Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 30, 2009

I Do Not Come to You By Chance, by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani #BookReview

I Do Not Come to You By ChanceI found this book at the library and brought it home because ANZ LitLovers had recently read The Other Hand by Chris Cleave, partly set in Nigeria, but not written by a Nigerian.  While I don’t subscribe to the view that only those of a certain culture may write about it, I did want to see what difference it might make…

It makes a lot of difference. I Do Not Come to You By Chance is Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s first novel, and it’s distinctively African in its theme and setting.  It’s not just that the focus of the book is the notorious Nigerian scam that haunts the inbox (unless you use SpamFighter, as I do) it’s also a window on what it’s really like to live in a developing country.

Nwaubani is a remarkably accomplished first novelist, and this book flows with light-hearted style as it explores the moral dilemma faced by the central character, Kinglsey.  He is the Opara, the first son, on whom responsibility devolves when his father is unable to support the family.  As western materialism and the ‘good life’ arrives for the fortunate (and usually corrupt) few, Kingsley has to choose whether or not to join his uncle, ‘Cash Daddy’ in his exploitation of the ‘mugu’ – foolish, greedy westerners.  While his parents believed wholeheartedly in the value of education, and Kings has worked hard, the global economy means that Nigeria depends on foreign investment to create jobs – and there aren’t any for engineers at this time.  He has siblings with school fees.  They’re hungry.  Their clothes are shabby.  So it”s not as simple as it looks to us in the west. …

While there’s a serious undertone to the novel, Nwaubani has a light touch and there are many laugh-out-loud moments.  I enjoyed reading this book, but I also liked the way it made me think about things differently.

Highly recommended.

For more reviews, see The African Writer, The Washington Post, and The Independent.

Author: Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
Title: I Do Not Come to You By Chance
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 2009.
ISBN: 978-0-297-85871-3
Source: Kingston Library


Responses

  1. It’s an interesting point about reading books written from within a culture. I would always prefer to do that, for the perceived authenticity, but I’m not convinced that that is a rational position.

    I enjoyed reading Things Fall Apart earlier this year; reading another Nigerian author for the contrast seems likes a good plan…

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  2. Have you read any of Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi’s books Lisa? She’s another worthwhile Nigerian writer I think. Anyhow, this one sounds good – would love to read one about those spammers (not that I get the spams either these days)

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  3. Yes, Sue, I’ve read Purple Hibiscus (probably because it was shortlisted for the Booker?) and then Half of a Yellow Sun. Both great books, IMO. And Sarah, I read Things Fall Apart a long, long time ago, when I was at school, I think. (I wish I’d kept a reading journal back then.)
    It’s an interesting issue, this idea of writing from within/beyond a culture, because in the 21st century so many of us belong in more than one place due to migration, and in other ways don’t belong anywhere at all.
    And then what about Graham Greene, who wrote brilliant books based on his travels, or Ernest Hemingway?
    I don’t think there can be hard and fast rules about it…

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  4. Ha, did you see that recent article about “writing from within/beyond a culture” in the NY Times? The journalist’s opinion was, in summary, this: that people in the US can afford to disregard books written by foreigners because America has so many migrants and otherwise hyphenated-Americans that all Americans have to do is read books written by those hyphens and all will be well. Insular? No, they’re nobly assisting the hyphens to “[reject] the connection between passport and pen.” It might be the goofiest thing I’ve read in the book section of a newspaper since Louie Nowra tried to back up his assertion that men write better love stories than women by telling us that Pride and Prejudice was just a book about “husband-hunting” while Lolita was a love story.

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    • Hello again:) No, I didn’t see the article – surely it was tongue in cheek, like the rubbish Catherine Deveney writes in The Age which is published solely to get a rise out of people? Lisa

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  5. By the way, if anyone here from Melbourne is doing an in-the-city secondhand bookshop run and they want another Nigerian author to read, I’ve seen a couple of copies of Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine floating around. A concise portrait of Nigerian village life with a supernatural curse thrown in.

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    • Curious, isn’t it, that Nigerian literature is increasingly available, (albeit in small numbers) but we rarely encounter books by writers from the rest of the African continent. I wonder why that is?

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  6. Here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/18/weekinreview/18schillinger.html

    Reading over it again I think I’ve exaggerated her point, but the complacency behind it is still enough to make me raise both eyebrows. How could Horace Engdahl have known that his little spear would turn out to have such tenacious barbs?

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    • Pardon my ignorance, but who is Horace Engdahl?

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  7. As far as I can figure out it comes down to three things: size, money, and a colonial connection to England. Nigeria’s population is huge (Wikipedia, where I’ve just double-checked this remembered fact, claims that it is “the most populous country in Africa, the eighth most populous country in the world”), it’s fairly well off by African standards, and its writers don’t have to be translated into English. France actually puts more effort into supporting the arts in its ex-colonies, but we don’t tend to see the result unless the author wins a prize. We’d be less likely to have a translation of Patrick Chamoiseau ‘s Texaco if he hadn’t won the Prix Goncourt, fer example.

    At least, that’s my reading of it.

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    • Yes, that makes sense… Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, there’s no doubt that having English as a second lingua franca confers all kinds of benefits.

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  8. Sorry. The Swede on the Nobel Prize committee who, last year, said that Americans were insular, that they didn’t read enough works in translation. “They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature …That ignorance is restraining.” The US lit-press went completely bonkers over it, and when the prize this year went to a non-American they dredged it up all over again.

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    • Ah. I remember the comment, just not the name of the person who made it. I must admit that I have found insular most of what has come to us here in Australia as recent American literature. However as you can see from this post, https://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com/2009/06/28/hmm-have-i-read-enough-american-literature/ although I’ve read a fair bit of American literature (I consider it only as one literature competing against many others for my attention) I’m not really in a position to know if what I’ve read is representative, or just what makes it here onto our bookshops and libraries. After all, if Americans judged Australian literature by what they found at A & R rather than at Readings, they might be a bit scornful too. Lisa

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  9. Following on with the Nigeria thing: they’ve also had the good luck to pop out a Chinua Achebe, official Founding Father Of African Literature, bells, trumpets, etc, etc, whose popularity demonstrates another nice thing about that connection to the UK; it means that when a talent like this appears, it has some kind of access to a publishing industry that can frame and promote it.

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  10. Coincidentally, as regards the subject of your book, I’ve just come across this in Boswell’s Life of Johnson (and when I say “just come across,” I mean, “The website I was looking at (not this one) bored me and so I took my eyes off the screen and went on with my current book and within the space of a paragraph I found myself reading –)

    “The ferocity of our ancestors, as of all other nations, produced not fraud, but rapine. They had not yet learned to cheat, and attempted only to rob. As manners grow more polished, with the knowledge of good, men attain, likewise, dexterity in evil. Open rapine becomes less frequent, and violence gives way to cunning. Those who before invaded pastures and stormed houses, now begin to enrich themselves by unequal contracts and fraudulent intromissions.

    It is not against the violence of ferocity, but the circumventions of deceit, that this law was framed; and, I am afraid, the increase of commerce, and the incessant struggle for riches, which commerce excites, give us no prospect of an end speedily to be expected of artifice and fraud.”

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    • That’s synchronicity indeed! Lisa

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  11. There’s a recent style in US literature that I’ve been finding offputting, a sort of – and I don’t know exactly what to call it, but a kind of polished glossiness, as if the story is playing along in the writer’s head like a television show or a movie, with a television show’s highs and lows, following the structure of a script rather than the structure of a book. I felt it first while I was reading Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. There’s a point about three-quarters of the way through the book where the boy has a confrontation with his mother (I don’t have the book in front of me, but I think it’s right at the end of a chapter) and as I was reading this scene, I thought, “This feels familiar. Why does this feel so familiar? Of course, it has the rhythm of television. This is where the same plot point would fall in a neatly-constructed script: Boy and Mother Opposed. Will They Reconcile? The Audience Is Left to Wonder. (Boy, by the way, is Engagingly Quirky.) We, the audience, can guess that by the end there will be a Heartwarming Resolution with a Twist.” And so there was. The same thing happened when I read The Corrections.

    Plot: Discontented Family Brought Together by Dramatic Event. Catharsis.

    Characters: Once More, Engagingly Quirky. Contrasting Types.

    A couple of times online I’ve seen people mention an institutionalised workshop style of writing. Maybe this is it? Maybe this is what is being taught in US creative writing courses? Not all US books are like this, of course, but it seems to be a common trait of the ones that win prizes and get exported here: your Foers, your Franzens, your Diaz, with his conscious nods to The Great Gatsby and Conrad. (“The beauty, the beauty” replacing “The horror, the horror.”)

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  12. A book I definitely have to read.

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    • I’d be interested to see what you think of it, Nana:)

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