This article examines the complex role of the child or youth protagonist, who features so prominently in third-generation Nigerian fiction. Countering reductionist claims that demote these texts to juvenile fiction, it draws on African, Nigerian, and children's literary criticism to argue that the hybrid space of childhood enables writers to address themes that may, in fact, be too large for adult fiction, while also engaging culturally uninformed Western readers. Recent Nigerian Bildungsromane manifestly showcase the postcolonial subject's negotiation of sociocultural identity, a quest that is inextricably linked to substantial global concerns of the twenty-first century. Focusing on the language, perspective, and agency of the child-hero, this article investigates three texts--Adichie's Purple Hibiscus, Oyeyemi's The Icarus Girl, and Iweala's Beasts of No Nation--which reflect the prevailing trends in contemporary Nigerian writing: those criticizing neocolonial Nigeria; those problematizing the transnational space of diaspora, and those raising awareness about human rights violations stemming from globalization.
Igbo saying: Ora na-azu nwa.
Western translation: It takes a village to raise a child.
Since 2000, third-generation Nigerian writing has exploded in US and British publishing houses, kindled by the enthusiastic, award-wining (1) reception of these Nigerian writers, who, educated or residing in the West, spark the interest of Western, English-speaking readers and engage them to consider Nigerian and global concerns. Particularly striking in the recent wave of Nigerian fiction is the figure of the child or the youth, which features prominently in most of these novels. The protagonists of most of these recent Nigerian texts--Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus, Helen Oyeyemi's The Icarus Girl, Chris Abani's Graceland and Becoming Abigail, Dulue Mbachu's War Games, or Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation--are all children or adolescents. In Sefi Atta's Everything Good Will Come, Diane Evans's 26a, Unoma Azuah's Sky-High Flames, or Helon Habila's Waiting for An Angel, the heroes are all young adults. As a result, these books, most frequently described as "coming-of-age" novels, are also often dismissed by reviewers as "children's novels" or "high school fiction" (Isaacs 69; Smith 200). Though some of these texts examine mature themes or complex global issues, they are nonetheless "recommended for young adult libraries," as in the case of Iweala's graphically visceral depiction of child soldiers (Stone 131). Similarly, Habila's novel about the sadistic violence and human rights abuses of the Nigerian police state of 1990s would reputedly appeal to "justice-minded teens"(Huntley 847), while Abani's Graceland, which contends with such issues as poverty in slums or organ trafficking, is said to proffer "a fine example of the universality of teen experience across cultures" (Ott 570).
In response to the reductionism and infantilization intimated in these reviews, this article delves into the complex and nuanced role of the child figure in current third-generation Nigerian writing. Focusing in particular on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus, Helen Oyeyemi's The Icarus Girl, and Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation, I explore the hybrid representation of the child figure in three different paradigms, which I argue are reflective of the main trends of contemporary Nigerian writing. I posit that the figure of youth is a particularly apt vehicle for the third-generation of Nigerian authors--themselves children of "the children of the postcolony" (Waberi 8) (2)--to convey their perspective on Nigerian culture, in the context of multiculturalism, globalization, and even international human rights, to Western readers. Sharing in a child's viewpoint, Western readers are not only immersed into the egusi pot that is Nigerian affairs or the brewing cauldron of global politics, but also, as discerning adults, are implicitly summoned to contemplate a more engaged form of global ethics in response to these critical contemporary issues.
THE HYBRID SPACE OF CHILDHOD
Third-generation Nigerian writers are drawing on rich literary and cultural tradition when adopting the child figure in their texts. The figure of the child occupies a critical position in African and Nigerian literature. Many of the classic anticolonial texts, such as Camara Laye's L'enfant noir (1953), Ferdinand Oyono's Une vie de boy (1960) or Ngugi's Weep Not, Child (1964), deployed the perspective of a child protagonist to showcase and resist colonial violence. In Nigerian literature, examples of the significance of the child figure range from Ezinma, the child prodigy in Achebe's Things Fall Apart, to Azaro, the spirit-child in Okri's trilogy (The Famished Road, Songs of Enchantment, and Infinite Riches). The abiku, intimated by Ezinma or embodied by Azaro--or the child caught up in the often interminable cycle of birth, death, and return--has particularly haunted Nigerian authors, from Soyinka's poem "Abiku" (1961) or Euba's play Abiku (1967) to Ajiboye's and Kotun's more recent novels, both titled Abiku, thus seemingly alluding to the precarious position of the child in Nigerian society, as a being fated to die and return, "repeating this itinerary of death and birth until they are spiritually 'fettered' (de) by their parents and forced to stay in the world"(McCabe 46). (3) Certainly, children occupy a central role in Nigerian culture, as according to statistics, half of Nigeria's population is under eighteen (UNICEF). Children's literature, often based in traditional stories, is growing field in Nigeria, as is the body of scholarship devoted to children's literature. (4) A number of Nigerian writers of adult literature, such as Chinua Achebe, Nkem Nwankwo, Onuora Nzekwu, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, and Mabel Segun, have taken up writing culturally relevant children's books, clamoring for the need to "fetter" children more in their cultural heritage. As Achebe explains, "we should return to childhood again and again." (5)
As Ugabe notes, the African concept of childhood must be considered differently from that of the Western literature, wherein the return to childhood often signals "a return to a certain 'primitivism' before one is circumscribed and crippled by social mores" (110). The child in African literature is always intrinsically enmeshed in a cultural and social community, and thus must somehow negotiate ethnic identity or social status in the course of the narrative. In third-generation Nigerian texts in particular, it becomes apparent that the child's quest for a sociocultural identity is inextricably linked to issues arising from postcolonialism and globalization, often manifested in the context of repression, violence or exploitation.
Certainly, by virtue of their mature themes and cultural complexity, third-generation texts should not be deemed or dismissed as "kiddie lit." However, criticism on children's literature perhaps does offer some pertinent insights, as we consider that these texts are largely marketed for Western audiences. It may be argued that Western readers may be more easily initiated into the complexities of Nigerian culture or politics through a child's perspective. Adult readers may "identify with" a child protagonist more than adult one, as is the case in children's literature (Sarland 41). Children's books primarily serve to develop literacy, while also nurturing children's intellectual and social development and inspiring their imagination and creativity (Fayose viii-xi), so that ultimately, the "book stimulates the desire to read more" (Ikhigbonoareme 66). Perhaps similar effects may be experienced by Western readers, as they "enhance their imaginative sympathies with [Nigerian] characters and situations" (Wilson-Tagoe 21). More significantly, however, children's literature, or more specifically, the space of childhood, proffers potential that is perhaps not possible in adult novels. As children's writer Philip Pullman points out, "themes too large for adult fiction [can] only be dealt with adequately in a children's book" (qtd. in Hunt and Lenz 122).
The space of childhood is a space of hybridity, possibility and, most importantly, resistance. The precarious passage from childhood to adulthood figures as a hybrid interstice, what Bhabha terms as "the inter--the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in-between space--that carries the burden of a culture" (38). In this hybrid space, the child, figured as not yet a (civilized) adult, becomes initiated to relations of power, social discourse and their embodied practices. However, in many ways the child is constantly negotiating, questioning or even resisting these cultural constructions, even by virtue of its own constructedness. As David Rudd explains, "[T]he constructed child, as tabula rasa--an empty being on which society attempts to inscribe a particular identity--becomes in that very process, the constructive child and sameness is disruptive" (22). As children attempt to emulate adult behavior, speech or cultural practices, they inadvertently render them comic, excessive, or even dangerous, revealing how redundant, stereotypical or even pernicious they may be. Thus, the process of "mimicry," as described by Bhabha (126), is constantly being destabilized, as the "civilized," rational and independent "adult" behavior and values are repeatedly being undermined. Unlike their adult counterparts, children "infringe the taboos of society, cross the adult shame frontier, and penetrate emotional danger zones which the adult can only control with difficulty" (Elias 167). Childhood, then, represents a particularly resistant space, of complex, on-going negotiation and articulation of difference that is perhaps not as readily accessible in the stable, socially structured world of adults.
It is in this resistant space of childhood that this new generation of Nigerian writers explores its own hybrid position in contemporary postcolonial society. The locus of enunciation of these writers also derives from an in-between space, oscillating "inter" Nigeria and the West. Their work similarly "renegotiates and translates" Nigerian cultural heritage and historical roots, as well as the influence of Western standards and values, either culturally, or historically. Unlike their unwitting child protagonists, however, these authors deliberately navigate, negotiate or come to terms with imposed binaries by creating a hybrid space in-between in their fiction.
Finally, the figure of the child in these Bildungsromane may also reflect that of Nigeria itself. (6) In the same way that the child protagonist has to negotiate his/ her place in postcolonial society, one deeply marked by Western influence and globalization, Nigeria finds itself having to define itself anew in the global world order. It too must establish a new sense of identity that dwells on its pluricultural values, myths, and traditions, but that also contends with the ramifications of increased Westernization and global capital, wrestling with such issues as economic disparity, social justice, and human rights.
In the end, however, childhood, as presented in these third-generation texts, is no "playground" of cultural difference or no "game" of identity formation. Rather, when carefully …