Wednesday 17 November 2010
My Life is Readable?
Chimamanda Adichie often speaks (most famously in this Ted Talk) about how reading Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, gave her permission to tell her own stories. Hitherto she had written about white children playing in white snow and drinking tan ginger beer but after reading Achebe, she realised that Africans were worthy of their own fiction and so set off on her journey to becoming the writer we all know today.
My story is somewhat different.I too was prone to writing the characters that I read in popular Western fiction. Thus all my books were set in America, in a landscape gleaned from my brief summer holidays there. My characters were white middle class, then African American middle class, then because my mother once told me to 'write what I know,' I bowed to her wisdom and made the father of this African American family of Nigerian extract. Like Chimamanda, I didn't think African people should be in books but not because I felt this was somehow taboo but because I just didn't think they could be fictionalised in an interesting way.
Nigeria was not exotic. It wasn't interesting. You could, if you wanted to, write novels with scenes of the traffic I sat in everyday, and the rice and stew I ate everyday and the mosquitoes that bit me in the night but Eze Goes To School would never be as sweet as Malory Towers and The Bottled Leopard only a dark flimsy retelling of Tom Brown's School Days.
It was only after I'd travelled four thousand miles and eaten apples everyday, and seen the lacrosse that Enid Blyton was always talking about, and tasted the famous fish and chips (fat and oil), that I realised that if English writers could fictionalize Sunday Roast in a way that made me want to taste it, then I could try and write about Ijebu garri, sugar and water in way that would make a Chinese man want to drink it. The longer I stayed away, the more interesting, and exotic, and readable my country became. After all Nigeria is a nation of hyperbole that even the wildest fiction cannot dream up. It is a place of police men arresting goats and women begging in traffic with borrowed babies and of politicians cross dressing to cross borders. If writers block should ever knack, then all one had to do was look outside their window.
So 4,ooo miles away, sitting in my cold room in school, I began to type away at the nucleus for what would eventually become my novel. For the first time, it would be set in Nigeria, with Nigerian characters, with Nigerian accents. For the first time the hero would be Nigerian, the villain Nigerian, the clown Nigerian, the battered, bruised, humoured, abused, loved, hated, laughed at, all would be Nigerian. It took me four thousand miles to believe that my country was interesting and complex enough to be read about at home, talk less of on a world stage. It was a while but I am glad I made it in the end. Some are still travelling.