Boyd Tonkin: American dreams, African realities - and the literary cult of the crossing


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."

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?