The danger of a single author

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel, 'Americanah,' was the 2017 choice for the “One Book, One New York” campaign. Is the campaign necessarily a good thing?

Adiche. Image via Commonwealth Foundation Flickr.

You might expect unbridled enthusiasm from literature professors for the “One Book, One New York” campaign, a project that claims to be “the largest community reading program in the country.” It champions literature, seeing it as uniquely positioned to bring people together; capable of building connections across difference in a world in which the arts hold an increasingly tenuous foothold.

Given U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent proposal to scrap both the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts, this is a particularly timely moment for such a project. And the election of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel, Americanah, by those New Yorkers who took time to vote for it, suggests a desire for books that reflect the city’s pro-immigrant, cosmopolitan tendencies, as do most of the other works in competition with Americanah. Yet a closer look at the winning choice points to some less than savory truths about the place of African fiction and African writers in the United States and the “Global North.”

The four other books nominated indicate a preference for books concerned with themes of racial, ethnic, and class diversity. Apart from the anomalous choice of the 1943 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, the three others (Junot Diaz’s 2007 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Ta Nahesi-Coates’ more recent Between the World and Me, and 2016’s Booker Prize winner The Sellout by Paul Beatty) suggest a preference for works with clear and current political and racial thematic emphases. This is New York, the subway ads seem to indicate, even while Trump’s photo-ops at the White House depict a more homogeneous United States.

The multiculturalism celebrated by New York City depends, regrettably, on well-worn forms of dispossession, re-entrenching global inequality even as its marketing campaign claims to resist it. Julie Menin, the Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, purportedly promoted the “One Book, One New York” program in order to enhance the stature and financial clout of NYC-based publishing houses. This is all very well for Penguin Random House, Americanah’s publisher, and “the world’s largest English-language general trade book publisher,” but what Menin and others ignore as they help fill corporate coffers, is how such behemoths destroy non-Western publishing houses, much as Amazon has destroyed small booksellers, making it impossible for them to compete either for the best African writers’ books, or for the wealth that works like Americanah produce.

In an important 2008 article in “The Chronic,” the cultural supplement to South African-based Chimurenga magazine, Jeremy Weate observes that African literature is often treated as yet another extractable source for the enrichment of Euro-American publishing. All of the wealth that novels such as Americanah produce is recouped in the West, echoing earlier imperial patterns of wealth accumulation, which, to use Ian Baucom’s pithy phrase, ensure that “expansion contracts.” Like oil, or “black gold,” extracted in Nigeria, but refined off-shore for re-import and resale to Nigerian consumers, African fiction, for Weate, “is simply another form of capital whose value is formed and transacted in London or New York (for the English-speaking world),” where the judges of literary prizes, and critics, and academics (like myself) confer value (or refuse it) on literary works.

That such processes of African literary canonization occur not on the continent itself, but via circuits through the West that mimic the flow of capital, is of course inextricably related. But there are certain African works and certain African writers that critics and academics in the Global North admire more than others. Adichie has been a darling of the West for some time now, since her oft-cited 2009 “TED talk” on “The Danger of a Single Story,” and more recently, since her collaboration with Beyoncé, the publication of her tepid defense of feminism, and her role as intellectual muse for a 2016 fashion show organized by Christian Dior. The infamous “Page Six” column in The New York Post reports, furthermore, that Americanah is being primed by Lupita Nyong’o for the screen. By picking an African author who has come to represent all African writers for U.S. audiences, the “One Book, One New York” project inadvertently defangs and corporatizes all the difference out of the program that seemed to want, admirably, to place works focused on people and places outside of the white mainstream at the center of a set of new literary canons.

Don’t get me wrong. I also love certain of Adichie’s works, particularly her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, a coming-of-age story about a timid young woman in Nigeria, growing up under the thumb of a tyrannical and abusive father. The short stories in That Thing Around Your Neck, too, include some stellar examples of how much a good writer can do with a short, tight, light touch, and when I teach these or her first novel, students are riveted. But Americanah is not nearly as good a book, so it’s a curious choice. Of course, its title, and its engagement with Americans means readers don’t have to work very hard, so any sense of unfamiliarity they might have with the narrator’s life in Nigeria before she moves to the East Coast of the U.S. is quickly replaced by recognizable characters and settings.

The choice of Americanah ultimately seems more symbolic than anything else. Much as that other famous Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, was repeatedly called upon, against his own wishes, to represent all African writers in the West, Adichie has had the misfortune of becoming the latest iteration of the West’s simplistic tokenistic relation to the African continent, a reductionism that obliterates the possibility of richer, more varied engagements with African writing and publishers. For of course there are myriad examples of new and interesting African writing that is largely ignored by Western audiences, especially when it is not an example of what Siyanda Mohutsiwa deems “immigrant literature” – those stories and novels that end with the main character leaving the African continent for places in North America or Europe – or when the work jettisons the documentary realism often expected from African fiction in favor of other formal and thematic emphases.

So while it seems admirable to get more people to read works that address cross-cultural experience all the while shoring up a dwindling book-publishing industry, as is so often the case with literary celebrity, the choice of Americanah may have less to do with aesthetic merit, in the end, than with the narrow geopolitical space allotted to African fiction in the West. This then swiftly undermines Adichie’s celebrated caveat about “The Danger of a Single Story.”

Further Reading

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After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.