The only Nigerian Nobel Prize winner was Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian playwright and poet who was recognised for his contribution to literature in 1986. Clearly, Nigeria is not lacking in literary talent, yet books written by national authors and published by Nigerian publishing houses are shockingly scarce. The authors are far more likely to be picked up by Western publishing houses before they have a chance to become successful back home.
Such was the story with globally acclaimed authors such as Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Wole Soyinka himself. “The best writing is not about the writer, the best writing is absolutely not about the writer, it’s about us, it’s about the reader,” – Ben Okri, Nigerian poet and novelist. So why must the most relatable stories be road-tested on a western audience before being released for whom they were intended?
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
Literature knows no bounds. The range in style and substance varies massively, which means there are countless levels on which a story can appeal to a reader. An individual’s go-to genre might be fantasy or sci-fi, books that give them the chance to escape into a world which is completely alien to their own. However, reading about even the most fantastical of worlds doesn’t measure up to the thrill of reading about the city and even the streets you grew up around. The familiarity and intimacy you feel with the text when the characters are travelling a road you too know so well is entirely different – it’s a melancholic sort of pride like reminiscing about old times with a dear old friend.
During an inspirational talk at the TED conference in 2009, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talked about how Nigerians (and people of colour in general) struggle to find other ethnic characters that they can identify with. Read the Post The Stories That Shape Us [Essay]
But in the introduction, Chang frames the core of the most recent case of racial backlash. Explaining the outsized reaction by some whites to President Obama, Chang notes:
In the 1830s white minstrels had put on blackface, creating space for the white working class to challenge the elite, while keeping Blacks locked into their racial place. Obama now appeared as a dual symbol of oppression. Because of his Blackness, he was even more of an outsider—and in that sense, even more American—than them. But he was also the president. His Blackness did not just confer moral and existential claims, it was backed by the power of the state.
And there went everything.
As much as we like to talk about the inevitability of America being majority-minority in 2042, the events playing out across the nation show that most places are outright hostile to the idea that people of color are equal Americans, with the same rights, privileges, representation, and agenda setting power bestowed to whites. Chang turns his critical eye to shifts in culture which becomes documentation of rise (and fall?) of multiculturalism. Read the Post Who We Be Examines the War on Multiculuralism
Like most of my friends in elementary school, I was obsessed with The American Girl dolls and books The dolls lacked comprehensive diversity back then, in that they had one single doll of colour until 1997. I owned Felicity Merriman, a white girl who lived in colonial Williamsburg, but received Addy Walker, a former slave who escapes from the South into Philadelphia, soon after she debuted in 1993. As per my mother’s rule, I read all six of Addy’s books before being gifted the doll. But unlike Felicity’s, I didn’t often revisit them for pleasure. In my constant search for American historical fiction with protagonists of colour written for young readers, I often come across the same problem I did when I was younger: it’s all really depressing.
Addy Walker’s story begins in Meet Addy while she’s still enslaved, and I have vivid memories of one paragraph where her overseer forces her to eat tobacco leaf worms. If you had asked me, when I was younger, to state a fact about Harriet Tubman I would have told you about the time her mistress threw a porcelain sugar bowl at her head. Meanwhile, Felicity’s biggest worry in life in Meet Felicity was saving a horse. My favourite young adult historical fiction author, Ann Rinaldi, wrote stories that spanned across races, but her romantic stories about southern belles and women of the revolutionary war were always more fun to read than her sanitised retellings of the Jeffersons and the Hemmings or Sioux boarding schools.
In pre-Mattel age when the American Girl Doll franchise was still owned and partially run by Pleasant Rowland and her Pleasant Company, I devoured their 90 page novels about young girls scattered throughout various points of American history. Back then they were a genuinely decent source of early education and introduction into various facets of American history for an 8 year old girl. I credit the dolls and their books for the love of middle and young adult historical-fiction I took into my adult life, but that doesn’t mean they were all fun.
Maybe I fixated on strange things when I was younger, but it was always the worst elements of these books, American Girls and others, that stuck with me, and I get the feeling that’s not the experience for the little girls with a wider variety of characters who look like them to choose from.
White characters not only get a wider variety of books to choose from, but books in a wider variety of settings. Characters of colour in American hist-fic tend to exist strictly within certain boundaries of time or not at all. African-Americans exist within the boundaries of slavery, the Jim Crow South, or the Civil Rights movement. Native Americans exist in the mythical west until about 1870 or so, Asian-Americans exist during World War 2, only in the west (and only from Eastern countries), and I had to reach out to our followers to fill in the gaps my childhood reading material left when it came to Latin@s.
These stories need to be told, of course. Diverse literature for young readers is extremely important. The world needs YA literature about Japanese Internment during the Second World War, but they shouldn’t be the only books Japanese-American children get to see themselves reflected in. This isn’t to encourage the erasure or minimalisation of the realities that people of colour have historically faced, but rather a desire for authors and publishers to realise that all of us existed in America outside the times of our most publicised oppressions. And that, even during the most difficult times, we still had lives that didn’t necessarily completely revolve around the overhead political themes of the day.
With that in mind, and because I’m 26 year old woman who still reads almost exclusively YA and middle grade fiction, I’ve compiled a list (that is by no means complete) of historical fiction with POC characters that might allow young and middle adult readers to have a little more fun with their reading escapism.
I thought I would be a poet and playwright. Those were the two forms I really enjoyed. I made my living as a journalist, of course, but I thought that I would just stick with those and I would become better and better and better. But in ’68 … I was at a dinner — now this is name-dropping, but these were the people — James Baldwin had taken me over to see Jules Feiffer and Jules’ then-wife, Judy Feiffer, and we talked all night, and I really had to work very hard to get a word in because they’re all great raconteurs.
The next day, Judy Feiffer called a man who is still my editor at Random House and said, “If you can get her to write an autobiography, I think you’d have something.” He phoned me a number of times, Robert Loomis, and I said, “No, I’m not interested,” until he said to me, “Well, Ms. Angelou, I guess it’s just as well that you don’t attempt this book because to write autobiography as literature is almost impossible.” So I thought, “Oh, well, in that case, I better try.” Well, I found that’s the form I love. I love autobiography. … It challenges me to try and speak through the first-person singular and mean the third-person plural.
When, long ago, the gods created Earth In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth. The beasts for lesser parts were next designed; Yet were they too remote from humankind. To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man, Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan. A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure, Filled it with vice, and called the thing a N*gger.
– H.P. Lovecraft, On the Creation of N*ggers (1912)
I had come to believe that by now the racism of H.P. Lovecraft, the celebrated author of horror and fantasy, was a settled matter — like declaring Wrath of Khan the best film in the Star Trek franchise. Arguing against such a thing should be absurd. I certainly thought so after the matter was thrust into the spotlight in December 2011, when author Nnedi Okorafor won the esteemed World Fantasy Award — whose statuette is none other than H.P. Lovecraft’s disembodied head. Okorafor had been unaware of the depths of Lovecraft’s “issues,” until a friend sent her his 1912 poem,On the Creation of N*ggers, where blacks are fashioned by the gods as “a beast … in semi-human figure.”
This was no one-off, some “misspeak” by the author. Lovecraft’s racial biases ran deep and strong, as evidenced by his stories–from exotic locales with tropic natives lacerating themselves before mad gods in acts of “negro fetishism” (Call of Cthulhu), to descriptions of a black man as “gorilla-like” and one of the world’s “many ugly things” (Herbert West — Re-animator). This was no abstract part of Lovecraft’s creative process, where he was trying to imbue his work with some hint of realism. Rather, these were expressions of his foremost thoughts, a key part of his personal beliefs, most notably his virulent xenophobia towards an increasingly diverse American society emerging outside of his Anglo-Saxon New England. Read the Post The ‘N’ Word Through The Ages: The ‘Madness’ Of HP Lovecraft