In this long but compelling essay in the LA Review of Books, Nigerian-American writer and winner of the 2013 Caine Prize Tọ́pẹ́ Fọlárìn discusses the challenge faced by new African writers trying to gain international recognition and being judged against a standard of “accessibility” set by selected role models.
The long essay slash book review is written in a smooth and accessible – he won’t like that word – style that sustains interest from beginning to end, making a valid argument against a single-story stereotyping of African stories that inevitably happens because of a conditioning of taste by the gatekeepers of the profession.
Here’s an excerpt:
It can be said that black artists who live in the United States or produce art that is consumed in the United States are “expected” to create certain kinds of art, but the reason these expectations exist is because some black artist has produced a pioneering work that, for any number of reasons, garners significant attention and is thus perceived by a predominantly white Western audience as the height of black achievement, the precise standard that every other black artist in the same field must strive to achieve in order for their work to be accessible to an audience that otherwise knows next to nothing about the community the black artist has emerged from.
I don’t know whether his conclusion in the essay point more to the laziness of popular culture that chooses instead to anoint one messenger in every generation and move on rather than spending time sampling every offering for a varied taste, or whether there indeed a nefarious effort against the thriving of a diverse minority voice from around the continent. What he insists on however – as the crux of the essay – is that thriving as a prominent voice in African literature often requires a combination of luck, accessibility in the right kind of way, and talent, not necessarily in that order.