A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

A Coup for African Letters
By A. Naomi Jackson

Sometimes, lightning strikes twice. It did earlier this summer when Nigerian novelists Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie became the winners of two of the literary world's most prestigious prizes. Achebe, an elder statesman of African letters and author of Things Fall Apart, won the Man Booker International Prize, beating out a formidable field of finalists, including Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje, and Philip Roth. Adichie received the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction awarded each year to the best novel written in English by a woman for her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun.

It is fitting that these two Igbo novelists should be feted together. Adichie's first novel, Purple Hibiscus, begins with a gesture of reverence for Achebe's seminal novel, with the beginning line "Things began to fall apart at home when..." Achebe has offered praise for the relative newcomer, and it seems that from her first words, Adichie's work has been in conversation with his. Half of a Yellow Sun is a searing novel set during the Biafran war, whose government Achebe served in during that poignant moment in Nigerian political history. Speaking of Adichie's work, Achebe has called her "a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers."

Things Fall Apart was first published in 1958. In the intervening 50 years, Achebe's novel has sold over 10 million copies and made him the most widely read African author of our times. Adichie's powerful novels, in turn, have garnered a feast of literary acclaim and awards. Purple Hibiscus was selected the winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize and Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for debut fiction. Adichie wrote much of the second novel while on a Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University.

Adichie's wins affirms the dominance women of color currently hold of the coveted Orange Prize, awarded to Zadie Smith for On Beauty in 2006 and Andrea Levy for Small Island in 2004. A close competitor for this year's award was Indian writer Kiran Desai's Inheritance of Loss. The rise to prominence of writing by and about women of color signals a new day for literature and the literary canon, creating new outlets for writing that is not stymied by expectations its content or style.

Still, there is a long way to go. Speaking on American responses to her work in an interview with the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper, Adichie asserted:

Nonetheless, it is an exciting time to be a reader of African literature. New novels, essays, poems, and short stories by African writers are being published every day, many through increasingly robust publication houses based in Africa. An important aspect of Adichie's success is that both her novels were published by a local Nigerian publisher, Farafina, allowing her countrymen affordable and ready access to her work. Journals and magazines on the continent regularly feature new work by African writers, notably Chimurenga in South Africa and Kwani? in Kenya. In fact, Adichie's short story, "Half of a Yellow Sun," first appeared in Chimurenga, and served as a drawing board for the prize-winning novel of the same name. The Caine Prize for African Writing, established in 2000, has vaulted the careers of many emerging African authors and has recently expanded to include a monetary award as well as a writing residency at Georgetown University.

Reading Room New Works by African Writers:

GraceLand by Chris Abani
Becoming Abigail by Chris Abani
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta
Tropical Fish by Doreen Baingana
The Dream in the Next Body by Gabeba Baderoon
Waiting for an Angel by Helon Habila
Measuring Time by Helon Habila
The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
The Silent Minaret by Ishtiyaq Shukri