Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Oprah, Beyoncé and Adichie Effects on Black books

In June, Knopf will publish Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing, and in August, Random House will publish Imbolo Mbue Behold the Dreamers. Gyasi and Mbue were born in Ghana and Cameroon, respectively. Each of their novels, which are debut novels by the way, were reportedly acquired for seven figures. The significant investment that publishers are making in Gyasi and Mbue reflect a current interest in a "New Wave of African Writers," many of whom now live in the U.S. and Britain.

Some of those writers include Helen Oyeyemi, NoViolet Bulawayo, Teju Cole, Taiye Selasi, and of course most notably Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  The tremendous response to Adichie in fact may have inspired various other publishers to invest more in black women novelists, especially African-born black women.  

The early 1990s saw a moment that was viewed as particularly notable for black American women novelists. As the Times reported:
A turning point for the way black writing is perceived by the publishing industry came in June 1992, when "Waiting to Exhale" [by Terry McMillan] was one of three books by black writers among the top 10 titles on the New York Times fiction best-seller list. The others were Toni Morrison's "Jazz" and Alice Walker's "Possessing the Secret of Joy." 
In 1993, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1996, Oprah Winfrey started "Oprah's Book Club," which among promoting various other authors, gave renewed or unprecedented attention to black women writers such as Morrison, Maya Angelou, Edwidge Danticat, and Pearl Cleage. 

If those writers were beneficiaries of "the Oprah Effect," then Adichie achieved an extensive boost from the New York Times and Beyoncé Effects. On December 4, the Times designated Adichie's Americanah one of the best 10 books of 2013. On December 13, Beyoncé released an album with one of the songs including an extended audio clip of Adichie. The appearance on Beyoncé's album positively affected books sale Adichie books and assisted in making her more known among an even larger audience.    

Today, we might wonder: did a kind of Adichie Effect prompt Knopf and Random House to make such substantial investments in Gyasi's and Mbue's debut novels? To what extent, if any, do the "new waves" of African writers, primarily African women writers by the way, displace the possibility of African American women writers? The discussion of whether publishers prefer black women novelists from Africa over black women novelists from the US has not yet gained much attention.

And then there's another take. In her essay "I’m Done With African Immigrant Literature," Siyanda Mohutsiwa draws attention to the fact that many of the most lauded "African" writers no longer live in Africa. Mohoutsiwa advocates for African literature that is based on the continent. 

The Lead-up to Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing 

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