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Theorising third-generation Nigerian novels


The third-generation Nigerian novel as a tradition has been the subject of diverse critical interpretations. While not oblivious of the current debates on the taxonomy or otherwise of the writers, it is clear that, by whatever description – third-generation (Adesanmi & Dunton, 2005); twenty-first century (Onukaogu & Onyerionwu, 2009), fifth-generation (Uwasomba, 2012), these novels can gradually boast of commensurate critical interventions. Critics have been dwelling on the emergence of this tradition by focusing on both individual authors and as a group or emerging canon. While it is quite evident that the third-generation of Nigerian novelists are profound in their craft and have continue to record impressive vertical and horizontal growths in terms of literary outputs with newer names added to the corpus almost at regular intervals, it has been difficult to pigeonhole these writers along particular ideological or stylistic leanings. What is attempted in this short essay is a critical overview of attempts at theorising the third-generation Nigerian novels and the strands of discourse that are emerging from the critical interventions.

In an essay titled “Talking and Te(x)stifying: Ndibe, Habila, and Adichie’s ‘Dialogic’ Narrativizations of Nigeria’s Post War Nadir: 1984-1998” Christopher Okonkwo suggests that three contemporary Nigerian novels: Okey Ndibe’s Arrows of Rain, Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus can be “linked ‘dialogically’. His idea is that the three texts “te(x)stify” to what he terms “the horrors of the nadir”. He sees the novels as “ performing, recuperating and affirming the power and resiliency of that human and civil right of ‘voice’ which the army sought desperately to stifle and invalidate”. The critic suggests by extension that “retelling” the history of Nigeria is the hallmark of the third-generation novel. This is true to a large extent given that there is a sense in which the novels themaitise hope and engender new pragmatic thinking that enables the movement from “nihilism to hope, absence to presence, and from apathy to action”.(23)

The above instantiates a critical categorization of third-generation writing based on certain assumed ideological leanings. It is of course appropriate to share the above sentiments since “It is difficult for a Nigerian writer, or any postcolonial writer, to either take a definite, Kantian art-for- art’s sake position” (Obafemi 2011,13) . This means that through ideological engagement, third-generation Nigerian writers continue to deepen the relationship between writer and the enabling society. The above indication is that third-generation Nigerian novelists are indeed entrenching a tradition, which is obviously deeply rooted in the political direction of the early Nigerian writers which achieved some radical bite by the succeeding generation.


Therefore, for the third-generation Nigerian novelist, the imperative of social commitment is natural and seemingly unavoidable. Okuyade (2009) explains that the growth and development of the novel genre in the twenty-first century have been particularly exponential. He further draws a link between the experiences of the earlier generations and the third, observing that, “only the political atmosphere differs; the temper remains the same” (72). It is, therefore, an obvious position that critics are identifying the new directions and focus of writers, conditioned by the fresh challenges. The fact that third-generation writers are exhibiting the desires of the post-independence societies remains a propelling force for critics in their interventions.

It is clearly evident that the issues thematised in third-generation Nigerian novels are germane to the enabling twenty-first century society. Just like the Achebe’s generation of writers who are representatives of their ages through the cultural cum socio-historical leanings of their works, the third generation writers are radiating elements of intertextuality which qualify them, as “Achebe’s grandchildren”. Actually, one notices deliberate attempts by the writers to associate aesthetically with the Achebe tradition. For instance, Purple Hibiscus opens with “Things Began to fall apart …” (Adichie) while there is a similar reference in Waiting for an Angel: “Things started falling apart…” (147). These examples show that third generation Nigerian writers, even though not strictly confined to the same experiences and passions, are similar in thematic concerns and principles. Describing this relationship as revisionism, he contends that:
Adichie revises Achebe’s novel in several ways. She takes one of his themes, the breakdown of family and community under the pressures of colonialism and religion, and recasts it in post-independent Nigeria, at a time when colonialism’s heirs—corruption, political strife, and religious dogmatism—strain family and community.

In clearer terms, there is an ideological continuity that runs through the corpus of African literature. This link, simply put, is an abiding commitment to socio-historical issues which as Mutisso (1974) predicted amounts to the fact that “politics in literature is a healthy phenomenon because good literatures in the present Africa aim to, extrapolate the major social and political concepts that will be used for the socialization of present and future generations” (244). Thus, by inference, third-generation Nigerian novelists effectively thematize the daunting realities prevalent in the enabling milieu.

In effect, the critical reception of third-generation Nigerian writing acknowledges the dynamic spirit and resilience of the writers. The fact is that the writers possess the capacity to reflect and engage the realities of their time, given the circumstances of their maturation. After all, Hewett (2005) describes the generation as a group whose account is “is one of triumph over adversity, a story of courageous individuals refusing to be silenced and the greater community supporting them. It is a remarkable story, one that is still being written by critics and the writers themselves” (74). The experiences of most members of the generation as “literary ambassadors” who seem to have establish a permanent relationships with the West, also suggest a kind of unifying aesthetics. This is because the crop of emerging third-generation writers are in constant dialogue with the western world either as members of the “brain train” or as representatives of the generations permanently resident outside the shores of the country. Ben Okri, Chris Abani and Uzodimma Iweala fall into this category. This interaction has not only nurtured a vibrant tradition, it continues to enrich the thematic and stylistic directions of the literary productions. It also forges a thread of globalization of themes and ideas as the writers either resident in Nigeria or based outside or constantly moving in and out are exposed to similar realities which enable them emerge as archetypes of the third generation.


Ojaide (2006) seems to fully grapple the interconnection between individual and communal aspiration in the third generation Nigerian novel. Using Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come as textual reference, He sees the individual as the microcosm or measure of the society’s advancement in the novels thus making the domestic and the public allies and not parallels. He posits that “the individual’s will or self-assertion, especially when applied by a woman in a patriarchal society, can break the jinx of infertility/barrenness, inaction, submissiveness, subjugation, and low self-esteem, among other problems” (2). The implication for both the individual and society is such that “There are clear parallels in the novel between the way women are treated in a patriarchy—raped as Sheri was, cheated as Enitan was by Mike, dominated as the women by men, and robbed—and the successive military governments’ oppression, tyranny, violence, mistreatment, and dashing of the hopes of civilians ( 2).

The critical opinion above underscores the essential thrusts of Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come and indicates that the novel’s attempt at subtle gender consciousness is not lost on the critic. It is noteworthy that inhumanity in different colourations permeates the universe of the novel. The protagonist of Everything Good Will Come, Enitan , is therefore positioned as a messenger of hope whose character foil, Sheri, seems to spur to action. Their relationship affirms the principle of female solidarity which Hudson-Weems (2008) calls “sisterly bond” He describes the scenario as a case where “in this community of women, all reach out in support of each other, demonstrating a tremendous sense of responsibility for each other by looking out for one another” He elaborates further that “the women are joined emotionally, as they embody emphatic understanding of each other‘s shared experiences. Everything is given out of love, criticism included, and in the end, the sharing of the common and individual experiences and ideas yields rewards” (65).

One can relate the above submission to the seeming the bias of third-generation Nigerian novelists towards gender theorizing. For example, the the strength of the female characters and the mutual inspiration they draw from one another seems to suggest that Sefi Atta’s feminist temper, however subtle it may appear, supports female solidarity as a means of addressing issues of gender exploitation. This aligns with Eze’s (2008,117) submission that “Sefi Atta sets abroad canvas upon which she, produces a strong narrative that is particular in its detailed Nigerian experience and universal in the ethical issues that inform it” .

Therefore, Atta’s Everything Good will Come pursues gender empowerment as a larger aspect of post-independence engagement. Meanwhile, the same gender consciousness in Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come is evident in Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. The novel, has, however not enjoyed much attention in this regard. It is very clear though that the characterisation of Amaka represents a gender message that there is a viability of self-realisation through this characters positive assertion of will. This is what Sotunsa (2009) captures as a subtle intertextuality or “writing back” between the preceding band of African male writers and the emerging “gang” of female writers. The agenda of the latter group, according to Sotunsa, is to “counter the impaired picture of African womanhood by reversing the roles of women in African fiction written by men. African female writers began to present female protagonists who are pitted against all odds, yet emerge liberated and determined to exist with or without the man (174).

The point is that Atta manifests gender consciousness in Everything Good Will Come just as other third-generation novelists, Chimamanda Adichie in Purple Hibiscus. For example, Amaka exemplifies female empowerment while Adichie fuses this with Kambili’s innocence to demonstrate the essence of feminine expression in a way that makes the novel, according to Dawes (2005), “a subtle narrative of deeply painful conflicts with loyalty and fear” (1). Dawes elaborates further by describing Adichie’s prose as “confident and charged with a certain emotional intelligence that draws us so fully into her story that we barely notice the craft: the literary sophistication of her use of symbols and metaphors, of her engagement with deeply political and ideological issues” Dawes suggests that, Adichie succeeds in engaging a domestic issue by locating “larger ideological issues that remain central to the best writing from Africa” (1). The larger are certainly related to the general situation in the prevailing contexts of the novel.


Another direction in theorizing the third-generation Nigerian novel is exemplified in the reading of a text like Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel, as a work which amounts to the established a revitalisation of the tradition of prison writing on the one hand, and the dramatization of the Freudian psychoanalytical theory of the unconscious in relation to the pursuit of a wider political agenda, on the other. As a prison memoir, Waiting for an Angel brilliantly revisits the genre which works like Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died and Ken Saro Wiwa’s A Month and A Day exemplify. The emphasis on the role of the central character, Lomba, as the focus of action and meaning shows that the third-generation Nigerian novelist preoccupies self with the status of the self within the society. In fact, Edoro’s (2008) appraisal of Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel as a work that “does not take the social function of the writer and the public performance of intellectual life for granted but instead makes the social” (37) , goes a long way to show that, third-generation Nigerian novelists are mindful of “life of the [creative] mind” as a major critical concern (Said, 16).

In other words, Habila interjects this by showing “how ideological constraints and material conditions construct the creative mind and define the nature of its functions and relationship to the collective” (Edoro, 2008, 37). This clearly implies that, the self in the twenty-first century is not only tasked in terms of quality of life, the intellect is also the subject of intense reflections, in search of solutions to the crisis of survival. Lomba, the central character cum narrator, represents the creative tribe in Waiting for an Angel. It is incumbent on the tribe to mobilize the society towards mass action successfully. This is to say that, the redemption of Poverty Street, may not be in sight and the “waiting” is likely to continue until the collective spirit is harnessed. Conscious of the “Achebean” mandate of the role of the writer, Habila concerns himself with showing the challenges and potentials of the creative mind, and how these limitations affect the relationship between the individual and the society at large.

Moreover, critics have also situated Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel within the larger discourse of the place of intellectuals in the clamour for an idyllic Africa. Olaniyan (1995) and Quayson (2005) have similar positions on the above. The summary of these positions can be seen in Quayson’s new agenda for the literature that would transcend the present state, since according to him, literature: “has vigorously to avoid the dominant forms with which political discourse itself attempts to constitute such a reality … [which have] operated mainly in a quasi-metaphysical language of Good v. Evil, of Chaos v. Order, and that in the hands of politicians this has served as a necessary simplification that obscures the real complexities of what takes place in the political domain.” (94)

Arising from the foregoing, Quayson’s suggestion that literature must change “the existing shape of dominant political discursive paradigms” (97) to enact a “liberatory politics” (115), is quite instructive. This is in alignment with the observation of Chirman (2010,64) that the tenet of post-colonial literature in Nigeria is “clearly imbued with despair and disillusionment” He goes further by identifying new generation writers such as Sefi Atta, Chris Abani, Ahmed Yerima, Promise Ugochukwu, as belonging to a category that “dramatises and measure the rigors of commitment and responsibility” It therefore follows that, there is a strong bond among Nigerian literature, history and society, which suggest a form of complementary interconnectedness.


In a similar vein, Okey Ndibe’s Arrows of Rain has been applauded as a faithful representation of social consciousness and political activism that run through the third-generation of Nigerian novelists. Clearly, Arrows of Rain’s “overt subscription to social concerns” (Akingbe, 2010,1) is an attribute which evidently runs through the themes of third-generation Nigerian writers, in their bid “ to confront the social realities considered responsible for the failure of the country to live up to its widely-acknowledged potential”(2). In other words, Ndibe’s Arrows of Rain therefore is a satiric effort which underscores the role of literature, and the task of the writer, especially in post-independence Nigeria. After all, as Kehinde (2009) points out, “post-independence Nigerian writers, in their individual rights, are skillful artists who project their political messages without vitiating their arts” (335). Cognisance must however be taken of the fact that, the writers, notwithstanding their political temperaments, continue to strive at maintaining a “nice balance between matters and manners, and they are political artists who are, first of all, artists.”

The point therefore is that, third-generation Nigerian novelists are clearly not bereft of stylistic and aesthetic value, which ordinarily may suffer as a result of their socio-historical thematic inclinations. As such, theorising third-generation Nigerian novels without accounting for disaggregating imperatives would amount to an exercise in theoretical regurgitation or re-echoing of hitherto established notions of socio-historical engagement. It has been suggested in the foregoing that, the third-generation Nigerian novel is an amalgam of intertextuality, Diaspora consciousness, gender and a re-engineered depth of socio-historic commitment that emphasizes refractive aesthetics.

* Dr. Oluwole Coker, a Senior Lecturer, teaches postcolonial African fiction and oral literature at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria.


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