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In Defense of Simplicity of Language in Nigerian Narratives


Contemporary Nigerian narratives have awakened some renewed international interests in the past few years after the hiatus that followed Ben Okri’s Booker Prize winning novel, The Famished Road. Part of these renewed interests, I think, began with Helon Habila winning the Caine Prize for African Literature, which, from all indications, enhanced the publication of Waiting for an Angel (2003). In the same year Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published Purple Hibiscus. Then we have Chris Abani’s Graceland (2004), Seffi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come (2005), and Unoma Azuah’s Sky-High Flames (2005). Each of these novels is different from the others in remarkable ways, and achieves certain degrees of sophistication that are miles removed from the dominant narratives of the previous years.

My goal in this short piece is to address some important issues raised by Emmanuel Sule in his inspiring essay, “Literary Language and Recent Nigerian Fiction” It is not in my interest to rebut any of his ideas. Rather, I am interested in putting them, especially the importance placed on literary language, in perspective. I will attempt to argue for lucidity of narrative language by drawing examples from two of the novels he has, perhaps mistakenly, dismissed as being too American, Purple Hibiscus and Everything Good Will Come.

There are many reasons we tell stories and these include imparting morals, teaching historical, religious or cultural lessons, upholding a particular tradition, providing entertainment, etc. All these reasons revolve around the human experience, which does not necessarily mean what took place in the past. The human experience especially in realistic novels is the crafting of stories within the parameters of the probable. While acknowledging various forms of story telling, I concentrate on realistic narratives in the grand tradition of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and of two of the newest female voices, Adichie and Atta.

I agree with Sule’s claim that “serious fiction ought to be taken as a product of literary language.” The truth, however, is that serious fiction is a product of literary imagination. This means that the world of fiction must be understood not literally, but literarily, not as facts but as “fixed,” feigned, as Wolfgang Iser would put it. We understand fiction in this way because the author has (or supposed to have) presented it to us exactly in that frame of mind. This implies that the persons in that fictional world (characters), the world itself (setting), the progression of the story from A to B (Plot), the perspective/s from which the story is told (point/s of view), and the manner in which the narrator uses his/her words (language), are to be seen as having been crafted, made, or planted there to elicit our response, or, as some would say, to provoke a discourse.

What the above introductory ideas aim to demonstrate is that literary language is as important as other elements of narrative. For Sule, literary language has to be tautened, “deeply philosophical,” “sublime” and must “require exegetical thinking.” He believes that a novel can perish “for lack of style and tautened language.” In the end, however, it turns out that his paradigm of style and tautened language is the technique of oral literature. Thus for him:

It is natural – as is seen in our oral literature – that a work of literature is characteristically profound and the more profound (what many people prefer to derogatorily call complex) the richer it is. When African traditional musicians use proverbs, it is not that there are no plain words that can express the meanings of those proverbs.

Proverbs in oral literature, I agree, have their merits. There is, however, a wide gap between literature, understood very strictly as belles lettres, and orature, meaning the body of knowledge communicated verbally. In belles lettres, one’s audience is mediated by time and space. In orature it is not the case; the audience is there. The artist in the oral tradition essentially addresses those who must have experienced what s/he experienced, directly or indirectly. The world of the oral artist is by its nature, parochial. Judging from the above, therefore, it is clear that what worked for my grandfather, or, indeed for my illiterate father addressing our village meeting, might not work for my story, which I believe, addresses not only people from my ethnic group or nation, but also the next generations. Bearing in mind that I am already faced with a different audience, in and outside Nigeria, my language therefore must shed the parochial nature of village proverbs, and in doing so must necessarily bargain with the world. This implies that the first goal of a narrative artist is the simplicity, that is, clarity of language, for language is a tool, a means through which the human experience is communicated.

Clarity of language, of course, does not exclude beauty. Indeed, it is beauty per se. There are many ways of achieving beauty as I will demonstrate with examples from my chosen texts. Beauty, I might as well add, is actually a sum total of a well crafted story; when all the elements in the story sing and dance with one another in a sort of narrative symphony. Of course in every story we often chance on well crafted sentences that simply fascinate us. Such sentences, I argue, are almost always the result of charged situations in which the characters find themselves. A casual study of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin reveals that.

In their desperate search for complexity, or reeling in their very limited understanding of literature, some of our writers easily slide into clichés; they become esoteric and obscure with the belief that they are being deep; they produce grotesque world in the belief that they achieve lasting or deep literary effect. Rather than regurgitate clichés, it is better that a writer uses every day, crystal clear language to talk about the pains and joys of being human.

No novel ever perishes just for lack of tautened language. Novels, of course, can perish for lack of appropriate command of language. This will however, largely depend on the kind of language the author has chosen. Amos Tutuola’s Palm Wine Drinkard or Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Soza Boy might actually live forever for the very reason that they chose appropriate language to portray their world. Novels perish for lack of proper execution of the stories they set out to tell; they perish for ignoring to craft the human experience.

Every story, it is said, cries to be told, and it is the duty of story tellers to put themselves in the service of stories. The first thing for the would-be novelist, therefore is to find a proper narrator to carry forth the story. Another thing is to find a language that matches the world of the narrator. If, for example, a sixteen year old, modern girl tells a story her tone, vocabulary, etc must match those of an average or somewhat above average young girl. If she begins to spew proverbs as my father would, I would be forced to believe that there is some dissonance between her as the narrator, her author who created her and the world she addresses – the modern reader.

Having said this, there is a particular use of language in Purple Hibiscus and Everything Good Will Come that, of course, might not appeal to a lover of African traditional proverb. Yet, they are no less beautiful, and perhaps, they are even more beautiful for that very reason. Indeed, in their sophisticated use of imagery and metaphor, they heighten the reader’s reception of their narratives. I have already lavished praises for these two novels elsewhere. My admiration of them does not ignore their obvious weaknesses one of which is characterization (See Sarah Manyika’s review of Sefi Atta).


Lucidity of Language in Purple Hibiscus and Everything Good Will Come

In literary fiction, as has been hinted above, we aim at communication. But it is communication, whose nature is indeterminate because it is packaged in peculiar ways. Art serves communication contrary to what aesthetic objectivists would hold.

In Purple Hibiscus language helps us to better respond to the many possibilities of the world being exposed. To some, the Igbo words sprinkled in its pages might appear like exotic incense put out to attract foreign spirits. I agree with this critique. Yet, for many they create particular ambiance and, perhaps help us see through the language confusion of the Igbo world. Perhaps this Tower of Babel experience is not restricted to the Igbo. It is postcolonial.

Besides this, however, the novel is stylistically successful. Its success is to be seen in the evocation of specific, pinpoint imageries that burst open new worlds and also elicit response from the reader. Consider Kambili’s mood after she had fallen in love with Father Amadi. Kambili ruminates: “I wished I were alone with him. I wished I could tell him how much I felt that he was here, how my favorite color was now the same fire-clay shade of his skin” (221). This is of course no literary firework, but lucidity in its finest form. Consider again the description of a room in the morning: “the room was not yet touched by the lavender rays of dawn” (227). Or this:

When Mama asked Sisi to wipe the floor of the living room, to make sure no dangerous pieces of figurines were left lying somewhere, she did not lower her voice to a whisper. She did not hide the tiny smile that drew lines at the edge of her mouth” (257)

The point is not to mesmerize readers with an esoteric, to a large degree, parochial and archaic world woven in proverbs, but to provide them with dainty morsels in forms of fine details they can immediately see or feel, details they can instantly imagine. To imagine is simply to make a mental image of something. Here is the secret of imagination. Consider this line from the above quotation: “tiny smile that drew lines at the edge of her mouth.” This is simple, straightforward and deep. How do we dig out the treasures of deep sentences or observations in a novel? Simple! We ask questions and then try to suggest answers. For example: Why does this woman smile in that inhibited manner exactly at the moment her husband had unleashed his anger on the household? This tiny smile might aid us to see this woman as devious, or, perhaps as not really a helpless creature contrary to the way she had been portrayed. She has got her own mind. You might not like what she ultimately does. Yet she is not a zombie. Adichie enriches our imagination, and multiplies our world through her subtle use of language.

The same can be said of Seffi Atta. Consider Enitan’s soliloquy:

Niyi was so tall, I’d always thought he deserved more space. The shrinkage I experienced was never worth it. He came to see Yimika almost every day, and nearly always left slamming my front door which made me miss him less and less. But I didn’t blame him. He was fighting as though we were vying for the same cylinder of air: the more I breathed, the less there was for him” (331).

This is for me one of the keys to responding to the novel. Up to this point in the novel we have been initiated into the world torn apart by the lack of consideration for the other. This lack of consideration, the inability to feel the pain of the other, is epitomized by the fundamental unfairness in gender relations. Enitan’s mother wilts while her (Enitan’s) father blossoms largely due to the role their genders have conditioned them to play. Sheri experiences nearly the same fate, though in a different form. Enitan, unlike her mother, decides to fight back. The struggle between the sexes is delineated by the metaphor of a cylinder of air. We are grateful to the narrator, Enitan, that she is able to get into Niyi’s mind to see his bellicose disposition to reality. For him, existence, living with women on equal basis, seeing your wife as an equal partner in marriage, is like sharing a cylinder of air, which would not be enough. Does this not expose the attitude of most men in our typical Nigerian society?

A successful use of metaphor is like a picture, which it is said, paints more than a thousand words. This is because metaphors create prompt associations in our minds and through these associations we are better disposed to see our world in different lights, and, perhaps understand it better. Literature is a basketful of associations and, it is the job of language to expose these associations. The common denominating definition of metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy, simile, allusion etc, is that they are forms of associations. Of course, proverbs too, are forms of associations. Sometimes, however, it is advisable to distill the associations inherent in them, make them more universal, and therefore more digestible to a modern mind. As a writer you do not force depth on your story; depth comes with the degree of seriousness and respect to which you take your characters and the feeling they force you to explore. The gifted writers among us are better advised to know their characters and the world they live in and to steer clear of the world of irokos, eagles, ancestors, tortoises, drums and shrines. Let them tell us about human beings we can relate to. If you take your characters and your audience seriously, stories will emerge and when they emerge, they too will be taken seriously and they will last.

The Diaspora Generation of Nigerian Literature

I think it is equally important to touch on what I see as an unnecessary dichotomization of the Nigerian literary scene. I do this, not only because I was born in an age in which the essentializing of artificial differences between ethnic groups led to a war and to enduring unfair levels of developments in different parts of the country, and I have had my own share of the resultant misery; I touch on this binary spirit because it is essentially unhelpful to us all. Let us recall Emmanuel Sule’s words:

Beyond the Marxist infection, we are faced with another self-destructive disease which is the unthoughtful Americanization of our literary language. You may have noticed that Nigerian writers are not just enthusiastic about hopping into the United States of America under the disguise of self-exile or the search for greener pasture, they are also quick in surrendering to the watery diction of American literature.

I am not sure what Americanization of our literary language means. Of course America is such a huge country that any person can pick up anything from anywhere. But if any Nigerian can pick up Toni Morrison’s language, or Jamaica Kincaid’s, or Ralph Ellison’s, Susan Lori Park’s or James Baldwin’s etc – I have only mentioned names of people who look most like Nigerians – then he or she might not have had an ugly influence. Given that more than seventy percent of significant members of the Third Generation Nigerian writers reside outside Nigeria or draw their inspiration from without, yet write about Nigerian experience, it is correct to call them Diaspora Generation. But this is not actually the bone of contention here. The most important thing, for me, is that one tells important stories of Nigerian (actually human) experience, as the two ladies above have. Does it really matter from where one learns?

Nigeria, unfortunately, has failed to provide us all with an effective intellectual community. We all are to blame for that. I am not in the habit of condemning or commending any human being who has left or who has not left their country. However, I know that many people were basically forced to leave Nigeria while many others, like other citizens of the world, chose to go to places they can expand their opportunities. They need not be damned for that. Some Nigerians sold basically everything they had and set out in search of opportunities that their country denied them. Some struck success overseas; many were repatriated while some came back in coffins. To dismiss some of these as merely “hopping into the United States of America,”or to qualify most of our honest effort to establish ourselves in spite of many odds as “disguise of self-exile” reveals a reluctance to understand the plight of others. It is unfair.

NNLG literature prize excluded Nigerians living abroad for the reason that these Nigerians ostensibly have better opportunities to write than homegrown Nigerians do. What an irony. So far Nigerians abroad have written the country back into the literary world and we all are happier and intellectually richer for that. I think that the most important thing for the Nigerian mind and the literary scene now is to welcome anything that can truly enrich our humanity and create opportunities for all of us. We increase the sum total of our humanity when we become more inclusive than exclusive, more positive-minded than negative.

Chielozona Eze
Chielozona Eze
Nigerian writer and philosopher, I teach African and World literatures at Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago.


  1. Hi Sefi,

    Your article is one that I can identify with in some ways. I grew up with my mum being catholic and then pentecostal and my dad pretty much experimenting with quite a number of relligious faiths! I swayed between the church and no church and the church some more… Then I finally decided to stop reeling and extricate myself from the so often habitual demise of religion, and discover my ‘purpose’. My husband and I are not ‘church goers’ but are aware of and are seeking to understand the ethereal. We do not know whether or not we would introduce our children to a religious faith in the future…

    However, I write and speak a lot about the metaphysical hoping that my curious and sometimes frustrated vocalizations would educate, enlighten and free me.

    Thank you for sharing a part of your history.


    Chinye Billeter

  2. Beautiful piece this is, Seffi. Everybody has an honest view about religion buried deep inside of them. Most times people live a lie. They tell themselves they are Christians/Moslems and follow the bandwagon. Because in our country, religion has become more of a fad than a belief people hang themselves on to the leaches it gladly provides. We have more than 5,000 churches in our country yet, more thieves than when we had none.

  3. Brilliant!
    I’m happy somebody replied that article.
    You took the words – words I had no hope of putting together like you just did – out of mouth.

  4. I really enjoyed your biography, for i am doing my homework which was set to me by corona secondary school agbara. And i think you have inspired me alot

  5. Dear Sefi Atta and Albert Ozigis, I feel nourished by your articles after browsing the internet searching for my history. Nwa O!

  6. I’m okay with simplicity of language. Makes it more real to me. But it all depends on the characters and what they are trying to portray. Every writer is a god and has the right to create events in a realistic and unrealistic manner. That’s the problem with critics especially Nigerian critics who seem to understand the word criticism as a word having to do with negativity. Just because one doesn’t like something doesn’t mean it’s not good. As for me, I write and read…just spare me the critics who dwell on time for that

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