Monday, July 24, 2017
Publishers invest in African women writers
Over the last few years in particular, publishers have signaled their willingness to make large investments in the future of novels by African women. They've offered tremendous support to Chimamanda Adichie, Tomi Adeyemi, Yaa Gyasi, Imbolo Mbue, Helen Oyeyemi, and Ayobami Adebayo. None of those writers, by the way, are over the age of 40.
Do the investments by publishers point to where the market is headed in terms of black women's writing? Or, is the investment only temporary? What difference does it make that the publishers (and the contemporary literature market?) seem to prefer African woman writers over U.S. black women writers?
First, Chimamanda Adichie really established herself as a prominent novelist over the last several years. Her novels Purple Hibiscus (2003), Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), and Americanah (2013) .Her TED-talk, "We Should all be feminists," gained widespread popularity after Beyonce sampled it on "Flawless," and Beyonce's apparent promotion contributed to strengthening Adichie's reputation, and book sales. Perhaps Adichie's success in the contemporary era paved the way for others?
The early coverage on Mbue pointed out that Random House paid a seven-figure advance for the rights to publish Mbue's debut novel, Behold the Dreamer (2016). The novel was selected for Oprah Winfrey's Book Club in 2017. Gyasi was on a similar path. As noted in Mother Jones, Gyasi's work, "sparked a bidding war and landed her a seven-figure contract just one year after her she graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop with a draft of the manuscript in hand." That is, Gyasi received over $1 million prior to publishing her first book. Publishers were betting on her promise.
Knopf published Gyasi's Homegoing in June 2016, and the company will publish Ayobami Adebayo's Stay with Me this fall. At the age of 23, Tomi Adeyemi, or more accurately her agent, secured a book for her young adult African, fantasy trilogy. The film rights to the trilogy's first book, which hasn't been published yet, has been purchased by Fox 2000.
For decades, African American literary scholars concentrated on the tensions and competition between U.S. black women vs. U.S. black men. Quiet as it's kept though, it's possible that these days many publishers are making choices between African women and African American women. And maybe, publishers have moved even further, deciding between African women writers. and African women writers.
Back in 2014, Felicia R. Lee touched on some of these topics -- African vs. African American -- in her article "New Wave of African Writers with an internationalist bent." One reason the subject hasn't gained much discussion yet in the realms of African American literary studies is because the field primarily concentrates on historical popular works and canonical authors, not contemporary authors.
So, in American and African American classrooms, students will continue to encounter U.S. black authors, none more than Toni Morrison. But, what I predict moving forward, is that readers who keep up with contemporary literature, will notice more titles by African-born writers, including Adichie, Adeyemi, Gyasi, Mbue, Oyeyemi, and Adebayo.
• The Oprah, Beyoncé and Adichie Effects on Black books