Boyd Tonkin: American dreams, African realities - and the literary cult of the crossing
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Friday 12 July 2013
Aroyal palace – even one soon due to host a new arrival – feels like a fitting venue for an imperial swansong. While the HarperCollins garden party in the Orangery at Kensington Palace morphed into a valediction and celebration for the firm's departing CEO Victoria Barnsley, talk also turned on the lowering of other flags. Large-scale publishing in Britain, some guests claimed, has fallen more firmly than ever under the American yoke.
The merger of Penguin and Random House sees the new leviathan's power-base shift to New York. Meanwhile, the upheavals at HarperCollins coincide with a transfer across the Atlantic of rights to traditional Commonwealth territories – such as Australia and India. These have, since the 19th century, fattened London publishing: a benefit of empire that lingered after the pink faded from the map.
History moves on and so, albeit kicking and screaming, does the literary scene. This Manhattan transfer in fact lags behind a cultural rebalancing that began long ago. Look at Africa – a rising superpower in fiction – and you see that the transatlantic tide surges higher than ever now. The US has for years acted as the main focus and fulcrum of diasporic tales: in 2013 alone, in fêted novels by Taiye Selasi (Ghana Must Go), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Americanah) and NoViolet Bulawayo (We Need New Names). Many of the continent's brightest young talents long ago forsook tired old colonial Europe.
On Monday, under the undeniably old (c.1488) but timelessly lovely carved vault of the Divinity School at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, this migration of the African imagination became unmissably clear. Over its 14 outings, the Caine Prize for African Writing has not only introduced the stars of the future (from Adichie and Bulawayo to Helon Habila, Uwem Akpan and Leila Aboulela). It reliably indicates, via the spread of short fiction honoured, just which way the African wind is blowing. The 2013 shortlist features four authors out of five from the powerhouse of Nigeria (the outlier? Pede Hollist from Sierra Leone). But four stories first surfaced on platforms headquartered outside Africa (three in the US; Granta in London). And three deal with migration to the US.
Tope Folarin won for the exemplary "Miracle", in which a charismatic healer swoops on a Nigerian congregation in Texas. Not without keen irony, Folarin investigates the true "miracle": their blessed passage to America. ("We need our parents to understand that we are Americans. We need our children to understand they are Nigerians.") Also on the list, Chinelo Okparanta's "America" shrewdly dissects the dreams of flight shared by Nigerians back in the oil-rich, oil-ruined Delta. "America has a way of stealing our good ones from us. When America calls, they go. And more times than not, they stay."
Diaspora is a great fact of contemporary life. Literature can hardly overlook it. Don't blame the prize barometer for the readings that it yields. After all, a man with Kenyan ancestry has twice taken the White House. This will not stop being one of the tales that writers of stature need to tell.
And yet… as I mentioned when Granta's "Best Young British" list took the same "Afropolitan" path, other voices still merit a hearing. Those who stay, and dig into local roots, also carry news. Immobilised by blindness, the narrator of "The Whispering Trees" by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim learns to see, and understand, the spirits that swarm around his small patch of Nigerian ground. This luminous account of a man who "lost my sight to find my vision" was also the only Caine Prize finalist to appear first in an African publication.
'A Memory This Size and other stories: the Caine Prize for African Writing 2013' (New Internationalist)
Words, who needs them? Not publishers
A warning to Bridget Christie: don’t assume that corporate publishers get irony. The comedian has just signed with Century to write a funny book about feminism, in the wake of her Radio 4 series. She says that “I will… be using lots of strange fonts, emoticons and exclamation marks to highlight important issues, rather than words, which I feel are a bit overused in books.” Bridget, you jest at your peril. There are folks in charge of major houses now who got the job because they more or less believe just that.
Timeless deadlines at the rectory
Many "news" stories about writers have a fairy-tale quality, especially when they involve that motif out of fable, the "million-pound advance". Allegedly, Penguin has demanded that Vikram Seth return said legendary sum after he missed the deadline for the follow-up to his epic A Suitable Boy. More soberly, Seth's agent David Godwin reports that he aims to fix a new timetable for delivery.
One thing we do know for sure is that, a decade ago, Seth moved in to the rectory once occupied by the 17th-century poet-priest George Herbert (and has written delightful poems about it). Could it be that contemplating eternity with the great Metaphysical's shade has taken Seth's mind off more earthbound issues? In any case, Penguin should heed Herbert's poem "Discipline": "Throw away thy rod,/ Throw away thy wrath:/ O my God,/ Take the gentle path."
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