In a new interview with the American magazine Newsweek, Biyi Bandele made the kind of revelation that will surely send people Google-searching. The Nigerian novelist and filmmaker—author of Burma Boy (2007) and director of Half of a Yellow Sun (2013)—was asked a variation of that very tired question: Whom do you write for? And he poured this tea about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s early career.
Newsweek: Some critics have said that what the west knows as “Nigerian” literature is really literature written by Nigerians for non-Nigerian audiences. Writer Helon Habila famously called it “poverty porn.”
Biyi Bandele: Helon’s right. To a point. There’s a bit of give-the-editors-what-they-want and it’s true that literary prizes in the West favor victimhood. Several years ago I judged a literary competition. We got a short story by a then unknown writer, a young woman named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Well, I tried to get the story onto the shortlist and I failed. I couldn’t convince my fellow judges. Some felt it wasn’t African enough, presumably because it didn’t deal with HIV or prostitution. (Laugh) Of course, by the time the awards were announced, Chimamanda was a mega-star.
This was before Purple Hibiscus came out in 2003, at which time Adichie had been shortlisted for both the Caine Prize and the Commonwealth Short Story Competition in 2002. We are presuming that whichever contest this was, it is now defunct, and it evidently didn’t last long enough to leave an impression in the literary scene.
This is both surprising and not surprising. It should go without saying that every prize must aspire to excellent standards. Going by the last few years, when prize shortlists could be half-filled with poorly written and embarassingly edited short stories and outstanding talents puzzlingly snubbed, this should teach prize runners something important: if you want to maintain high standards, choose your judges carefully. Bad readers as judges equals bad writing on shortlists and great writers off shortlists and average writing as winner and irrelevance calling said prize.
Bandele, meanwhile, is working on a documentary film on Fela Kuti for the BBC.
Read the full interview HERE.
Graph image credits: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie by Elizabeth Wirija; Biyi Bandele by British Black List.