Against Accessibility: On Robert Irwin, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Imbolo Mbue’s “Behold the Dreamers”
By Tope FolarinSeptember 8, 2016
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
I DIDN’T KNOW MUCH about Robert Irwin’s work when I wandered into the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden a few weeks ago. I knew that he was a contemporary of a few other artists I admire, James Turrell among them, and that he was the first artist to win a MacArthur Genius Grant in 1984, but I could not recall seeing his work at the Hirshhorn, the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, or any of the other museums I visit on a frequent basis.
The exhibition is called Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change. Step off the escalator, walk a few feet, and before you, floating at about eye level, is a white sphere. It is split in half horizontally; a thin band of black pulses at the center. Instead of appreciation, comprehension, even confusion, your mind generates a series of questions. How can it be that this sphere is floating? And what exactly is in the middle of that … that thing? Is it some kind of light? Can light be black? Can black light pulse? Step closer to the sphere, look behind it. Ah. A clear plastic tube connects the sphere to the wall. Indeed, from this vantage point the sphere no longer resembles a sphere; it is actually a wedge of curved plastic. Or metal. Or something. You still cannot tell what is happening in the middle.
In the next room, you return to familiar ground. You recognize the gestural trademarks of abstract expressionism — canvases splayed with multicolored splotches of paint — but these canvases are compact, portable. They could be held if they weren’t encased in glass. This iteration of abstract expressionism seems more tentative than what you’ve seen before. The splotches timidly inhabit the canvases. Walk a few feet and the canvases have grown considerably; Irwin’s splotches work better on a larger scale, but something else seems to be happening as you gaze at these canvases. Something definitive is emerging. In the next room, your theory is confirmed: the splotches have resolved into thin, horizontal lines. It’s like you’ve been watching someone fiddle with a knob on one of those old-school televisions — what you see now is a clear picture. The static has disappeared.
The lines become thinner, the paint lighter, then the lines dwindle, they break apart and become dots, dots so small that you do not realize they are dots until you step close to a seemingly blank canvas and notice hundreds of them, thousands of them, but they are so small, so fine, and your eyes keep roving until you realize that they’ve left the canvas altogether, that what you are actually looking at is the wall. By the next room, the canvases have melted into the wall; in their place the spheres — split in half, floating at eye level — have emerged once more. But now they are in context. Lights from the ceiling shine on them and cast shadows above and below. Art and the creation of art fans out in all directions: the translucent spheres hovering before you, the shadows forming intricate patterns on the wall, the enthralled whispering human beings around you looking, pointing, smiling.
And there is still more, but it’s about at this point (I’ve been to this exhibition five times) that a feeling begins to surge through me. This restlessness, this stopping and starting and landing on something new, then moving past the new to something almost incomprehensible but not quite, this initial inaccessibility that coalesces into something almost transcendent … this is art, or what art should be.
This is freedom.
This is what I’ve been missing from much of the African fiction I’ve been reading of late.
Is there a canon of African novels?
And if there is such a canon, which novels have managed to make the list?
There are a number of ways to answer these questions, more than a few novels to consider, but one way to answer them is to simply say Things Fall Apart.
Chinua Achebe received many rejection slips for his debut, and Things Fall Apart wasn’t immediately heralded as a classic after it was published by Heinemann in 1958. Yet in the years following its release, the novel was much praised by influential writers, by literary critics in the West who belatedly recognized its importance, and, of course, by scores of readers. The novel sold at a fast clip, and, in time, Achebe was hailed as a genius, a writer who had somehow managed to meld African and Western storytelling traditions in one text.
As time passed, the novel became more popular, more influential. By the early 1980s, Things Fall Apart arguably achieved canonical status when it became a staple of high school and college syllabi across the globe. Now, years later, it is unquestionably the most widely read African novel in the world. It is, in all likelihood, one of the few African novels that most Americans can name. And, in most cases, it is your favorite American author’s favorite African novel.
Though Achebe worked to publicize other African voices — primarily through his stewardship of the African Writers Series, the iconic collection that featured other terrifically talented African writers such as Ousmane Sembene and Bessie Head — in the United States, at least, Achebe remained the predominant African voice. Which is to say that Achebe remained the accessible voice.
It is important at this juncture that I describe what I mean by “accessible.” I don’t mean easy, or non-threatening, or artistically bereft. Another word I could use, perhaps, is expected. But this word doesn’t quite capture the relationship of the minority artist in the West — the black artist, the African artist — to a society that only grudgingly accepts her and the art she produces. It can be said that black artists who live in the United States or produce art that is consumed in the United States are “expected” to create certain kinds of art, but the reason these expectations exist is because some black artist has produced a pioneering work that, for any number of reasons, garners significant attention and is thus perceived by a predominantly white Western audience as the height of black achievement, the precise standard that every other black artist in the same field must strive to achieve in order for their work to be accessible to an audience that otherwise knows next to nothing about the community the black artist has emerged from.
As Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart, or perhaps before, as he began to think of himself as an artist, he had to ask himself the same questions that most artists must ask and answer: What kind of audience am I seeking? Do I have to compromise my message or aesthetic in order to reach this audience? If so, am I willing to do this? If not, will anyone care about my work? Am I willing to endure silence or derision until someone at some point in some unknown future recognizes my unique contribution?
Then his novel found success, more success than he could have imagined, and because it sold so many copies and garnered so many awards and was the first novel of its kind to become required reading in secondary schools around the world — because for many years Things Fall Apart was the African novel; because it secured a foothold in realms in which misinformation about Africa was the only kind of information available — it became the definitive literary statement about that continent. Perhaps more importantly, for readers, publishers, editors, and critics who had never visited Africa — who had no desire to visit Africa — Things Fall Apart was their Africa, the only Africa they had ever known, would ever know.
In the years following the release of Things Fall Apart, black African writers who aspired to do what Achebe had done — to compose a work of art that could manage to leave Africa and travel through the wider world — had to ask themselves a different set of questions from those that Achebe asked himself in the 1950s. They had to ask themselves how their work compared to Achebe’s. How similar it was. And how different.
These questions were unavoidable because, during this time, black artists — African artists, African American artists, artists of color — understood intuitively that, in most cases, there could only be one. One great success. One reference point. They understood that everyone else would be perceived according to their similarity to or difference from the one.
The reason for this is simple: Western society has, for the most part, proven itself incapable of recognizing multiple forms of black greatness. I say for the most part because in those fields in which the barriers to entry are less rigid — music, say, or sports; fields in which an infectious melody cannot be denied and athletic talent cannot be repressed — multiple black heroes have emerged. But in those fields with stronger barriers, fields in which a small group of mostly white tastemakers determine who will be granted an opportunity to succeed — film, literature, and visual art, among many, many others — a small collection of black artists receive the bulk of the attention and praise.
So we get Sidney Poitier and everyone else. Lorraine Hansberry and everyone else. Langston Hughes and everyone else. August Wilson and everyone else. Jean-Michel Basquiat and everyone else. Spike Lee and everyone else. And, with respect to African novelists, we get Chinua Achebe and everyone else.
Walking, talking single stories.
If you are Robert Irwin in the 1960s and you are working to establish yourself as an artist, you can point to a number of reference points. You can say, yes, in many ways my work is inspired by Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline, and Barnett Newman, and Willem de Kooning, and other artists as well, Surrealists and Dadaists and Impressionists and Belle Époque painters and Renaissance painters and onward down the line. And the multiplicity of your reference points provides you with an opportunity to move in exciting new directions, to strike out on your own, to produce work that isn’t instantly accessible, because you are a white man, because the entire history of Western art has been structured to foster your talent, to recognize it while you’re alive, to immortalize it once you’re dead and gone.
If you are a black African novelist in the 1960s or 1970s or 1980s or 1990s or early 2000s, you can name a number of writers if you like, you can wax eloquent about the wonders of Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf if it makes you feel good, but everyone — including, no, especially Western publishers and editors and critics — will be waiting for the one name. And if you are too prideful to utter it they shall utter it for you, they will hold up your work to the light of Achebe and decide if your work is similar enough to warrant attention.
This is the case until about 2003.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus, begins this way:
Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère.
Adichie arrived in the United States in the late 1990s to pursue a degree in communications and political science at Eastern Connecticut State University. In the following years, she published a number of short stories in various journals and magazines. Though she struggled to find a publisher for Purple Hibiscus, a small press based in North Carolina called Algonquin eventually agreed to take it on. In October 2003, her debut novel made its way into the world.
In interviews, Adichie drew connections between herself and Achebe. She mentioned that she and Achebe were both Igbo, were from the same part of Nigeria. She had even lived in the same house that Achebe once occupied. Purple Hibiscus was well received — it garnered praise and a few awards — but a cursory reading of the reviews that were published just after its release reveals something else: American critics were warming to the idea of Adichie. Of what she represented.
Of Adichie as the possible heir to Achebe.
Of Adichie as, perhaps, the next one.
I vividly remember the way I felt when I read Purple Hibiscus for the first time. I was born in the United States to Nigerian parents, so even though her story takes place in Nigeria, and I had spent the entirety of my life in the United States at that point, her work seemed instantly familiar. I had read Things Fall Apart by then, of course, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, but the events described in that novel felt somewhat distant. From another time and place. Purple Hibiscus, though, felt contemporary and visceral. As I was reading it, I became conscious, for the first time, of the subtle concessions I’d been making for just about every other work of fiction I’d read. Without realizing it, I had been a translator for the entirety of my reading life. I’d translated each of those blue-eyed, blonde-haired characters — or those African-Americans who were like me, but not quite — into people who resembled me and the rest of my family, who spoke and dressed and prayed the same way we did, and before long this act of perpetual translation had become an invisible, subconscious, inevitable part of my engagement with literature. What I am trying to say is that reading Adichie was, in many ways, like glancing at a mirror and finally, after many long years, recognizing myself. I was overwhelmed by her words. I remember placing the book down on my bed after reading a few pages and pacing around my bedroom. I remember rubbing my forehead because this new reality didn’t make sense to me.
A few years later, when I was a graduate student at Oxford University, I fell in with a small group of black students who were from everywhere. We were Nigerian and Ghanaian and African American and South African and Kenyan and Jamaican; sometimes a combination of two or more of these. Among the few topics that instantly united us was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — the importance of her work, the importance of her example. We recognized how vital her voice was; she was a powerful female writer who was emerging in a field in which males had excelled. One of us managed to acquire a galley copy of her latest novel. It was called Half of A Yellow Sun. We read it. We passed it around. We felt a sense of excitement because this novel was even better than her last. We felt a sense of loss because the advance press around the novel — she was the writer Africa had been waiting for! She was the next Achebe! She was the most important African writer! — indicated that she was no longer ours alone.
We were right. Half of A Yellow Sun was released a few months later. It sold incredibly well. It won the Orange Prize, and then, in 2008, Adichie won a MacArthur Genius Grant. Yes, she was no longer ours; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had become the new Accessible African Writer.
If you need proof that Adichie has inherited Achebe’s status as Accessible African Writer, look no further than the pages of Publishers Weekly, or any of the print or online journals that report on recent book deals. Though a number of other terrifically talented African writers have published books in recent years — Dinaw Mengestu and NoViolet Bulawayo and Teju Cole among them — one could argue that many of the men and (mostly) women who have signed lucrative book deals over the past five years or so would not have received as much money as they did if Adichie did not prove that African fiction is a viable commercial venture.
Recent surveys indicate that the vast majority of staffers at the major American publishing houses are white and female. This is a group that (for now, anyway) is responsible for selecting, editing, and publishing a great deal of the African and immigrant fiction that will find its way to readers.
How many of them have been to Africa? How many have lived in the United States as immigrants? Does it matter if few have ever been to Africa, if only a small number have any sense of what it might be like to live in the United States as an immigrant?
If your only exposure to Africa is the novels you read and the occasional news report, doesn’t it follow that the fiction you edit and publish will resemble these sources? Are you in a position to discover and foster work that is fresh and bold?
In her short fiction and her novels, Adichie has established the two dominant strands of accessible contemporary African fiction. One is a drama that takes place somewhere in Africa, often involving conflict of the household or national variety. The other is a tale about immigrants journeying to the United States. As it happens, Adichie’s immigrant stories often hew quite closely to a tradition established by accessible writers like Amy Tan, Junot Díaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, and a few others.
One version of the accessible immigrant story goes something like this: someone (usually a man) leaves his country in order to establish himself in the United States, usually a coastal city, usually New York. He lives in deplorable conditions and saves every penny he earns until he is able to send for his wife (and children, if they have them). Eventually they arrive. Oftentimes there is a tear-filled reunion. The newly reunited family enjoys the United States together for a few days, weeks, months, but then they have to reckon with their many inevitable problems. Money problems. Immigration problems. They might enlist someone to help with their immigration problems. This someone usually isn’t reliable. Either the husband or wife — perhaps both — is going to college. Either the husband or wife — perhaps both — has a job that is precarious because of their immigration status, and their ability to keep the job has less to do with their skill and more to do with the whims of a boss who can be temperamental and unreliable. As time passes, the United States seems less like a land of opportunity and more like a place where impossible dreams remain impossible. They keep up appearances for their family back home — they send back pictures and money and nice anecdotes — but slowly they resign themselves to the idea that they have been deceived somehow, that they have unwittingly fallen victim to a conspiracy of exaggeration about their new country.
And so it is with Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, the current African immigrant novel of the moment, which garnered a seven-figure advance last year. It just might be the most accessible novel I’ve ever read.
At the beginning of this novel, Jende and Neni Jonga have been living in New York with their son for about a year and a half. Jende has been in the country the longest; he left Cameroon for the United States 18 months earlier than his wife and child in order to prepare for their eventual arrival. We meet Jende just as he is about to interviewed by Clark Edwards, an executive at the soon-to-be-defunct Lehman Brothers, to become Clark’s chauffeur. And so, at the very beginning of this novel, one accessible narrative is entwined with another — the story of the 2008 financial crisis, which itself is just another chapter in the long-running American narrative about those who benefit and those who suffer from the effects of American greed.
Jende gets the job. His visa has expired so he is in the United States illegally, but for a time it seems that he might be able to secure an asylum visa. His wife, who is a student at a local college, is hopeful that she will graduate soon and become a pharmacist. She earnestly imagines a future in which her family is financially secure and fully integrated into American life.
The relationship between the Jongas and the Edwardses forms the spine of the novel. Their lives intersect in the manner that privileged white lives and downtrodden black lives often intersect in these kinds of stories. Jende drives Clark around New York and, in so doing, nurtures a relationship with his boss, who seems kind in an offhanded, uninterested way. Over time the Jongas and the Edwardses develop closer bonds: the Edwards children take a liking to Jende and Neni — they even visit the Jonga’s dingy Harlem apartment in an especially affecting scene — and Neni begins to work for Cindy, Clark’s wife.
This strand of the narrative, the relationship between Neni and Cindy, is the most interesting departure from a plot that otherwise unfurls as expected. Cindy — unhappy with her marriage and her oldest son’s decision to move abroad — consistently drinks to excess and pops pills. One night, Neni discovers Cindy in a compromising position; afterward, Cindy shares a painful secret with her. Neni comforts Cindy and for the briefest moment they are equals. They are women who have suffered and lost, who are trying to keep themselves and their families whole. Later, Cindy enlists Jende to spy on her husband, who she suspects is cheating on her. Jende’s decision — whether to comply or not — sets into motion the narrative engine that will lead to the inevitable climax of this novel, the inevitable climax of most contemporary African immigrant tales. That moment when things fall apart.
Even within this familiar context, Mbue does an admirable job of developing characters whose lives seem so heartbreakingly real that the pages of this book often seem like something of a confinement. When you close the book, you will hear their pain. You might feel them calling for you. And anyone who has been in a long-term relationship will recognize the contours of Neni’s and Jonga’s relationship. Theirs is a love that sustains impossible dreams. We learn from them, as we have from our own lives, that sometimes love and impossible dreams cannot inhabit the same space. Either the love or the dream must fade. Flashes of evocative language occasionally spark from the page (at one point, Neni packs an old Louis Vuitton bag that Cindy has given her like “roasted peanuts in a liquor bottle” an image that will be familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few minutes in West Africa). Mbue also writes dialogue quite well; indeed, many of the best scenes in this novel are simply extended exchanges of dialogue between various characters. Mbue could have a future as a playwright.
As for this novel? Well, in all likelihood, you have read it before.
One could argue, convincingly, that the reason this kind of immigrant narrative is so popular is because it reflects the experiences of millions of people, people whose lives and dreams and failures often remain unacknowledged and therefore invisible. That said, we are many years removed from the Ellis Island boom of the early 20th century. Today, immigrants are joining thriving communities across the Southern United States, across the Midwest, many of them are decamping in the West and North, but in our novels and stories immigrants continue to travel in an uninterrupted stream to a few cities on the East and (occasionally) West coasts.
Too, these narratives are largely devoid of experimentation, of any significant departure from a well-established mold. Familiar, well-behaved stories are dressed in nice book covers and sent to our bookstores; from there they march to our homes in an orderly manner.
In 2009, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie delivered a TED talk in which she decried the existence of what she called “the single story.”
“So that is how to create a single story,” she said then. “Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”
She went on to describe the relationship between the perpetuation of a “single story” and the power of those who create it:
It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.
The irony, of course, is that Adichie’s description of the single story could be applied to much of the African and immigrant fiction that is published and publicized today. There are exceptions of course; powerful, innovative narratives that often emerge from smaller publishing concerns. And it is undoubtedly important that women are receiving these opportunities, especially when men — and one man in particular — have dominated African fiction for so many years. But because Adichie is our current Accessible African Writer, much of the African fiction that finds its way into the hands of readers closely resembles the accessible narratives that she has already published, that other wonderfully gifted writers — going all the way back to Achebe — have published as well. Yet there are many more stories out there. So, so many.
Hopefully we have a chance to read more of them soon.
And hopefully, like Irwin’s exhibition title, the day will come when all the rules will change.
Tope Folarin won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2013, and was shortlisted once again in 2016. He was also recently named to the Africa39 list of the most promising African writers under 39. He lives in Washington, DC.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.