Monday, January 7, 2019

Readings in modern Igbo literature

Over the past few years my wife and I have read a lot of literature by Igbo authors.  When I say a lot, it's probably only four or five books in the course of two years, but if you're only occasionally reading novels outside of your normal cultural sphere of reference, and four of them end up being by authors from the same ethnic group in the same country, it seems like a lot.

Anyway, one of them is The Sound of Things to Come by Emmanuel Iduma.  This is a multi-perspective collection of vignettes that eventually converge, at least partially.  I hesitate to describe it as a Nigerian novel in a broad sense, since all the major characters are Igbo, and there's no attempt to explore viewpoints other than these Igbo people's particular visions.  The few times non-Igbos appear, it is either as attackers in interethnic violence, or as sleazy romantic partners that Igbo parents disapprove of. 

Iduma's novel deftly explores individuals, and specifically the internal conflict between reason and passion.  But the source of interest is basically that all of the people he profiles are disagreeable and self-centered.  The conflicts arise from people just randomly acting like jerks to one another.  The end effect is an expertly-rendered exploration of people that you don't particularly want to explore, and who are so unpleasant that they seem sometimes unrealistic.  Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is fascinating, but I wouldn't want to be friends with the protagonists, and frankly I'm not sure how many people even exist that are so brazenly, rawly ugly.

The novel thus paints a pretty bleak picture of Nigeria, or at least of Igbo culture, in the 21st century.  The salient cultural traits Iduma shows are a determined self-centeredness, a lack of human connection or emotion.  I don't know if Nigeria is really like this, but the country Iduma depicts made me really sad.  It is frequent in popular discourse to oppose the developed world, where material conditions are comfortable but human hope and emotion has been dulled, with the developing world, where people are poor but there is a certain human warmth and fun to life.  This is obviously a cliche, but at least some truth must be found in the objective fact (which is repeated in the next novel I'm going to discuss) that in the developing world, the present material poverty convinces many that the best times are yet to come, so the culture tends to be hopeful.  But Iduma's Nigeria is a country that exhibits dire poverty with no human affection or joy to temper it.  If this place really exists, it sounds pretty grim.

The other Igbo novel I read is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, about young people raised in Nigeria but always looking abroad for meaning and self-fulfillment.  The novel shares some common leitmotifs with Iduma's in its depiction of modern Nigeria.  Mercantilized love, hypereducated people, relentless classism, women kept by military strongmen, university strikes and demonstrations, a society where all money is dirty money, and a hypocritical religiosity heavy on prosperity theology and light on common decency (there's a scene where a woman who has been praising Jesus for bringing a corrupt general into her sister's life to keep her as a mistress, then turns around and insists that her sister get an abortion when she actually gets knocked up by said general).  But where Iduma's book is all character study and little relation to the larger society, Adichie's book expertly explores societies, but the individual people are mainly flat caricatures.  Not all of them--the Nigerian characters are a lot more fleshed out and three-dimensional.  But almost all the Americans and Brits are really just tropes of different strains of sanctimonious liberal flake. 

I wonder if the difference in depth of characterization of Nigerian vs. non-Nigerian characters in Americanah is due in part to the protagonist's (maybe even the author's?) perch as an outsider observing the US, located within the country but never feeling a part of it.  If so, it makes sense that the "real" people are those that she grew up with, while the new people she runs into in a new context are like so many extras in the movie of her life.  I know that's often how I feel about my friends and family vis a vis everyone else.  There are certain people I know and relate to in a very deep way because I have shared so many moments with them, and everyone else I just have a surface  impression of.

As with Iduma's irredeemably ugly characters, I don't think that most people are actually like Adichie's shallow Americans, and I certainly can't imagine being in any context where everyone around me is just phony and absurd.  I have certainly found myself at times around boors who only talk in cliches and groupthink, but when I am in a situation where I'm surrounded by them, I make it a point to get out of those settings as soon as I can.  So it's hard for me to imagine a 15-year stretch of someone only running into, and continuing to hang around, phony people.

That said, maybe I'm giving people's individuality more credit than I should.  I try not to act out predetermined roles or cliches (not that I'm aware of, at least), but maybe people find comfort in conforming  to certain of these molds.  I recently went to a dance school in my neighborhood to see about signing my kids up for classes in African dance and drums.  In my neck of West Africa, there is a cottage industry of master musicians, dancers, and choreographers who host people from all over the world for intensive multi-week workshops in these arts.  So when my family and I went, we caught a group of mainly Mexican students practicing their dance routine.  I was surprised (though not too surprised, I guess) at how similarly the non-African students were all dressed and coiffed.  Shaved sides of the head, long hair from the top, usually in braids or dreads, lots of piercings and tattoos on the rest of the body, baggy yoga/circus clothes (mixed of course with more practical, tight-fitting dance gear).  It was like a uniform they had all agreed on.  It was perhaps a confirmation of Adichie's implicit thesis that modern bourgeois people (both Americans and Nigerians in her novel) are only a collection of so many cultural tics and socially-controlled values, according to a pre-packaged image that each person tries to project.

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