The danger of a single author

You might expect unbridled enthusiasm from literature professors for the “One Book, One New York” campaign, a project that claims to be “the largest community reading program in the country.” It champions literature, seeing it as uniquely positioned to bring people together; capable of building connections across difference in a world in which the arts hold an increasingly tenuous foothold.

Given U.S. PresidentDonald Trump’s recent proposal to scrap both the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts, this is a particularly timely moment for such a project. And the election of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel, Americanah, by those New Yorkers who took time to vote for it, suggests a desire for books that reflect the city’s pro-immigrant, cosmopolitan tendencies, as do most of the other works in competition with Americanah. Yet a closer look at the winning choice points to some less than savory truths about the place of African fiction and African writers in the United States and the “Global North.”

The four other books nominated indicate a preference for books concerned with themes of racial, ethnic, and class diversity. Apart from the anomalous choice of the 1943 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, the three others (Junot Diaz’s 2007 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Ta Nahesi-Coates’ more recent Between the World and Me, and 2016’s Booker Prize winner The Sellout by Paul Beatty) suggest a preference for works with clear and current political and racial thematic emphases. This is New York, the subway ads seem to indicate, even while Trump’s photo-ops at the White House depict a more homogeneous United States.

The multiculturalism celebrated by New York City depends, regrettably, on well-worn forms of dispossession, re-entrenching global inequality even as its marketing campaign claims to resist it. Julie Menin, the Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, purportedly promoted the “One Book, One New York” program in order to enhance the stature and financial clout of NYC-based publishing houses.

This is all very well for Penguin Random House, Americanah’s publisher, and “the world’s largest English-language general trade book publisher,” but what Menin and others ignore as they help fill corporate coffers, is how such behemoths destroy non-Western publishing houses, much as Amazon has destroyed small booksellers, making it impossible for them to compete either for the best African writers’ books, or for the wealth that works like Americanah produce.

In an important 2008 article in “The Chronic,” the cultural supplement to South African-based Chimurenga magazine, Jeremy Weate observes that African literature is often treated as yet another extractable source for the enrichment of Euro-American publishing. All of the wealth that novels such as Americanah produce is recouped in the West, echoing earlier imperial patterns of wealth accumulation, which, to use Ian Baucom’s pithy phrase, ensure that “expansion contracts.”

Like oil, or “black gold,” extracted in Nigeria, but refined off-shore for re-import and resale to Nigerian consumers, African fiction, for Weate, “is simply another form of capital whose value is formed and transacted in London or New York (for the English-speaking world),” where the judges of literary prizes, and critics, and academics (like myself) confer value (or refuse it) on literary works.

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By Lily Saint