The last time I spoke about the now late VS Naipaul at some length was at a book festival last year.
The essayist Emmanuel Iduma had asked if an essay I wrote about meeting Petina Gappah in Switzerland and, later, in Zanzibar was a kind of commentary on Teju Cole writing about meeting Naipaul in the US. It was no such thing.
I had invoked Cole on Naipaul because the question of literary permission never goes away — even as we got different responses: while Cole was encouraged to cover the meeting in prose by Naipaul, Gappah had said I shouldn’t do same. I went ahead to write and Iduma wondered if commenting on Cole’s piece had to be the stimulus. But I only wanted to chase what seemed a significant experience with words.
Before that conversation, talking Naipaul had been a frequent indulgence by my friend David and me. We both share a love for Martin Amis and VS Naipaul, but where he veers towards the latter’s subtle, elegant sentences in his own writing, the force of the Amis sentence provided a model for me around the time I started considering a career in writing. I’m not sure many critics pair the men, but they do share a trait: they have both claimed to be comic writers. It is a category David and I think we belong to, too.
I once told David that the impulse that gave rise to Naipaul’s monstrous displays against his own people was understandable even as his manner of confrontation was rather disturbing. In a sense, Naipaul’s initial issue was the trouble the colonised faces when his ambition and how to go about it is presented in the language of the coloniser: How do you want to be a great English writer without loving the English language? In Naipaul’s case, that question was complicated by his going to Oxford as a teenager. He was never really afforded the deep connection to his land as he might have had had his scholarship to London came later.
As his ambition tilted to the west and his geography changed to same early, Trinidad and India, twin bearers of his ancestry, lost Naipaul’s sympathy. The residue of his sympathy would show in his first masterwork, A House for Mr Biswas, but not quite in that manner again afterwards, especially not in his non-fiction where he could go face-to-face with his ancestry. As a woman once wrote to a newspaper, “Naipaul is a good example of an Indian who has become a brown Englishman as a result of his youthful exposure to a typical colonial education”.
That is as much an astute psychological profile of Naipual as one could hope for. And Naipaul might have agreed. “I had such trouble getting started because of my background,’’ he once said. “There were no models, no books to show me how to use the material with which I would have to deal. That was my anxiety, about not getting started.”
It is my conviction that there is a connection between Naipaul’s plight and the African writer’s situation today and maybe even African publishing as well. Both need the west. A variation of a popular question is this: Nigerians might read, but would they buy? I’d like to go one further: Would Nigerians buy books or pay for writing enough that it affords their writers a decent living?
Few can answer these questions with any certainty but even fewer would say so. Perhaps the main difference between Naipaul and the state of African publishing today is that Naipaul was clear-eyed about the situation and early, too.
“The young man in South London was writing about his island, but, to some extent inevitable, he was not writing for his island; he was writing to be read by (the more enlightened of) his Oxford and London peers,” wrote James Wood in the New Yorker. Or, as the London Review of Books put it, “It would appear that for Naipaul there is only one way to be modern, and that is to be Western.”
Around us there is evidence of how much the west exists in our book space. I’d much rather publish this piece in the New York Times, for instance. The rave these days is Nnedi Okorafor writing for Marvel and Tomi Adeyemi’s book. Both are not based in Nigeria. In fact, I cannot remember the last time a book was celebrated across my country without western assistance, either in the life of the writer or in the life of the book.
It is sad but if the writer wants readers, and the publisher demands profit, then it is best to produce a collection of words aimed west-ward. This is a problem that other Nigerian culture products don’t have in the same way: Nigerian pop music in English, pidgin or Yoruba has proven profitable locally, as has Nigerian film in the mould of Nollywood.
Creators in those fields are presenting the Nigerian story in a way recognisable to many Nigerians in that formal education is unnecessary to grasp their meaning. The “literary” writing business, by contrast, is tied directly to education, and even beyond that, you could argue, to a literary education. As the state of Nigerian schools has worsened since Achebe sold a five-digit figure of Things Fall Apart across the continent, so has the state of reading serious literature in English.
Naipaul saw his position clearly, early: to survive as a writer was to look to the west; having to do so, unfortunately, led him into making odious comments about the civilisation of much of what existed outside of the west. In doing this, Naipaul gave permission to some of the rather unsavoury thoughts harboured by citizens of the west. It is this permission that has spawned some pieces as the one by George Packer in the New Yorker. Packer writes that:
Reading “A Bend in the River” felt like a piece of incredible luck. Here was a world just like the one I found myself in, portrayed in the sharpest, most penetrating language imaginable, free of piety or wishfulness.
If Packer felt living in Togo was equivalent to living in a shithole, Naipaul had given him permission to not think deeper or different or further.
That permission to think about an African country in harsh terms also accompanied Teju Cole’s account of visiting Nigeria in his first book, Every Day for the Thief. A European friend had once told me how that book was the most accurate account of Nigerian living she had read. Of course, Cole looked at Nigeria as a westerner would, with some condescension, with a large helping of shock, but the colour of his skin granted him the authority a Caucasian writer could never have, so that what my white friend was saying to me amounted to: “Look, one of you has said it. How can it not be true?”
Cole might have been faithful to his experience, but faithfulness is not understanding. And all too often, in such accounts, brutality is easier than compassion. Perhaps it is worth asking if Cole’s grudging tribute to Naipaul’s brilliance upon meeting the man in the US was the case of a younger writer looking at a mirror showing his older image. A repositioning of Dorian Gray’s portrait.
For the rest of us, besides the elegance of his prose and the opulence of his acclaim, it is unclear what part of the Naipaul career is worthy of emulation. Maybe it is best to think of Naipaul as having presented a challenge to young writers born and raised outside of the West’s borders: How do you come to love the language of the coloniser enough to exploit it, enough to do “unheard of things”, in Achebe’s deathless phrase, without yielding to the temptation of denigrating your own?
It is important to realise that, as Achebe told Caryl Phillips, Africans “don’t come from a ‘half-made’ society as [Naipaul claimed]. We’re not ‘half-made’ people, we’re a very old people. We’ve seen lots of problems in the past. We’ve dealt with these problems in Africa, and we’re older than the problems.”
The challenge for African publishing is not exactly same as for the continent’s writers: Our publishing has to find ways by which profit can be made today (even if this means going west), and yet find a way to entrench a culture of consuming serious literature locally in enough quantity that writers of the future can earn a livelihood without panhandling to a western audience. One has to hope that Africa can groom a Naipaul — to produce great prose — without the problematic politics of the very brilliant original.