Authentic Voices

Lindsey Green-Simms touches on an issue that I have noticed appearing in many of the readings we have read so far – discussions of authentic voice, and what makes a voice so. She refers to Adichie’s Jumping Monkey Hill and how Edward, the old white man from a top English university, “seems sure of his qualifications to judge the authenticity of African writing.” (3) Edward tells Ujunwa that her story is not plausible, that it is a story of fake people. This picture of a reimagined colonialism, one in which true African voices are stifled by misinformed preconceptions of what Africa should be, is also evident in Adichie’s Americanah. As we discussed in our reading group, recurring themes throughout the novel are illusion, imitation, and things not being as they are ‘supposed’ to be. At the hair salon, Aisha assumes Ifemelu is Yoruba because of her skin color and reacts negatively when Ifemelu prefers her natural hair style, instead of the ‘Americanized’ image. When Kosi refuses to believe the maid’s story of her previous abuse, we could perhaps attribute her disbelief to the fact that it shatters the image of Nigeria she has crafted for herself. The title of the book itself, Americanah, refers to a Nigerian term for an African who has adopted Western attributes, inhabiting the space between African-American and American-African.

Since the academic field took shape over fifty years ago, Green-Simms suggests, the discussion has been formed and moulded by questions of what actually constitutes an ‘authentic voice’. Perhaps those questions can be attributed to a reluctance on the part of Western writers, editors, publishers, to acknowledge the value of African novels to be written in African languages. As academic attention focused more on African literature, a lack of consensus emerged between those who considered African literature written in European languages to be something less than authentic, and those who believed Western scholars would not read anything written or narrated in an “authentic voice”. How does this present itself in the 21st century? Why has it been difficult for African writers to ‘conquer’ the Western market? How can the third generation of Nigerian writers, for example, ensure that the creative market responsible for the communication of the authentic African experience is not hindered?

Below is the link to an interview titled “Inappropriate Appropriation: A Believer Nighttime Event,” featuring Rick Moody, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Patrick Roth, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Minae Mizumura, Katja Lange-Muller, and Yoko Tawada. They discuss the impact of globalization, racial representation, and cultural appropriation, placing those ideas within the sphere of African literature.

Note: also of interest, if slightly tangential, is the reaction to Macklemore’s new song White Privilege II. While talking about important issues – the Black Lives Matter movement, current race relations, and white supremacy among them – Macklemore has been criticized from talking about the problems with white privilege from a position of white privilege. Admittedly nothing to do with the African writer or African novels, I am interested in the general discussion of what makes an authentic voice.

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