Deep Read

The Audacity of Writing From the Margins

· Updated on October 4, 2023

I don’t write for a Western audience. If I can understand Shakespeare, you can understand me.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, 2018 Windham-Campbell Prize Recipient. 

It is a white, male, cis, able-bodied, hetero writing world out there. Because of this, the burden of tailoring one’s work to suit an alternate gaze abounds for any writer who does not tick all the aforementioned boxes. In Chigozie Obioma’s essay—published in The Guardian a year after his debut novel The Fishermen was published to widespread acclaim—the two-time Booker-shortlisted author advised indigenous writers to do away with writing for a provincial base by writing without an intended audience in mind. The assumption is that by doing so, a writer ends up writing for “everyone.”

But how does one write for everyone? Mr. Obioma believes this can be achieved by painstakingly explaining non-English words to potential readers, among other measures. But to what extent do I have to explain my writing to make it suitable for everyone?

It is not necessarily bad advice to tell writers not to write for a provincial base or a specific audience in mind. After all, fiction should be able to transcend cultural and national borders, right? We all want to write for a universal audience—whatever that means. We daydream about emails, Twitter and Goodreads notifications, and fan mails from readers across the world telling us how they connected with our story. The problem instead lies in Obioma’s approach in achieving this universal audience appeal.  For him: “writers who are most concerned with… pleasing a particular base of readers …will almost always falter in his writing, and yield, more often than not, to telling rather than showing.”

He proceeds to recommend a fix for this “problem.” For Obioma, instead of pandering to Lagosians by writing just the word Molue, the writer could take the alternative route of writing: a beat-up squeaking yellow-painted bus with a constant metallic rattle. The latter would create a razor-sharp picture in the reader’s mind and save them the stress of a Google search. This fix is evident in Chigozie Obioma’s own novel The Fishermen, where the characters sweep with “a stack of raffia wound around by a rope” instead of a broom, eat “black-eyed peas marinated in palm-oil sauce” instead of ewa agoyin, and harmattan is a “season when the dry dusty wind from the Sahara desert of northern Nigeria traveled south and covered most of sub-Saharan Africa.” But the problem is that Molue is a distinct Lagos characteristic and cannot be truly captured by a replacement string of English words. It may take writing a full novel where all the characters are Molues for someone who has never been to Lagos to fully understand this beat-up squeaking yellow-painted bus with a constant metallic rattle

What makes fiction relatable to a reader is something of a mystery, and goes beyond explaining non-English words. Readers are unpredictable. We cannot ascertain what will make them get a story.  It could be a line, the way a character tilts their head, how well the prose sings, the narrative style, the plot, the point-of-view, the tense, the font style or size, or even something as pedestrian as the cover design and print layout. 

In the conversation of what makes a writer’s provincial base the default universal, we may have to revisit Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk The Dangers Of A Single Story

There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Because of centuries of literary, economic, and political power—amplified by colonization and imperialism—writers from certain parts of the world have been given the right to bypass the burden of explaining their fiction, because they are assured that the rest of the will understand it. Obioma identifies this hegemony in his essay, illustrating it using the story of a hypothetical American writer writing about America whose provincial base is the default universal.

In her  New York Times op-ed, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani highlighted how what is published as African literature is still dictated, to a large extent, by American and European literary structures and institutions and, as such, African writers have to make compromises in their work and tailor it for the white gaze. While Nwaubani sees a problem with this status quo of marginalized narratives being controlled by the external and our inability to tell our stories how we want to tell them, Chigozie Obioma defends it and arrogates it as a standard that indigenous writers must aspire to.

Sometime in 2019, I got a personal rejection from a journal where the editor was kind enough to tell me that the “renouncement ritual” discussed in my story needed more explanation for it to make sense to international readers. Yet the ritual described in my story was as new and strange to me as it would be to any reader, because not making sense is precisely the point of the story.

In asking people who write from the margins to explain themselves to readers, we infantilize these readers by presuming that they are incapable of understanding or enjoying fiction that does not mirror their exact experiences and identities. Fiction written in the English language has continued to maintain its relevance, taken on a wider and more interesting gamut, and reinvented itself because of indigenous writers infusing cultural inflections into their writing. Indigenous authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and Marlon James garnering a worldwide reading audience despite not applying this fix is proof of this.

Fiammetta Rocco in her generous review of The Fishermen referred to Chigozie Obioma as the heir to Chinua Achebe. However, beyond the exploration of toxic masculinity and chaos and tragedy at the heart of the plot, The Fishermen fails to embody the politics of language and decolonization Achebe demonstrated in his body of work. Achebe wrote for a specific provincial base and was not saddled with the responsibility of writing for everyone. The idea of writing for everyone is intellectually dishonest: it is impossible to do so, especially when the assumption is that there is such a thing as a default universal “everyone.”  

Chigozie Obioma concludes his essay by quoting the English poet and critic Mathew Arnold, who referred to provincial prose as “second-rate,” and reminds us that provincialism for the sake of it is “being radical without a cause.” I wonder why indigenous writers (or anyone else) should take notes from Arnold, who predicted the death of English literature by the hands of geographically-specific prose. Fast forward to more than one hundred and fifty years after Arnold’s essay, and English literature is still one of the most-read in the world and has created systems, structures, and institutions where it sees itself as the standard for good writing, all while retaining its provincialism. 

In one of her most popular post-Nobel-win interviews, Toni Morrison said, “I stood at the border, stood at the edge and claimed it as central… and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.” This statement encapsulates Toni’s luminous writing career that spanned five decades and centered on telling the stories of African Americans, specifically African American women in a white, male-dominated publishing world.

We cannot continue writing towards the center, because then we uphold an unjust and unfair status quo. Indigenous writers are already doing more than enough compromise by writing in English—a language that has been imposed on us—and the audacity of writing from our marginalized perspective, whether intentional or unintentional, is the only way we can make this language our own. ♦

Don't forget to share:
Read More in Culture
The Latest on INTO