Boyd Tonkin: Behind the hype and glamour, African writers still share Achebe's vision

The Week in Books

In 1987, Chinua Achebe returned to the novel after a long gap with Anthills of the Savannah. The forefather of today's "boom" in Nigerian - and other African - fiction matched his scorching critique of corrupted power with a fervent affirmation of the writer's duty to defy it: "it is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums".

Achebe, who died last week at 82, heard many kinds of war-drum in his time - most notably, as a risk-taking supporter of the late-Sixties Biafran breakaway that saw his own Igbo people rebel against Nigeria's federal state. His stories will outlive them all.

Rich in honour and acclaim, the author (55 years ago now) of Things Fall Apart departed with the fiction of Africa and its global diaspora in seemingly rude health. This week alone sees the publication of Taiye Selasi's stellar debut and a further advance in the scope and sweep of Aminatta Forna's work.

Next month, the bestselling Chimamanda Adichie - who often pays tribute to Achebe as model and mentor - releases Americanah. Nigerian authors in particular are now the target of a frantic prospectors' rush. In a bizarre re-run of colonial-era plunder, publishers and agents swoop with predatory relish on fledgling talents likely to flourish in the international marketplace.

It goes without saying that booms will always end in bust. Equally, their din and smoke hide much of the actual landscape. Look beneath the sparkly surface of hype, and the monsters that Achebe wrestled still stalk African literature. Just last month, during the illuminating offshoot of the Etonnants Voyageurs festival that Congo-born writer Alain Mabanckou and his colleagues organised in Brazzaville, I came across plenty of examples of the unfinished business that makes Achebe's work texts for life rather than just for study.

In the opening ceremony, a brave young woman interrupted the Republic of Congo's Minister of Culture to condemn poverty and homelessness in a potentially wealthy land: a pure Achebe moment. Under the trees outside the Palais des Congrès, Teju Cole - subtle and eloquent, a Nigerian American prodigy - spoke of his visits, not that long ago, to a Lagos bookshop. Tucked away, far apart from the sections devoted to "Literature", he found a few dusty shelves of "African Literature". Such crippling assumptions - within the continent as much as outside it - gave Achebe his mission. As Cole said: "Decolonising the mind is an unfinished process. It's something you have to keep doing every day."

Elsewhere, I heard the young writer Fiston Mwanza - from across the river in the Democratic Republic of Congo - talk of his breadline childhood. Both his parents worked late. He faced long post-school hours of waiting for a meal. "You must read," said a friend. "Reading is the best way to kill hunger." He did, voraciously.

Also from DRC, the captivating novelist In Koli Jean Bofane (author of the prize-winning Mathematiques congolaises) recalled the Belgian colonial prohibition of education to Africans except trainee priests, and then the stifling effects of Mobutu's dictatorship. So now a "good rage" of long-thwarted passion fires his nation's writers.

Over dinner, at a riverside restaurant, Bofane pointed out a neon-lit tower-block in Kinshasa on the Congo's other bank. He told of how, with a little elementary chemistry and a truck-load of cheek, he and a friend built up a liquid-soap business in offices there (and took over the management of the building). "In the Occident, people have it easy," he mused, with no rancour. "They don't have to fight."

Africa's many fights persist. Behind the glamorous cover-stars of its new literature (good luck to them; they have the talent as well as the charisma), Achebe's landscapes of conflict endure. Read him not as an ancestor, still less as an idol, but as a contemporary.

PLR: London seizes an asset from the north

Ministers and civil servants always talk about the need to disperse a London-heavy state and run official bodies from (say) Stockton-on-Tees rather than Bloomsbury. Until they need to save cash. From October, the Public Lending Right scheme that makes payments to authors for library loans, now based in Stockton and directed by the estimable Jim Parker, will form part of the British Library bureaucracy. The office stays up north but, to save £750,000 over 10 years, control shifts to WC1. So much for decentralisation.

E-books wreck the numbers game

Until recently, one could track the overall health of the book economy by charting the annual changes in the output of titles. It was an inexact science, but the raw figures acted as a crude thermometer. No longer: as with so many aspects of the industry, digital publishing has transformed - and confused - the numbers game. The statistics for 2012 show an astronomical total of 170, 267 titles published in the UK (with 57,999 of those e-books).

Even that staggering sum represents a fall from 189,979 in 2011 - after the e-publishing boom really began to swell the accounts. Frankly, these figures now mean next to nothing. Thanks to digital platforms, the institutional bars that controlled access to "publication" have permanently dropped. For sure, this revolution deserves a cultural democrat's two cheers. But it busts that old thermometer beyond repair.

Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?