racism and misogyny, whilst walking hand in hand with the characters as they traversed the hurdles placed in front of them with grace and superhuman strength. I was home.
That was really the stepping stone for me; as I went on to seek out African and writers from the Diaspora, in my later teenage years.
Upon reflection, I am now aware that what my younger teenage self was struggling with, was representation. I couldn’t see myself between the lines of popular paperbacks at school was because they didn’t and weren’t meant to cater to me. Even those that included black characters, they were always stereotypical. Why does she have to be the ‘sassy’ girl? Why does he have to be the only aggressive character that constantly gets detentions and then expelled? It shows that we are not only dealing with underrepresentation, but also confronting with inaccurate representation. This was what Chimamanda Adichie refers to as the ‘danger of the single story’, where historically literature has presented those of black and African origin as one dimensional, often playing up to dangerous orientalised tropes that paint us as the backwards and uncivilised other, think Joseph Conrad and The Heart of Darkness or even Joyce Carry’s Mister Johnson. The problem with this dangerous single story is that it sticks and contributes to the marginalisation of these groups. We in turn make the mistake of thinking that the words contained in these works are without power, which is far from the truth. Literature is in fact one of the many mediums through which epistemic violence can be exerted on marginalised communities; the silencing which takes place when our stories are written about us by those who don’t share our diverse cultural experiences.
So where do we go from here? I’m a staunch believer in a reclamation project of sorts, i.e. African writers reclaiming spaces and legitimising their stories. It fills me with so much joy to see writers within the continent and in the diaspora doing just that. Now not only are we telling African stories, we are also telling diverse African stories. Stories that cover the length and breadth of identity including queer African experiences, 1st and 2nd generation immigrant stories, religiosity and spirituality, race, empowerment of African women and much, much more. We now see the rise of contemporary African and diasporan literary voices including Marlon James, Roxanne Gay, Yaa Gyasi and of course Chimamanda Adichie. However, we shouldn’t become complacent because there is still so much to be done in the way of establishing African literature in the mainstream.
by Amarachi Iheke