SEPTEMBER 21, 2018
IN 2014, NIGERIAN AUTHOR Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani argued in The New York Times that African literature, in order to be successful, had to appeal to “Western eyes.” The claim was prompted by a friend of Nwaubani’s who had told her, a bit inelegantly, that her first novel, I Do Not Come to You by Chance (2009), had figured out “what the white people wanted to read and given it to them.”
Nwaubani thought her friend had a point. I Do Not Come to You by Chance is about the so-called 419ers, the Nigerian “princes” who lure the unsuspecting into email scams — a phenomenon that has long since become an international joke and a callous way of dismissing what most are surprised to learn is the seventh-most-populated nation in the world. To be sure, the novel is in some ways familiar: a young man accidentally comes of age while simultaneously becoming ensnared in a criminal enterprise. Think Dickens via Doctorow. But it’s more than just a template, and the protagonist’s Uncle Boniface, the criminal mastermind who goes by the more colorful moniker “Cash Daddy,” looms large mid-book with a speech asserting that, no matter how much money may be bilked from the First World during a few years of internet tomfoolery, this loss will be dwarfed by the wealth, culture, blood, and potential that has been stripped from the entire African continent in the much vaster scam of colonialism, which lasted decades and lingers still. I may be putting a few words into Cash Daddy’s mouth, but by the time he’s done, you’re almost ready to start Googling Nigerian princes so you can cut a few checks.
I Do Not Come to You by Chance was critically well received (it won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book from Africa, among other honors), but I doubt it was the commercial blockbuster that Nwaubani’s cynical friend either feared or hoped it might be. The book is now a decade old, and in the years following its release, Nwaubani turned more toward journalism, becoming a chronicler of an endless smorgasbord of Nigerian oddities for the Times, the BBC, the Guardian, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, and, most recently, The New Yorker, which in July published Nwaubani’s account of her family’s history of trading — rather than being — slaves. All the while, Nwaubani has carefully avoided indulging in the kinds of stereotypes that appeal to Western eyes, and which “tend to form the foundations of [African writers’] literary successes.”
Somewhere in there came the Lost Girls. Yet even saying it that way is wrong, because Boko Haram was wreaking havoc and stealing Nigerian children long before the mass abduction of students in April 2014 that finally captured Michelle Obama’s — by which I mean the world’s — attention. Since then, Nwaubani has become the go-to authority on what is known locally as the “Chibok Girls.” She penned a number of articles about the kidnapping and its aftermath; she co-wrote a half-fiction, half-nonfiction volume on the episode with Italian journalist Viviana Mazza that appeared in Italy in 2016; and she served as location producer for a documentary on the subject that will be released this October.
Most important, the event returned Nwaubani to fiction, and her new novel, Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree, is both a harrowing account of a horrific event and a slyly trenchant criticism of all those who believe the tragedy would be easily remedied by simply bringing the girls home.
Being one of those books that is based on recent and all-too-real events, you kind of know what’s going to happen: the narrator is one of the abducted girls; her benign family life and promising education are interrupted by the theft of the young women; and, in the would-be caliphate of the Sambisa Forest of northeastern Nigeria, the Chibok girls are subjected to rape, murder, impregnation, and indoctrination; at last they are rescued by the Nigerian army and an international community that has finally decided to pay attention to what happens in Africa.
Early in the book’s extended preamble — as vague references to Boko Haram recur like the evil soon to manifest in a horror film — we are told the creation myth of the baobab tree. Eons ago, the story goes, a god in heaven hurled a gigantic tree down to Earth; it planted itself face down in the dirt, but continued to grow — which is why baobabs look upside-down, their roots all up in the air.
Such is the novel itself. The story is delivered in discrete chunks, a fragmented narrative like a choppy radio signal, and the result is a kind of upside-down root system of anecdotes, news reports, and riddle games. Western celebrities, we learn, loom in Nigeria like heathen deities from some demented Valhalla, and laptops are a mechanical oracle that permit communion with an artificial divine. The story reads easily, but there’s something lurking in the texture of the book, something lodged deep down in its point of view that the Western canon doesn’t have a name for — it’s first-person narration told from the perspective of someone lacking Western self-consciousness. Even the “I” is a kind of mournful collective identity.
Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree is being pitched as a Young Adult title — it has been published by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins that specializes in stories for even younger readers. The truth, however, is that the novel has far more in common with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) than with any contemporary children’s book. Like Offred, Nwaubani’s narrator has no name apart from the one she is given after her abduction (Salamatu — Arabic for “safety”), and her story too breaks off abruptly after the Chibok girls are rescued. Atwood’s epilogue — an in-the-distant-future academic presentation on Offred’s manuscript, by then a historic curiosity — is matched here by a brief afterword by Mazza, who historically contextualizes Nwaubani’s novel and in the process accidentally confirms Atwood’s claim that her novel wasn’t really fantasy because everything in it was happening to real women somewhere in the world.
Yet a YA imprint may be a perfect fit for Nwaubani, if only because her story so often concerns itself with myth, lore, folktales, and children’s stories. Periodic epigraphs from Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” serve as a constant reminder of Nwaubani’s more fundamental concern, and of her awareness that fairy tales were originally much more than a cute way to put American children to sleep. Nigerian children too, we are informed, long for stories, but when the children of the narrator’s village are told a folktale one evening, they spend the rest of the night debating its meaning. Eventually, as the horror approaches, we begin to put the pieces together: the Sambisa Forest in northeast Nigeria is where the really wild things are. When Salamatu is finally rescued, a Western aid worker gives her a copy of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), as though Willy Wonka has something to say to a girl who has by now been raped and stoned, and who is carrying the child of her abductor.
Once upon a time, fairy tales served the purpose of introducing children to the stresses and dangers of the adult world that awaited them. Not anymore — or at least not in the West, which giddily transforms Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” into Disney’s Frozen (2013). Nwaubani is on to all that: buried deep down beneath this baobab of a book are the charred remains of the fairy tale itself. When the Chibok girls were abducted, the call went out around the world: #BringBackOurGirls. Which is fine, so long as you recall that Africa had good witches and bad witches long before Dorothy did, and that #BringBackOurGirls is in no way the same happy ending as three taps of your ruby slippers.