Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brought Chinua Achebe into my life; Achebe brought Adichie into my life. My freshman year of high school the first novel my class read was Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The first day my class began this unit, our teacher showed us Adichie’s TedTalk on the danger of a single story. It was the first time I had heard either author’s name. We had not yet read or learned about Achebe. He was first defined by how Adichie talked of both him and Nigeria in her lecture. Conversely, the only reason we were shown Adichie was because we were about to learn about her predecessor.
In many ways, it makes sense to teach Achebe through Adichie’s introduction or to teach Adichie by first delving into Achebe’s works. There is no way to deny their connection. Achebe is thought of as the “father of modern African literature.” Adichie, in turn, is called his “unruly literary daughter.” She is the next generation of African novelists after Achebe and even cites his works as important influences on her. They have no biological relation and weren’t close in anyway. They wrote about one another, but never seemed to know each other personally. Both are Nigerian, but thinking that a shared birthplace is why Adichie is his literary daughter would be as simplistic and broad as thinking all American writers are metaphorically family. To be someone’s daughter, even metaphorically, has immense emotional and intellectual connotations. So at what point does an important influence on a writer become literary family to them?
A literary family is something not built out of bloodlines or geography but from written word. Every writer has influences. As a writer I could name at least a dozen authors and poets who have shaped the way I write. But is that enough to make them my own literary family? The answer is complicated, as is the structure of any family. A metaphorical family is not an alien concept to me, especially as a queer person.
There are many people in my life who I am not related to biologically or legally but who are my family. Still, I find my connection to my ancestors and family history to be incredibly important. Family, to me, is both something you are
born into and the people whom you choose, which is why the concept of literary family and kinship is so fascinating. We are all related to the writers’ whose works we consume, whose short stories enlighten or madden us, whose poems we think of during first dates, whose voices stay with us as we type out our own narratives. But there are also those writers we get compared to and whose work connects to ours in ways we may or may not understand or see. A literary family is not just influence. It is intentional love and craft on the part of the literary child or descendant. It is an acknowledgment of the authors who come before us and who can be seen in the subtext of our
A literary family can be a burden much like a real family. Every writer has a litany of literary aunts, uncles, cousins, and in-laws. But to be not just a literary family but a literary parent and child is an even deeper connection, which is what makes Achebe and Adichie such a fascinating case study. They are not the only examples of literary parent-children relationships I want to observe, but they will help us form a framework for the importance of acknowledging and investigating literary kinship. If a biological family is a tree, then a literary one is a forest. If we can understand one’s literary kinship, a new trail will come into light. Authorial influence will become familial roots.
In this essay, we will look at literary families, both those of the acclaimed and famous as well as the family ancestry of my generation of writers. I hope to be able to understand where a literary family comes from, whether it’s self-defined like a queer chosen family or determined by outer influences like biological nuclear family. And, finally, I hope to be able to answer who my literary family is, at least so far. What poets, authors, or artists exist between the lines of my words?
II. The Case Study of Achebe and Adichie
Achebe often is referred to as the father of modern African literature. Achebe himself had an issue with this title, feeling as though it discredited many other African writers and simplified what an African novel is; isn’t an Egyptian novel different from a Nigerian one just as a French novel is different from a German one? But there is some truth on a world-wide scale to this title. Even my freshman English teacher taught us that Achebe was Africa’s literary patriarch.
Prior to the publication of Things Fall Apart, from a western viewpoint, the most notable “African” novel was Heart of Darkness, by the Polish-British author, Joseph Conrad. It helped to shape and maintain the single story of Africa in the eyes of the West: the African people were savages and the only thing beautiful about Africa are the animals and dramatic landscapes. Things Fall Apart, in many ways, sought to counteract the damage Heart of Darkness caused. Achebe’s writing is distinctly Nigerian. He presents the history and culture of the Igbo tribe and does not shy away from discussing colonization, religion, corruption, or other divisive subjects. He redefined for the West what an African novel was and continued to do so as his career continued. Things Fall Apart paved the way for many other Nigerian and African writers to challenge the Conrad narrative. The question is when does influence become more?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s first novel Purple Hibiscus begins, “Things started to fall apart at home” (Adichie 3). It is a direct reference to Achebe and leads the reader to a pathway on how to read this novel. By opening her first novel with an allusion to Achebe’s first novel, the book becomes tied to him. It is not hard to think that beginning her debut novel in this way was an act of love towards Achebe himself.
Oftentimes in these literary families, love is a one-way street. The predecessor does not need to love the next generation of writers in the same way they love him. Adichie is informed and influenced by what Achebe did before her. Her love for him was built out of his works. Achebe has no obligation to love her work back. But there is still love there. Love and care were put into each of his works of writing, and that love is what makes his writing so meaningful to his readers, including Adichie.
In more recent years, Adichie has on some level rejected her connection to Achebe. This is in some way similar to Achebe’s rejection of his patriarchal title. Adichie feels being compared to him meant her work is not critically and emotionally understood on its own terms and that Western audiences were comparing her work to Achebe because they cannot name other African writers. However, even African literary critics undeniably see the connection between Achebe and her. That being said, Achebe wrote as a political author whereas Adichie claims even her most political novels are about love, not politics. The most infamous space in which they clash is in their responses to the Nigerian Civil War (Achebe’s There Was a Country versus Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun). Families often disagree and turn away from each other, not seeing eye to eye, as do literary families. But these disagreements, the ways in which a younger author rebels or pulls away from her predecessor, helps to inform their familial relationship.
Adichie has discussed reading Things Fall Apart for the first time as a young girl. She has expressed that it was a moving experience to see characters that were authentic to the culture in which she had grown up instead of the European stories she was used to reading, even if it was generations away from when she was growing up. It was her transformative text. His work connected her to her past. She saw herself in his narrative. Every one of her novels contains subtle moments where the reader can feel Achebe’s presence, moments where the reader is reminded of his legacy within her work. Not just influence, but historical, thematic, and cultural connection. Perhaps these moments are similar to the ones she felt growing up in the house Achebe once lived in. Her father was a professor of statistics at the University of Nigeria, and she grew up on the university’s campus in Achebe’s former home. Adichie spent her time in that house “hearing literary spirits whispering in [her] ear,” (Matz 158) and those literary spirits live on in her work.
The love from a literary child to their literary parent is easy to see, but the shared experiences and kinship between them are also an important part of the equation. Adichie and Achebe’s cultural and geographical settings create an initial relationship that love and authorial inspiration foster into a familial relationship. As literary children, there are authors we seek out, are inspired by, and fall in love with. Literary families are built from a place of love, conflict, and
differentiation. As writers, we have authors who ignite us, who drive us to sharpen our craft, who utterly amaze us. This is the root of finding our literary parents, siblings, grandparents, and so on. And, yes, these families can become overwhelming and overbearing—as all families can.
Adichie stating that she does not want to be lumped together with Achebe just because they are both Nigerian and African writers does not mean her love for him or his writing is gone, and it does not mean she is no longer his daughter. It means she is trying to distinguish herself as separate from her family. This is a process every teen and young adult goes through in biological and legal families. A part of growing up is breaking away from your parents. Adichie going from using Achebe’s words in her first novel to now, having published three novels, two essays, and a
short story collection, shows she is growing up as a writer, not simply an extension of Achebe. She has built her own space within the literary canon, and while her literary parent, Achebe, will always be a part of her story, he is no longer the single story that defines her.
III. A Queer Way of Defining Family
“[The] families we choose resembled networks in the sense that they could cross household lines, and both were based on ties that radiated outward from individuals like spokes on a wheel. However, gay families differed from networks to the extent that they quite consciously incorporated symbolic demonstrations of love, shared history, material or emotional assistance, and other signs of enduring solidarity. Although many gay families included friends, not just any friend would do.” -Kath Weston, Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship.
As a young queer person who spends most of their time with other queer people, I am well versed in a chosen family. It is a grounding element of queer culture, history, and heritage. For many queer people, biological family is not always an option. Homophobia, transphobia, and the patriarchal heteronormative society that most grow up in causes the concept of family to have to be unique for a queer individual. Even when families or parents are accepting, the larger communities we grow up in and the messaging of Western culture cause queer people to seek out other people who identify as queer. I have a biological family, and for the most part, they are accepting of me. But my chosen family, this network, these spokes on a wheel, are equally as important to me as the biological. These chosen families are formed out of common experience, kinship, and expressions of love, and have become my launching point for the model of literary families.
It is notable that most chosen families are not formed to emulate a nuclear family. While there can be mothers or fathers. (the house structure of Ballroom culture is an excellent example of the ways in which mothers and fathers sometimes are roles in chosen families), often it is not as clear cut as a legal or biological family. We all fill different roles and cross the lines of standard roles in an effort to support our chosen family members. Support and love is what keeps these families bonded. We must support one another in a world that is not made for us, queer people, to succeed.
Queer families are certainly not the only family structure that subverts Western traditional family dynamics. Families of color, families with disabilities, mixed families, and many other types of families all have their own ways of forming their familial structures. All families, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, class, etc, have individual nuances and makeups. That being said, queer families are what I am most familar with in terms of my day-to-day life and in the
ways in which they subvert the expectations and definitions of a family. A literary family will not replicate a legal or biological one. It too will be “ties that radiated outward from individuals like spokes on a wheel” (Weston 109). The authors and writers who we trace our literary genes to are complicated connections. These connections are ones our readers, critics, and ourselves must take on the responsibility to investigate and understand. Our literary family is simultaneously functioning as a chosen family, as we do have some choice in the writers we love or consume, while having fixed points in the manner that legal or biological families do, given how we cannot necessarily control what writers will speak to us and will be seen in the subtext of our work.
Queer families are chosen, but these families are not always voluntary. These families are a combination of choice and circumstance, as are literary families. Adichie made the choice to reference Achebe’s words in her first novel, but it was because of circumstance that she was even exposed to his work in the first place. It was also circumstance for Achebe that Adichie became his literary daughter. Families, however tangible or metaphorical, are formed in complicated manners, but the formation of a queer, chosen family shows us some of the nuances a literary family must grapple with.
IV. Examples of the Literary Family
This model of literary family can be seen with many other pairings of authors. As I’ve worked on this study, I continue to notice examples in places I did not expect or seek out, of literary children discussing their metaphorical parent(s). Two of my favorite authors, N. K. Jemisin and Dorothy Allison, have made significant connections to their respective literary parents.
For Allison, this first comes in the form of a review from the New York Times for her first book Bastard Out of Carolina: “The living language Allison has created is exact and innovative as the language of To Kill a Mockingbird.” The reviewer saw Allison and Harper Lee’s kinship, and it is the first blurb a reader reads when they look at the back of the novel. Lee and Allison are American southern writers whose stories tell the narrative of young girls growing up in the South, dealing with racial and class issues as well as unique family dynamics. Allison writes from a working class self proclaimed “white trash” origin, one that aligns closer to that of Lee’s Mayella than the protagonist, Scout. The role of sexual abuse is handled very differently in each narrative, but occupies a major thematic and narrative plot point in each novel. Both Bone and Scout are young girls who do not fit into the expected role of femininity, each enacting complicated dynamics with their brothers and parents. Both stories are deeply southern, centering around the cruelty and morality of adults from a children’s point of view. In Allison’s afterward, she discusses what it means to write “True stories. True lies. Powerful stories, heroic tales, and cautionary fables.” (Allison 317). To Kill a Mockingbird fits, without question, into this category, and it is easy to see how Allison’s view of her own childhood and of the way she shapes her central protagonist Bone has been influenced by Lee’s main character, Scout. Not only do Allison and Lee become a literary family, but Bone and Scout do too.
I focus here on their characters more than on Allison and Lee personally for a precise reason. Harper Lee is undoubtedly defined for To Kill a Mockingbird, and thus by Scout while Dorothy Allison is known for her fiction as well as her non-fiction. Bastard Out of Carolina is a fictional reflection on her own childhood. She has stated that Bone is not the child she was, but the brave and outspoken child she wished could have been. Looking at Bone in relationship to Scout, the ways in which Allison and Lee write these young fictitious reflections of themself, is a clear way to see how they as authors are literary family.
One of N. K. Jemisin’s expression of literary family comes in the form of a forward to the new edition of her literary parent, Octavia E. Butler’s novel, Parable of the Sower. Again, we see the literary child, Jemisin, express love for the work of her parent, Butler. Literary parents can shape the way the literary child writes and reads. Jemisin’s forward is titled “Three Reads” as she discusses the three different times she has sat down and read Parable of the Sower. She takes us through her thought process of each reading. The first read through was in her 20s. In Jemisin’s words the novel “[s]eemed to ‘merely’ be set in the future” (Jemisin Forward. Parable viii). Her experience with it was a surface level one. The second read through was during her time in grad school as she was learning about racial identity development theory. This time while she got more out of it, Jemisin still felt that the world Butler created was unrealistic and impossible. In her 40s Jemisin returned once more to the novel, and this time the book resonated not as an impossible future, but as a guidebook for the present. The introduction ends with Jemisin wondering what she will think of the novel ten years in the future, how her relationship with Butler will change further as she ages. Throughout this introduction we see her love for Butler, her literary parent, evolve.
Without Butler, Afrofuturism as a genre would not exist in the way we know it, and thus Jemisin’s work, which is strongly rooted in this genre, could not either. The history, the context, of Jemisin’s novels is Butler’s fiction. Butler acts as an anchor point for the Afrofuturism movement with her novels. She is often referred to by contemporary science fiction and Afrofuture writers as “the mother of Afrofuturism.” The novels and the characters she wrote subverted the expectations of the science fiction genre in terms of race, gender, class, and even the lines between realism and sci-fi. It is easy to now read Jemisin’s work and see the influence and the family connection to Butler. We can even compare them in the way we did Lee and Allison: through their characters and narratives. Within Butler’s Parable duology and Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, the intersecting narratives are clear: black women, and eventually mothers, in a world on the precipice of ending where the only constant is change. Jemisin and the characters she writes continue the legacy of Butler while crafting her own work and achievements. I think it is more than fair to say Jemisin is a literary descendant of Butler.
V. Defining My Own Literary Family
I have learned how to explore and map the literary families of the authors I read, study, and adore. If I was tasked with creating literary family trees for any of my writer peers and friends, I would be able to without question. Defining my own, on the other hand, has been much more difficult than I expected. Part of the problem is the issue of place. Lee and Allison, as well as Adichie and Achebe, shared a common geography. Place was incredibly important to their stories. Nigeria and Biafra define many of Adichie and Achebe’s works. The American South is integral to both Lee’s and Allison’s stories. I do write about where I live. Many of my poems and short stories take place in New Orleans. Many writers have come from here, but those are not the writers I most connect with.
Jemisin and Butler give me a potential solution to my problem of place, as they are from very different parts of America (Butler being raised in Pasadena, California and Jemisin being from Iowa): that perhaps these writers, these literary families, do not get fostered by physical space, but by emotional space. Being a Nigerian writer in many ways defines Achebe and Adichie. Being a Southern American writer defines Lee and Allison. And in a similar manner, being Black, female, and American also defines Jemisin and Butler.
This is only the beginning, as these categories are very loose. Many writers could fall under these labels. It is only when there is love from one writer to another that the literary familial connection is formed. I can name the pieces that have made me feel seen; the short stories and poems from which I consciously picked up writing mechanisms to further my work, the lines I allude to in my writing. Adding this all up, what writers do I share an emotional, intellectual, creative, or physical place with, and whose work do I love?After much thought and struggle, I believe my literary family tree becomes branches full of queer American poets, both modern and historical: Andrea Gibson, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, and Pauli Murray. Autumn leaves are the comic book writers who have paved the way for the graphic novel as a form of memoir and self-expression: Allison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman, and even Grant Morrison. And as I see my work gravitating to the literary and personal essays, I have already begun trying to discover the roots of my literary family tree: Joan Didion, Carmen Machado, and Molly McCully Brown. I have love for all of these writers. I have found pieces of myself within each of their words.
Like Adiche, I find myself writing with my literary family in mind. For instance, I’ve written poems to the poets who made me fall in love with poetry, and one of the first established writers I’ve met who read my work and told me to keep writing. I love them. I love their work. I hope to be their literary daughter someday. My essays, poems, or stories are love letters to the writers I’ve pinpointed as branches of my literary family. Ultimately, the reception my work gets, the attention my readers, my mentors, and my peers give my work, is what will validate whose literary child I am. The audience will unearth the spirits of the writers I love from underneath my written words. They will uncover my literary genes.
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