An advance of $1m for any novel is extraordinary; when the book is an unfinished first novel by a young, out-of-work immigrant from Cameroon, something big is happening. Imbolo Mbue (above), whose “Behold the Dreamers” came out recently, is part of a wave of new literature from Africa, much of it written by immigrants to America. “I wanted to write about what it’s like to be working class,” says the author, who was employed in market research in New York until she lost her job in the financial crisis. “To be struggling with poverty, to be barely getting by in America. I wanted to write about what it’s like to be an immigrant. I wanted to write about me.”
Great African literature has come in waves. The first was in the 1950s, led by Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, which was published in 1958, has sold more than 12m copies and has never been out of print. The experience of colonialism spawned some extraordinary writing; and, as colonial guilt took hold, there was a receptive audience in the rich world. A second wave began after the end of the cold war, when the West’s interest in foreign parts shifted away from proxy wars and moral politics. A far more personal engagement with individual countries and their peoples began to take hold. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer, is the most celebrated of this generation: her “Purple Hibiscus”, which came out in 2003, made her famous. Just as Gabriel García Márquez led the surge of interest in Latin American fiction in the 1970s, so too have Chimamanda and her fellow writers from Africa done today.
The latest galaxy of African literary stars, many of them writing, like Imbolo Mbue, about being immigrants, straddles continents. Taiye Selasi, of Ghanaian and Nigerian extraction, is the author of “Ghana Must Go” and a noted essayist; Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean lawyer and writer who lives in Geneva and who is working on a novel about Dr Livingstone’s journeys as seen through the eyes of his African porters; Chika Unigwe writes equally well in Dutch and English; half-Scottish Aminatta Forna turned to fiction after writing a bestselling memoir of her Sierra Leonean father who was hanged by the former leader, Siaka Stevens; Ghanaian-born Yaa Gyasi’s recent debut, “Homecoming”, was described by Ta-Nehisi Coates as “an inspiration”; A. Igoni Barrett from Port Harcourt is the author of “Blackass”, a hilarious reworking of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” about a man who realises the day he has a job interview that he’s been turned into a white man with red hair and green eyes. “Welcome to Lagos”, a Hugo-esque epic by Chibundu Onuzo, about a soldier-deserter and his odd crew of friends, which came out in January, is the most recent addition.
Globalisation, education, easier travel and the emergence of new literary prizes has helped disseminate these writers’ work internationally. There has been an explosion of literary festivals and book fairs as far afield as Jaipur, Cartagena, the South African wine town of Franschhoek and even Mogadishu in Somalia and Hargeysa in Somaliland, which have broadened and deepened readers’ interest in writers from other nations; far from being considered exotic, novelists from Japan, India and Indonesia have become a familiar part of the global literary landscape. Of nowhere has this been truer than Africa.
Growing prosperity has allowed thousands of Africans to study and work overseas. Many have gone on to have children who have grown up with a foothold in more than one continent. In a celebrated essay called “Bye Bye Babar”, Taiye Selasi argued that “they belong to no single geography, but feel at home in many.” She called them “Afropolitans: not citizens, but Africans of the world.” And whereas an earlier generation of Africans studying abroad would have been encouraged to take up medicine or engineering, younger Africans are equally likely to be found in the music studio or the media. Many of those who have gone to study in America have been drawn to creative-writing courses, especially the prized Master of Fine Arts (MFA). Chimamanda and Yaa Gyasi are both MFA graduates; Unigwe and Forna both teach at American universities.
But this literary flourishing is not just the result of these writers' exposure to the West: it also springs from a peculiarly African identity, which is tied up with storytelling. Some of Selasi’s Afropolitans are of mixed ethnicity and others merely multilingual, but all have a sense of self that is connected to somewhere in Africa, “be it a nation state”, Selasi wrote, “a city, or an auntie’s kitchen”. That sense of self has been created and enriched by stories told by their parents and grandparents: fables and fairytales, parables and memories. This is the bedrock of the African literary movement, and its domestic origins may well be the main reason for the emergence of so many great female writers from the continent.
It is Mbue’s astonishing aptitude for storytelling that powers her novel. Her tale concerns two gentle dreamers, Jende Jonga and his wife, Neni, who can’t believe their luck when Jende lands a job as a chauffeur to a senior banker at Lehman Brothers in New York, only for the disparate worlds to collide and collapse when the financial crisis strikes. This is a story about the precariousness of life.
“Behold the Dreamers” is striking not only because it has new things to say about Africa but also because it tells American readers things they didn’t know about their own country. David Ebershoff, the executive editor of Random House, bought Mbue’s novel for precisely that reason after reading it in just one day. Having got to know her and her fellow African writers over the past two years, he says that “there is no limit to the voices and the stories that have come and can come from Africa and the African diaspora.”