When my mother was born, the Federal Republic of Nigeria was less than one year old. Language barriers, and eventually death, prevented me from asking my grandparents what life under the colonial rule of the Royal Niger Company had been like, their fates twisted and tugged by the company’s board of directors in London. I wish I had been able to ask them, as my mother’s birth drew near, what the increasing internal demand for self-governance had sounded like. My grandfather was a fishmonger, but who is to say that judging the price of fish and intuiting the departure of British ships from your harbors aren’t the same thing?
More often, however, I am able to get from my mother impressions of what life was like in the old country. And occasionally she will remark offhandedly about being a teen in 1970s Nigeria when it was full of Koreans and Sri Lankans. Or how, during a civil war that brought apocalypse to her childhood, her family had fled into the forest to live for some time before finding safety.
I started writing my third novel, War Girls, because of that story. As the son of immigrants, I’m not alone in feeling this sense of wonder and enchantment at the world the previous generation inhabited.
In conversations with my Somali-American friends, my Vietnamese-American friends, my Korean-American friends, my Palestinian-American friends, there are shades of that same admixture of feelings. But another colors the underbelly of the thing. In so many of our stories—that is to say, our parents’ stories—is war. Calamity. Our parents were refugees or war orphans or collaborators or freedom fighters or witnesses to untold horrors. Sometimes their parents were. Which makes our fascination with these all the more macabre. Therein lies the plight with which so many first-generation American writers suffer: are we exploiting the trauma our parents and grandparents endured for profit or fame or whatever it is that drives a person to write a book? Are we re-injuring them?
To this day, I don’t know the answer to that question. I just know that I am drawn, as the penitent is drawn to the church sanctuary, to those stories.
Those non-Westerners—those people from places the American consciousness has refused to consider or know much about; people from places who, by dint of White intervention, have suffered through national paroxysms of intercommunal violence or political upheaval—theirs, to me, is the most interesting story. Theirs is the story I find myself looking for on the shelves of bookstores and libraries.
Perhaps those stories are being told, just not in America. They aren’t being promulgated by a publishing industry that, according to a 2019 Lee & Low Books survey, is 76% white. At the executive level, that number is 78%. At the editorial level, 85%. Among both book reviewers and literary agents, the percentage of respondents who identified as white was 80%. From those representing the storytellers to those acquiring the stories to those hired to write about those stories, the ice cream in the cone is almost entirely one flavor. Such that even those tales of that history that still feels too close to be called history are cut through with baking soda or vanilla extract or rat poison, the narcotic diluted and adulterated by the White Gaze.
Two years ago this past March, I had the privilege of seeing Uzodinma Iweala read from his latest novel, Speak No Evil. He was doing an event with Neel Mukherjee, whose catholic The Lives of Others had enacted quiet and lasting change on my spirit when I read it. They were introduced by Marlon James. All in all, to me, it was like attending the American Music Awards the year Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, and Prince were all up for Favorite Soul/R&B Album. Before the reading started, I took my seat next to Uzodinma’s father, and we spent about twenty minutes laughing and chatting and I saw in the man so many of the familiar contradictory joys and fears contained within Nigerian parents of sons who become writers. We talked of Umuahia, where he had come from, as had my father. “Where in Umuahia?” he asked me, as though maybe one day they might have passed each other on the street or maybe attended secondary school together.
To my knowledge, the two men never met. Nor, at the time, would they have known my mother. So many of these things happen only after the dust has settled and the displaced awake on foreign shores. But I like to imagine, sometimes, their adolescent/teenaged/early adult quotidiana, their presents unexpected, their inner lives impossibly rich.
It is not always war and tragedy with them. Sometimes, it is this other thing too.
I hope I am able to remember that.
Featured Image Credit: by eko hernowo via Pixabay.