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Writers Of Color Are Making Their Own Canon

As a young African writer who came to the US for college, Akwaeke Emezi worried that she wouldn’t get published with her abstract style. She found the nerve to write the book she wanted anyway.

Posted on February 7, 2018, at 2:26 p.m. ET

Nicole Natri for BuzzFeed News

My childhood can be measured easily, in pools of light spilling onto pages and books blanketing the surfaces of our house in Aba, Nigeria. When the electricity died, as it often did, I read by candlelight or with a flashlight balanced against my body. Both my parents had been heavy readers; they dragged their libraries into their marriage and kept them separate, distinct. My father had a collection of Reader’s Digest condensed novels on the top shelf of the bookcase in my brother’s room, and in one of them, a little boy called his sister stupid because she was 7. I took it personally when I first read it, bristling with rage because she and I were the same age then — 7 didn’t mean we were stupid.

The white dean of my school kept introducing me as the 16-year-old freshman from West Africa who’d already read Dickens and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, as if any of that was meant to be surprising or special.

When my parents discovered I’d started reading the sex advice columns in my mother’s magazines as a child because I had run out of material, they quickly bought me more books. Stories became my entire world, unchecked and unrestricted; I was nine when I read V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic. My sister and I rummaged through my mother’s trunk, a steel tomb tucked in a corner of the house, and we found a copy of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, with that haunting first line — “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” My father’s library had a copy of Ken Follett’s book The Key to Rebecca, which I’d read before, and 11-year-old me was in awe at finding a book that I’d first read about inside another book; worlds eating worlds, all made by words.

By the time I started college in the States, I’d read every book in my childhood home. The white dean of my school kept introducing me as the 16-year-old freshman from West Africa who’d already read Dickens and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, as if any of that was meant to be surprising or special. I’d only read those books because they were there; the awe associated with a certain European literary canon wasn’t relevant. I’d also read Cyprian Ekwensi, Ayi Kwei Armah, Buchi Emecheta, Chinua Achebe, the secret copy of The Joy of Sex hidden away in my parents’ room, every encyclopedia entry in my school library on Greek mythology, labels on shampoo bottles, the sides of cornflake boxes and Bournvita tins during breakfast, countless contraband Harlequin and Mills & Boon romance novels bartered with secondary school classmates, narrative interludes in my brother’s video games, and all the parts of the Bible that referenced sex. It wasn’t until much later that I realized there was a canon I was “expected” to prioritize, especially if I wanted to consider myself a writer, that the work of dead white men could be a type of currency.

A few years ago, during a nonfiction workshop in upstate New York, I read Vladimir Nabokov for the first time. The workshop was mostly white, except for myself and two other writers of color, and we’d been assigned his memoir, Speak, Memory. I hadn’t expected much before reading the book, but I ended up delightfully surprised at how strongly it resonated: the ways in which Nabokov engaged with his own selfhood, the thinking that unspooled from that, how it reflected what I was doing in the debut novel I was working on. I felt like I’d found some precedent for what I was creating, precedent that had been difficult to find in the work of people who looked like me.

On the day the workshop met, we were all meant to bring in pieces we’d written to be critiqued after we discussed the assigned reading. I brought the requested printout of my work, as did all the white writers, but the other two writers of color had nothing to turn in.

I wasn’t supposed to read Nabokov and think, “Ah, we’re doing something similar with this study of the self.”

“It’s Nabokov,” they said. “No one writes like he does, no one can do what he does.” They were so intimidated by his brilliance that they’d chosen not to present their own work. I didn’t know how to respond, but my enthusiasm about the connection I’d felt with his work dimmed into a guarded wariness. In the air of that room, as everyone agreed with them about how untouchable Nabokov was, it felt as if the only permitted emotion was awe, like anything else would be seen as incredibly arrogant. I wasn’t supposed to read Nabokov and think, “Ah, we’re doing something similar with this study of the self.” I was off script; I was supposed to be intimidated, worshipful.

I figured they knew better. They’d read more than I had; I was clumsy and naive to read Nabokov and feel like maybe I’d found a peer. As a young writer working on her first book, it made me even more nervous about what I was writing, the ways my work deviated from other stories that were out there. I was besieged with anxieties: What if I wasn’t allowed to do what I was doing? What if it didn’t get published? What if the gatekeepers read it and saw it as arrogant, me stepping out of place, writing about metaphysical selves as if I had the creative freedom of a white writer in this industry? I knew the world saw me as a black writer, as an African woman, and I’d read enough about racism in publishing to worry about how it could play out in real time against me.

I kept looking for stories like the one I was telling, but I couldn’t find them, and that terrified me. Maybe I was meant to be writing stories that looked more like what popular African writers had done before; maybe if I stuck to themes that were familiar, perhaps even expected, I could have some of the success they had. I couldn’t blame the other writers of color in my workshop for swallowing their work instead of presenting it. They were hearing the same message, broadcast by the limited range of our stories made available to us, a message that seemed to tell us which of these stories would be allowed through the gates and which would be held back. “When you read work like Nabokov’s,” the message hissed, “turn your face away. That’s not the kind of work you can make. There’s a script for people like you; stick to it.”

I’ve been a reader all my life; I know books can be many things. Some are manuals, some are informational pamphlets, some are reportage. Some are portals into other constructed worlds, a favorite from my childhood and the root of my deep love for speculative fiction. Some are windows into another’s experiences, or even into our own — our raging desires to be seen and to see ourselves show in this. I wonder if it is enough, this reflection of known things.

As I clawed my way through my manuscript, I remained deeply doubtful about its future. It went out on submission and none of the rejections surprised me. I’d prepared myself for them — not because of the writing, per se, but just in terms of the market. The book wasn’t “immigrant experience” enough; so much of it was internal — wouldn’t it be difficult to sell a book so deeply rooted in Igbo ontology to a US audience? I occasionally talk about placelessness as it attaches to myself and my life, but in that fog of worry, it felt as if it had extended to my book, wrapping it in blurry tentacles. Months later, while composing a description of it with my editor and agent, the word “identity” came up.

My main character’s life and experiences weren’t centered on her being African, or black, or an immigrant. Her core conflict was that she was embodied: that she existed, that she had selves, that she was several.

“We can’t use that word as is,” I wrote in an email. “Everyone’s going to assume that we mean national or racial identity just because I’m a Nigerian writer. We have to specify that it’s about metaphysical identity.”

“Are you sure you want to use the word metaphysical?” they asked.

“I know it might sound pretentious, but I honestly don’t know another accurate word,” I wrote back.

My main character’s life and experiences weren’t centered on her being African, or black, or an immigrant — those were negligible, secondary. Her core conflict was that she was embodied: that she existed, that she had selves, that she was several. I didn’t know any other books by African writers that asked or answered the questions I was working with, but I very much wanted to find precedent. I figured that would tell me if what I was doing was permissible or possible, that it would allow me to predict the trajectory of the book and afford me some security. Sometimes we don’t get the reassurances we want; we make the work anyway. By then, I knew what it was like to look for books that reflected my world and not be able to find them. I know the power of people feeling seen, having access to stories that mirror their own, and what it moves inside them.

I wonder if it’s enough; I know, for me, it’s not.

It is summer in New York and I am at a cathedral uptown, meeting with Katherine Agard, a Trinidadian writer whose work and mind I love. We walk past the ceiling that looks like nothingness and climb into the ornate choir section. I give her a signed advance copy of my book and she gives me a spray of velvet orange flowers. We eat two tangerines, piling the rinds sweetly around us. Katherine is telling me about her book and its strangeness, how she’s not sure it is actually a book; we are thinking about what a book can be. I tell her how I want reflections that are alive, that shift things for me instead of showing me the familiar. Perhaps it’s because I couldn’t find my own world when I looked for it in books, and though I found other worlds — the ones I’ve lived in, pretended in, moved through — it felt different, but not enough.

So I turned instead to work that didn’t reflect my story, but made me want to write new ones. I fell for books that challenged form and convention because something in them challenged me. Within the cathedral’s quiet, I tell Katherine about Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass, punctuated with commas alone, and Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox, storytelling within storytelling, blurred realities. I pull up the e-book of Fran Ross’s 1974 novel, Oreo, on my phone and show her the first two pages, with the diagrams and the equations, the magnificent things Ross did with structure. “That’s an alive reflection,” I say. “It’s the kind of work you’d think only white writers get to make.”

We don’t have to swallow our work or be afraid that it’s too deviant to do well; there is, in fact, no canon we cannot touch.

Katherine picks up what I’m saying about inert reflections. “They’re not reformulating anything,” she says. “They’re transporting between ideas that already exist, nothing is being shaped from the unknown into...well, something that is still unknown, really. Alive reflections are writing into the unknown.”

I imagine it as casting out into unformed space, tracing blindly, discovering something by the writing of it. I’d started my book because I had a slew of questions about existence that I was trying to figure out, rooting the process in Igbo reality and my own archive, but I’d continued with it because it was also a reflection for those of us living in shifting realities, worlds framed as madness, bordered by unknowns. To write into that space was the only way I knew how to confront it, how to start wrangling a semblance of peace through the storm I’d been hiding in my head, and nothing has surprised me more than having the resulting book be read and received well. It allows me a wary hope that space will be made for writers of color working in the experimental, that we’ll get to see more and more of our own books, showing us we can tell all kinds of stories and write whatever reflections we want. We don’t have to swallow our work or be afraid that it’s too deviant to do well; there is, in fact, no canon we cannot touch. Even when seized by a thousand fears, we can make strange and wonderful things simply for the sake of the strange and the wonderful, we can create without permission, we can write into the unknown. ●

Grove Atlantic

Akwaeke Emezi is an Igbo and Tamil writer and artist based in liminal spaces. Born and raised in Nigeria, she received her MPA from New York University and was awarded a 2015 Miles Morland Writing Scholarship. She won the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa. Her work has been selected and edited by Chimamanda Adichie, and published in various literary magazines, including Granta. Freshwater is her debut.

For more information about Freshwater, click here.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.