This is the sixth installment of Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words column.
My winding path as a reader has led me to a personal specialty in Nigerian literature. I know about the country’s civil war from 1967 to 1970, its languages and ethnic groups, its Harmattan winds and mellifluous names. I can name-drop hipster cafes in Lagos, where I have been only in fiction. My first love was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but my random late-night Internet searches for her biography and interviews turned me on to others, to Chigozie Obioma, to the feminist expatriate Buchi Emecheta, and finally to the éminence grise Chinua Achebe (1930–2013). Achebe was one of the founding fathers of post-colonial African fiction, a writer who worked in opposition to the racist literature of his British-educated youth. Achebe’s essay critiquing Heart of Darkness, written in 1975, was a revolutionary event in Conrad studies, and to this day he’s one of the most-lionized of all African writers.
Achebe had a keen eye for social organization, which means he writes a lot about food. In his 1956 classic, Things Fall Apart, yam farming is the lifeline of the village, the size of a man’s harvest determines his status, and his multiple wives each make him a soup to go with his evening foo-foo, a pounded yam dish. How is foo-foo made? Is it good? If I were the wife of a polygamous yam farmer and competitive about my cooking—which of course I would be—would my soup be the best one on the evening’s table? Or would I be like Nwayieke, a woman in the village “notorious for her late cooking,” the sound of whose wooden mortar and pestle is “part of the night.” Naturally, I want to know. Read More