Reading List Inspired by Helen Oyeyemi
Helen Oyeyemi belongs to a group of contemporary writers who have roots in Africa, but their reach is international. They are the sons and daughters of parents who fled African countries during the turbulent era of political revolution in the 1960s and 1970s.
Many of these emigres wound up in America and Britain. The parents were African, but their children, like Oyeyemi, grew up in different countries and cultures. These writers have a point of view that spans divisions of country, race and class. Those traditional boundaries are further blurred by the way the Internet and social media have, for better and worse, brought us all together.
The story is set in New York in the 1950s. A young white woman named Boy Novak, on the run from an abusive father, meets and marries a widower, a jewelry craftsman named Arturo Whitman.
Arturo has one eerily beautiful daughter, who appears to be white. Then Boy and Arturo have a child, who is clearly mixed-race; it turns out that Arturo’s family was African American, but they are light-skinned and have been passing for white.
This novel becomes a sort of Snow White fable, but not like the one in the fairy tale books; it confronts the ugly realities of racism in America in the 1950s, but it has the same dream-like quality of all Oyeyemi’s work.
One of my favorite authors in this group is Dinaw Mengestu, a former Well-Read guest. Mengestu was born in Ethiopia, but his parents fled the upheaval of civil war there, and he was raised in America. He’s now a professor at Georgetown University and MacArthur “genius” grant winner.
All his books draw on the immigrant experience. His novel All Our Names tells a story of a young man from Ethiopia who leaves his home and travels to Uganda to seek a new life, intending to study English at the university.
Then he is swept up in a violent revolution. Somehow he winds up in America as a refugee. The young man, now known as Isaac, is befriended by a young American social worker – they fall in love and learn some hard lessons about the price of trying to join two lives from two such different worlds. This is a story about the extremes people will go to when they care about one another.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a young Nigerian-born woman of incendiary talent whose novel Americanah the National Book Critics Circle Award.
It’s the story of a razor-sharp young Nigerian woman who settles on America’s East Coast. She loves a Nigerian man, but he eventually returns to Nigeria and becomes wealthy. Through her eyes we see the stark differences between Nigerian and American culture and the tendency of Nigerians in America to embrace a nostalgic vision of their homeland, when the reality is anything but nostalgic.
Teju Cole is the son of Nigerian parents. He was born in America but raised in Nigeria, and is now writer-in-residence at Bard College.
I loved his novel Open City, about a half-German, half-Nigerian psychiatrist living in New York City, who takes to walking the city’s neighborhoods as therapy for his own problems. I’m not just talking about Manhattan – all the boroughs!
As he walks, he returns to his memories, trying to sort out what it means to be an African immigrant in this country – it’s set shortly after 9/11, and in his walks he contemplates the way the attack changed the way Americans looked at strangers. One thing I love about Cole’s writing is its amazing visual quality – Cole is an accomplished photographer and is the photography critic for the New York Times magazine.
Cole has also published a Nigeria-set novel, Every Day is For the Thief. It’s set in Lagos, Nigeria’s capitol, a teeming metropolis of more than 15 million people, rife with corruption, power outages and the energy generated by millions of people striving and fighting for a better life.
In this story a Nigerian doctor now living in New York decides to pay a return visit to his home town. It’s not a sentimental journey – he develops a love-hate relationship with the energy, the corruption and the sheer overwhelming intensity of this African urban center.