The New World Way

There’s a thought-provoking piece in the June 30th online edition of The New York Times about African writers, their international bent, and their sudden (or what seems like sudden) literary fêting:
New Wave of African Writers With an Internationalist Bent
. To be certain, African writers have been celebrated in the past. Writers such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka received awards and international attention over the works, rooted heavily in the lives of Africans in Africa, they produced. Contemporary writers like Helen Oyeyemi and Dinaw Mengestu draw on their experiences as Africans in so-called western lands (Oyeyemi in England and Mengestu in the United States) and produce works about characters who are similar to them, who are making their way in the new world.

As a writer I’ve done the same in fiction–create West African characters who live in the U.S.–because it makes sense to me. It has also made sense to create strictly black American characters in other stories because I straddle both worlds. In the home that I was raised, my mother never hesitated to tell me “I’m an African mother. This is how it’s going to be.” However, when I was in school I tried to be as American as possible, which for the time period in which I came of age (late 80s/early to mid-90s) meant being entertained by episodes of A Different World, 90210, or Martin, or listening to artists like Salt n Pepa, Tupac, or 112.

Yet even with those outside influences, my home remained one where I heard conversations about the civil war in Liberia or interacted with the Nigerian side of the family (my mother’s cousins and uncles) or attended African weddings and listened to African music. The effect of all this was to produce the woman I am today who writes black American characters or West African characters.

What the NYT piece makes me contemplate is this new trend toward the “African in the West” trope and what would it mean for me as a writer of African characters if my name were readily recognizable as African as opposed to the very Anglo that it is (my middle name is solidly Igbo, however). There’s a story in there about how three-quarters of my family have Anglo last names despite the quite obvious locations of their births: My paternal grandfather; my paternal grandmother with her Anglo maiden name as well as Anglo re-married name; and my maternal grandmother whose maiden name is as Anglo as one can get. The story in few words is that there must be some connection to those who were sent back to Liberia and Sierra Leone at some point during or toward the end of slavery in the new world; that they docked in Liberia and Sierra Leone bearing the names of their previous owners.

If editors at literary journals are more convinced of a story about Africans by a writer with a traditional ethnic African name, I wonder where that places me? The complexities of a child of immigrants in the new world is something I’ve lived. It’s also something that I’ve attempted to pull from when writing a particular short story. However, if it’s submitted by someone with a Jane Smith-like name, does that affect “sellability,” as in could a reader buy the culture represented as it is, of the narrative? Would it read as not authentic? Are assumptions being made that I’m trying on another culture by virtue of having the name that I have? Would the story be more convincing if it were written by a Grace Obinna or Amaka Agu rather than Jane Smith? I struggle with these questions. I don’t have the answers.

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