A question of audience – redux
Welcome back readers. My second article in this series was mentioned in an article by Chigozie Obioma in the UK Guardian, Who Should I Write For – Nigerians, Africans, or Everyone? in which Mr. Obioma argued for what I assume should be called internationalism versus provincialism. In the long piece in which he misspells my name repeatedly—it is ImasUEn, not ImasEUn—Obioma puts me in the position of supporting provincialism, that I argued for obscurantism because I lived and worked in Africa, against his position that novelists should write to be understood by everyone.
As he suggested, his position was borne out of his provenance and sophistication, working as he is in the diaspora. He accused a type of writer (a group he put me in) with being preoccupied with pleasing a particular base of readers, that we were probably not concerned with conveying “the vivid sense of event” and that we sacrificed quality for politics.
How does one respond to this gross misreading of my article and of my position? To remind the reader, in my article, A Question of Audience, the entire point I was trying to make was about how much of a burden audience should be for the writer. Rhetorical shenanigans about italics and definitions, and my dig at one extremely egregious example of what I abhorred, aside, I felt I was clear in why the writer should write to their immediate audience. In the example that I gave of Junot Diaz, I stated clearly that he did what he did with consummate skill, speaking in his version of Spanglish which in context could be understood by a global audience. Please note that the emphasis here is on context. How did Obioma take the leap from this to the conclusion that I was supporting telling instead of showing? Where did he create this strawman from?
When a writer describes eba as “a meal made from ground cassava”, how is this conveying a vivid sense of event? How is this not the worst form of telling? But if the writer is writing to their audience and taking them into confidence, if the writer was genuinely painting the scene and not being pressured by an editor to insert a group of words that define this strange word, what if he described as if to a newborn what is most important to the action in that scene? What if as his characters feast, one of them insists on using a fork and knife to eat this meal? What if a point-of-view character registers his discomfort at this character? There are many ways to show eba as incidental to the scene, to a development of character and of plot, but I will not support taking time out from a story to list a definition of what eba is. Your novel is not a dictionary. Never let your work be burdened by the need to explain every single thing. Trust your readers to get it.
This is what I am saying: tell your story well enough, show when you must, tell when you must, and remember that the function of the novel is to comment on the human condition. Trust this humanity. All readers will get it. On the spectrum of language—and to make an ad absurdum argument of the type that Obioma revels in in his article—if the difference is wide enough, there are always translators who will translate your novel from Yoruba to French if it must be done, or from Pidgin English to Mandarin. But to attempt to write for all is to write for no one, is to sacrifice authenticity on the altar of a misunderstanding of the notion of universalism. Remember that the local is universal. Tell your story honestly, and it will be universal, and will be understood by everyone.
This even speaks to the example he gave of the Danfo; instead of just mentioning it he would suggest the words “a beat-up squeaking yellow-painted bus with a constant metallic rattle”, which would paint a vivid picture in the mind of every reader. And even here I argue that the job of the author of a novel is to describes things to their audience within the constraints set by the tools of fiction. Who in the story is looking at the Danfo? Is this a point-of-view character who knows what a Danfo is? Is it within his character to see everything as if anew? If it is an all-knowing narrator, have you the novelist created a narrator that would do this with every object? Does this description feel pegged on, after the fact, to explain? One of reasons I enjoyed reading Purple Hibiscus was the technique Chimamanda Adichie used of making the narrator Kambili a character who noticed everything, who was quiet, in herself, and sensitive.
So, when Kamibili described Nsukka or her father’s hands or hot tea, we all believed it. She would have described Nsukka to even Emeka from Enugu in the same way. So even if the reader I had in mind was a Kunle from Isale-Eko, I would describe his ubiquitous Danfo to him in such a way as to remind him of the beauty of his environment.
I would do this within the story, from the point of view of a character who needed to see the buses in a new way, or from a narrator who was painting a word picture to set a mood. I hope I would do it well enough that any reader anywhere in the world would go on this journey with me and not get lost. I would not do this because I was insecure in my shared humanity with my reader wherever they may be from. Does this read as a treatise to provincialism?
In Obioma’s article I believe he gave away his reason for what I pray was an unconscious involuntary misreading of my article: the reception his beautiful Man-Booker Prize shortlisted novel received in Nigeria’s blogosphere. In a convoluted and unnecessary mishmash of genuine discomfort and some envy many readers worried about who he wrote to in his novel, The Fishermen. I am not one of those readers. In my article, I tried to write about how audience being in the mind of a writer makes his work harder. I tried to explain that authors need not be preoccupied with this burden as history has taken us past this stage in our development. Going by Obioma’s article, I may have failed to clearly state my position. I hope it is clearer now.