TO THE DIVERSE AND DYNAMIC PEOPLE OF LAGOS, NIGERIA—ANIMALS, PLANT, AND SPIRIT
These are the opening words of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014) and the dedication of the novel. From the onset, Okorafor makes clear that this novel is dedicated to Lagos, Nigeria, with the book’s title inspired by it: “the city takes its name from the Portuguese word for ‘lagoon.’” The novel is set in Lagos, Nigeria, and focuses on African people and animal subjectivities, and thus the novel is apparently dedicated to Nigeria, which makes it perhaps what we consider an African novel. And yet there is a glossary at the end of Nigerian words and phrases, as well as a section titled “Further insight into Lagoon.” As locals, Nigerian readers would not require this assistance. Further exploration into the complex paratexts in Lagoon reveals that although the novel was written to Lagos, it was written for an outside audience—a Western audience, and perhaps particularly an American audience.
Given the author’s positionality as a child of Nigerian-born parents who was raised in the United States, the novel’s accessibility to an outside readership emerges from her own lived experience in Lagos as both a cultural insider and outsider. The novel’s engagement with Nigerian languages and American cultural references bridges the gap of difference between non-Nigerian readers and the novel itself. Gerard Genette’s Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (1997) defines paratexts as “the accompanying productions” that “ensure the text’s presence in the world, its ‘reception’ and consumption in the form (nowadays, at least) of a book” and argues that paratexts are central to a work’s presentation to the public (1). In the 2015 edition of Lagoon, the book jacket, map, and glossary certainly qualify as paratexts in Genette’s terms, and attending to these extra-textual features of the books raises questions about the novel’s imagined audiences and accessibility to Americans. The American publishing of Lagoon also invites reflection on the publishing cultures and reception of novels by West African authors, as many of the paratexts read as a response to potential reader confusions and questions. By attending to themes of belonging and identity, I will show how a close reading of the novel reveals a parallel commitment to an ethos of accessibility and inclusion.
Nnedi Okorafor self-identifies as “Naijamerican,” which she defines in a 2015 blog post as a hybrid word that best captures her dual identity: “‘Naija’ is slang for ‘Nigerian’, implying an intimacy and familiarity with Nigeria. Also, ‘Naijamerican’ is one word, implying a hybridized new individual whose parts cannot be separated.” Because of Okorafor’s fluidity between Nigeria and America, she not only writes from a perspective that is accessible to Westerners—the novel presents itself as something akin to a guided tour of Lagos by one who knows what it is like to be a little lost themselves—but is also able to work across different publishers and present her work to an outside audience. The paratexts of Lagoon are a form of mediation that is also modeled within the text.
Known for her work in Black speculative fiction, Okorafor’s novels and particularly Lagoon have been discussed in scholarship in the context of their engagement with Afrofuturism. Coined by Mark Dery in 1994, Afrofuturism is defined as: speculative fiction that treats African American themes and addresses African American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture—and, more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future. (180).
In the original context, Afrofuturism centers on African American speculative fiction, not African speculative fiction. As an alternative to the Western basis of Afrofuturism, Nnedi Okorafor coined the term “Africanfuturism,” which she explains in a 2019 blog post as science fiction that is, “specifically and more directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point-of-view as it then branches into the Black Diaspora, and it does not privilege or center the West.” Okorafor differentiates Africanfuturism from Afrofuturism, which positions, “African American themes and concerns at the definition’s center.” Though “Africanfuturism” has yet to reach the scholarly mainstream, the traditional definition of Afrofuturism has expanded with writers such as Nnedi Okorafor who center their works in Africa, and add to the growing number of African Afrofuturist writers. In an essay comparing Afrofuturism in Africa to science fiction produced by African Americans, Namwali Serpell writes that “Nnedi Okorafor, born in the United States to Nigerian immigrants, both bridges this breach and fills it. She appears on lists of black sci-fi on either side of the Atlantic.” Scholars have analyzed Okorafor’s exploration of Black posthumanism and varying subjectivities in Lagoon, thinking about what her work offers in the field of African speculative fiction.
Judith Rahn explores how the “unique subjectivities and relational embeddedness” in Okorafor’s work offers Black posthumanist ideas (84). Rahn argues that Okorafor’s, “multidimensionality of overlapping realities” makes clear that “a traditionally categorical separation of Western vs. non-Western imaginaries is insufficient to portray the complex, interconnected relationships which are evoked in the text” (84). While Okorafor’s Afrofuturist work does provide new ways of understanding relationality and humanism, Rahn overlooks the Western markers in Okorafor’s Lagoon. Rahn states that Lagoon, “relies on an independently African setting and plot, without feeling the need to supply non-African social, cultural, and political customs as points of reference” (90). However, this is not entirely the case: Okorafor uses Western social references to help readers understand the text, and the number of paratexts included are points of reference. In Rahn’s effort to reinforce that Okorafor’s text is strictly non-Western science fiction, Rahn collapses the identity of the novel as “exclusively African” (90). This Afrofuturist reading of the novel effectively presents the possibilities of Okorafor’s work in, “narrating specifically Black subjectivities that do not yet have an autonomous place in the humanist tradition”, yet more attention to Okorafor’s American references reveal that the work is not solely African, but American as well (89).
Nnedi Okorafor’s identity influences the lens through which she views Lagos, and ultimately, the lens through which she communicates with readers, guiding them through the novel. In Okorafor’s personal blog, she writes about the lens from which she experiences Lagos:
Coming to Lagos as one who embraced both her American-ness and Nigerian-ness resulted in a special form of vulnerability and openness when I arrived there. I was seeing things in double vision, as a foreigner and a citizen, an outsider and [an] insider. This is the Naijamerican paradox.
Though situating Lagoon in Lagos, Okorafor is still somewhat removed from Lagosian life as an American child of Nigerian immigrants. Okorafor’s American identity uniquely positions her to experience Lagos with both familiarity and unfamiliarity. Okorafor’s “foreigner” vision is most similar to the lens through which an American audience is reading her text. Thus, as someone who lives in that paradox of intimacy and distance from Lagos, Okorafor ushers her readers into Lagos from this outsider perspective with insider knowledge. Focusing on Okorafor’s use of three forms of mediation—italics, American references, and the accompanying glossary—I show how the novel frames the experience of this African world through multiple subjectivities. Okorafor’s positionality in both America and Nigeria make this Nigerian novel accessible for Americans.
Accessibility or Exoticism?
Okorafor’s Naijamerican perspective through which she writes could be read as an “exoticizing” of Africa according to Graham Huggan’s theory of the anthropological postcolonial exotic. However, I argue that Okorafor’s commitment to accessibility ultimately avoids exoticizing Africa. According to Huggan, the anthropological exotic, “presents the ‘other’ and gives the uninitiated reader access to the text and, by extension, the ‘foreign culture’ itself” (37). Huggan also argues that the anthropological exotic provides a transparent window for readers into a culturally specific—though homogenous—Africa that conforms to Western exoticist myths and paradigms, such as romantic idealist notions of Africa as “primitive” (37). However, Okorafor does not present Africa as a “foreign culture” that readers need to access, since the tone of her text, and ultimately paratexts, is sympathetic rather than merely showing. Lagoon is not ethnographic in nature, but presents Nigerian culture as rich and complex—not savage.
The anthropological exotic, “assumes a Western model reader who views African literature, Africa itself, through the distorting filter of the anthropological exotic” (41). This approach creates a strict divide between Western and non-Western that fails to capture Okorafor’s complex position as both a Westerner and African—a Naijamerican. Okorafor’s relationship with Nigeria is distinctly Naijamerican; she writes in her essay “Organic Fantasy” that Nigeria “remains a place that I continue to explore. With each story, it grows” (281). Okorafor’s engagement with Nigeria is one of self-exploration and a reattaching of roots, rather than an exploration driven by mere intellectual curiosity or exotic myths. Okorafor is not exoticizing Africa, but she guides Western readers in a way attuned to their perspectives, because she herself, as a Naijamerican, can inhabit the perspective of an outsider.
In the same way that tourists are welcomed to a place before they enter and given a map to help navigate, Okorafor sets the reader up for a guided experience of Lagos with three reiterations of welcome. The first page of Lagoon begins, “WELCOME TO LAGOS, NIGERIA,” followed by a brief history of the city’s naming. Following this page is a detailed map of Lagos, and the next page is Act One, titled “Welcome.” The “Welcome” title reflects not only the welcoming of the aliens, but signals a welcome to readers. The inviting tone of the “welcome” draws the reader in. The three consecutive pages of welcome set the expectation for guidance throughout the novel—creating a hospitable environment for the reader.
The prologue of each act further emphasizes Okorafor’s guidance of the reader at each stage of the text. Act One opens from the perspective of a swordfish, beginning not with a human subjectivity but a fish. Readers are not dropped into Lagos, but eased in from the water, a form of mediation. Act Two opens from the perspective of a tarantula. The tarantula’s slow approach to walking reflects the reader’s adjustment to the novel and Lagos: “he gently places a leg on the warming pavement” (121). A third into the novel, readers are able to walk the land. Lastly, Act Three opens from the perspective of a bat. The bat experiences colors for the first time and her “world is suddenly huge” (224). This enlargement of the world reflects the reader’s experience with the world of Lagoon. By opening each act with familiar animals, Okorafor mediates readers’ transition through the novel and bridges the gap between Africa and the West.
In Chapter One, Okorafor introduces Bar Beach in a manner that helps readers understand the diversity of Lagos. Bar Beach is described as:
a perfect sample of Nigerian society. It was a place of mixing. The ocean mixed with the land, and the wealthy mixed with the poor. Bar Beach attracted drug dealers, squatters, various accents and languages, seagulls, garbage, biting flies, tourists, all kinds of religious zealots, hawkers, prostitutes, johns, water-loving children, and their careless parents. (7).
From the start, readers are told that this is a place of mixing, representing the fluidity of national borders. This crossing reflects Okorafor’s movement in and out of Nigeria as a Naijamerican. Also, the short sentence, “[i]t was a place of mixing” stands out in comparison to the long list that follows, making a bold and clear declaration to readers. It would seem that the mixing of ocean and land is strange, but this is what comprises the beach itself. By placing the wealthy and the poor alongside the ocean and land, Okorafor normalizes the contact of two seemingly separate things. In a similar fashion, Okorafor’s identity is mixed with America and Nigeria—two seemingly separate entities. The various languages and accents found at Bar Beach present a diverse Africa, rather than a seemingly “homogenous” depiction of a traditional romanticized Africa.
As a guide for Western readers, Okorafor explains Nigerian phrases, helping the reader draw meaning from the text before they encounter the glossary in the end. In the novel, Agu explains to Adaora and Anthony who punched him in the face; he says, “[b]y my ahoa…” to which Adaora gives him a confused look (26). In response, Agu explains, “[m]y ahoa…my comrades, my fellow soldiers” (26). According to the glossary, “ahoa” means “Nigerian foot soldiers”, and Okorafor makes this definition readily accessible without referencing the glossary (295). The questioning look that Adaora gives Agu mirrors the reader’s confusion with the word. After glossing “ahoa” Agu says, “[d]on’t act like you didn’t listen in during my phone call in the car,” to which the narrator admits that Adaora did indeed hear (26). This suggests that Adaora’s questioning look was included in order to prompt Agu’s explanation. Okorafor stages scenes of dialogue to facilitate her mediation of the language barrier to readers.
Okorafor’s inclusion of the Ghanaian main character Anthony also necessitates a level of explanation of Nigerian slang, which aids Western readers in developing an understanding of the culture. When Agu, Adaora, and Anthony are trying to understand why the aliens chose Lagos, Anthony says, “‘Lasgidi’ you dey call am, right? Eko? Isn’t that what you people call Lagos? Place of belle-sweet, gidi gidi, kata kata, isu and wahala” (40). Anthony’s initial question reflects his burgeoning familiarity with Lagos, yet at the same time “you people” reinforces his unfamiliarity and distance from Lagos. As a Ghanaian, Anthony is close enough to Nigeria as a fellow West African, but as a non-Nigerian, he is distant enough to lack a full understanding of the society. This point of view mirrors Okorafor’s positionality as a Naijamerican—she is closer to Nigeria than the general American, yet does not understand everything about Nigeria. Anthony’s outsider character normalizes the experience of newness with Lagos and implants this perspective into the text, which the reader can identify with, making it more accessible.
In addition to his unique vantage point, Anthony’s special ability of communicating reflects Okorafor’s role as a Naijamerican writer. Anthony can hear things that others cannot and then communicates them through his music: “he spun words as a spider spins its web” and then drawing from within himself, “he threw it back at his audience enhanced and laced with energy and images. He was a positive force” (165). Anthony’s gift mirrors Okorafor’s writing about Lagos. In her essay, she explains that her stories are drawn from her experience:
Almost every story I write is set in the place where my parents immigrated from in 1969. The place that I have known in person since I was seven years old. The place where I have experienced my life’s greatest joys and greatest terrors. The place where I have never lived. Africa, Nigeria to be exact. To set foot on Nigerian soil is to be filled with another 10 novels and 50 short stories. (276).
Okorafor’s experience with Nigeria echoes the sounds Anthony can hear and communicate. Anthony and Okorafor are both close enough to glean the message, yet far enough to communicate it to an outside audience.
Okorafor uses American references to ground the reader in the events that occur in the novel and situate Nigeria in a global context. When describing her initial encounter with the aliens, the young Nigerian girl Fisayo references the American movie E.T. She says, “[l]ike in that old American movie… I forget the name. When are aliens ever not evil?” (75). In response, a fellow youth responds, “E.T.?” (75). E.T. comes up organically in their conversation, showing these characters’ cultural awareness and access to American Hollywood. This reference point is familiar to readers, which bridges the seeming gap between America and Nigeria. Not only does the inclusion of the American reference make the text accessible, but it also draws attention to Lagos’s status as a globally connected city, challenging Western myths of primitivity and an anthropological gaze on “different cultures.”
Okorafor draws on her American experience in a scene that references one of the most significant events of contemporary American history. Lance Corporal Benson, a general in the Nigerian army, in an interview with a Nigerian newspaper, equates the “earth-shaking explosion” that accompanied the alien arrival to the 9/11 attack on America. When the reporter asks who the attack could be from, Benson says “[w]e don’t know anything. But did the Americans know who destroyed their World Trade Towers when it first happened?” (28). The newscaster responds, “[g]ood point” and quickly moves on. The newscaster’s quick shift after the 9/11 reference suggests an understanding that the Nigerian military’s insight is comparable to America’s. This American analogy not only helps readers understand the magnitude of the explosion, but counters the anthropological approach of primitivity by placing Nigeria’s ability on par with America. Using textual and paratextual tools of mediation, Okorafor both guide the reader’s experience in the novel and make positive claims about Nigeria—Okorafor directs the reader’s gaze to present Nigeria through her own eyes, not to exoticize it.
Paratexts and Publishing
Lagoon was published by two different publishers, and the paratexts of the novel are revealing about its imagined Western audiences. Genette observes that paratexts tend to focus on particular reading publics, with “many notes…addressed only to certain readers” (4). In Okorafor’s Lagoon, the paratexts of the different editions speak to an implicitly American or British audience that is both unfamiliar with Nigeria and interested in learning more. The 2014 United Kingdom and 2015 American editions of the book present Lagoon in two different lights, showing the range of audiences Okorafor can engage in her work.
In the 2014 Hodder and Stoughton UK edition of the book, the cover art is noticeably livelier than the simple American edition cover. The UK edition cover art is done by “award-winning South African illustrator Joey Hi-Fi” (Okorafor). Set underwater, the cover has detailed drawings of the different sea creatures in the lagoon and above the water is a skyline of Lagos. In the center of the page, there is a lighter colored circle containing a silhouette of a Black woman with braids. This cover art is dynamic and though lacking obvious markers of “Africa,” the text on the back complements the art. On the back cover, the names of the characters are visible in white text against the light blue background, and readers are told immediately that this occurs “in Lagos… Nigeria’s largest city.” In the second paragraph on the back “Lagos” is repeated again, grounding the story in Lagos and reinforcing the African location. Lastly, the back cover includes praise from Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, which authenticates and legitimizes Okorafor as an African writer.
However, readers receive a completely different presentation in the 2015 Saga Press, Simon and SchusterAmerican edition of Lagoon. This American edition cover is void of life, which Lagoon teems with inside. The cover is a photograph of a bubble at the top that is half in and half out of the water, and then a distorted bubble in the center. Unlike the extremely detailed UK cover, this American cover is ambiguous and only communicates that Lagoon is about water, which is very accessible to any Western reader. Additionally, the photographic element of the cover art gives a modern touch that is removed from any cultural or ethnic signifiers. In a 2010 blog post, Okorafor comments that her favorite novels “are the ones that give you a powerful impression upon first glance and another powerful impression when you take a magnifying glass to it.” Yet the American cover of Lagoon does not give much of an impression, and a further look is not required. This edition’s cover reassuringly invites US readers into the book since there is nothing “unfamiliar” on the cover.
In addition to the relatively simple cover, the text on the back of the American edition is engineered to help Western readers envision themselves in Lagoon—bridging any gap between themselves and Africa. The text on the back begins with “IN LAGOS,” in aqua-colored capital letters against a black background. Unlike the UK edition, this edition decenters Nigeria by placing Lagos in a worldly context, describing it as “the world’s fifth most populous city.” The text does not mention any of the characters’ names, rather it refers to them as a “marine biologist, a rapper famous throughout Africa, and a troubled soldier.” The absence of their names, like the absence of Nigeria, ultimately strips the impression of the novel of its Nigerian-specific context. The largest—and last—text on the back in white letters against the black background asks, “WHEN ALIENS LAND, WHAT WILL I DO?” This question has a cinematic feel and invites readers to engage with the text, mediating their entrance into Lagos.
Upholding this ethos of reader engagement, the paratexts at the end of both editions center the reader experience. The inclusion of “Reading Group Questions” in the UK edition implies an intended audience of well-meaning readers who are not knowledgeable about Africa—they may be using the book for educational purposes. This speaks to an ideology of equating reading with learning about (and bettering) cultural differences, which can be problematic. One question asks whether Lagoon should “be categorized as science fiction, fantasy, African literature, American literature, Nigerian literature, Naijamerican (Nigerian-American) literature, magical realism, thriller, suspense, literary, or something else? Why?” This question aids readers in thinking about Lagoon across literary and national boundaries, which is made possible by Okorafor’s Naijamerican identity. Okorafor’s work invites readers to break down the barriers between Africa and America as they consider the thin line between fantasy and science fiction.
In addition to the glossary in Lagoon, Okorafor provides further information into Nigerian society at the very end of the 2015 edition, in a section titled “Insight into the Lagoon” (305). This section begins:
Some readers have told me that though they enjoyed Lagoon, they felt they were missing some things on the cultural/political/societal side. Understandable. Fair enough.
I admit (and don’t apologize for) the fact that my flavor of sci-fi is evenly Naijamerican…Thus, I’m going to explain a few things. (305).
This opening confirms Okorafor’s concern with her reader’s ability to access her text, and recognition of her Naijamerican identity’s influence on her work. Okorafor’s effort to make the text accessible to readers is not for the purpose of exoticizing Africa, but stems from her own experience as a Naijamerican who recognizes the barriers. From personal experience, Okorafor eases Western readers into this Nigerian world, as she has done from the start.
Okorafor’s American positionality makes space for us to trouble ideas of African literature that West African women writers such as Taiye Selasi and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have already been exploring in their novels. Okorafor’s Naijamericaness allows Western readers to access Nigeria from the perspective of someone who knows what it is like to both understand and not understand the culture. Okorafor is part of a larger cohort of writers that simultaneously inhabit African and Western spaces, including second-generation African American writers such as Yaa Gyasi who, like Nnedi Okorafor, is the child of West African immigrants. These writers complicate traditional boundaries of genre and canon with literary productions that might be deemed both African and African-American.
When explaining the fictitious location in her novel Zahrah the Windseeker, Okorafor writes: “[i]t is also a place that I created from the discomfort of the warring dominant cultures within me, the American and the Nigerian” (281). Okorafor’s sense of containing a set of contradictions and dual identities as both insider and outsider perhaps explains her commitment to accessibility in Lagoon, since those who know what it is like to be excluded are often best at finding the means of including others. Okorafor’s fluidity allows her to cross the bridge—be the bridge—between Africa and America in her text by making Africa accessible to Western readers.
Crowley, Dustin. “Cosmos and Polis: Space and Place in Nnedi Okorafor’s SF.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 46, no. 2, SF-TH Inc, 2019, pp. 268–88. JSTOR, doi:10.5621/sciefictstud.46.2.0268.
Dery, Mark. “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.” Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, Duke University Press, 1994. read.dukeupress.edu, https://read.dukeupress.edu/books/book/1747/chapter/183787/Black-to-the-FutureInterviews-with-Samuel-R-Delany.
Genette, Gerard, and Richard Macksey. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Translated by Jane E. Lewin, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Huggan, Graham. The Postcolonial Exotic : Marketing the Margins. Routledge, 2002. www.taylorfrancis.com, doi:10.4324/9780203420102.
Jue, Melody. “Intimate Objectivity: On Nnedi Okorafor’s Oceanic Afrofuturism.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 1–2, 2017, pp. 171–88. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1353/wsq.2017.0022.
Marquis, Moira. “The Alien Within: Divergent Futures in Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 47, no. 3, SF-TH Inc, 2020, pp. 398–425. JSTOR, doi:10.5621/sciefictstud.47.3.0398.
Melamed, Jodi. Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism. NED-New edition, University of Minnesota Press, 2011. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttsrj6.
O’Connell, Hugh Charles. “‘We Are Change’: The Novum as Event in Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon.” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, vol. 3, no. 3, Cambridge University Press, Sept. 2016, pp. 291–312. Cambridge University Press, doi:10.1017/pli.2016.24.
Okorafor, Nnedi. “Full Jacket for Lagoon/ A Few Words from South African Illustrator Joey Hi-Fi.” Nnedi’s Wahala Zone Blog, 9 Apr. 2013, http://nnedi.blogspot.com/2013/11/full-jacket-for-lagoon-few-words-from.html. Accessed 2 Dec. 2020.
—. “Get It Straight.” Nnedi’s Wahala Zone Blog, 10 Aug. 2010, http://nnedi.blogspot.com/2015/09/insight-into-lagoon.html.
—. “Insight into the Lagoon.” Nnedi’s Wahala Zone Blog, 25 Sept. 2015, http://nnedi.blogspot.com/2015/09/insight-into-lagoon.html.
—. Lagoon. Hodder and Stoughton, 2014
—. Lagoon. Saga Press, 2015.
—. “Naijamerican Eyes on Lagos.” Nnedi’s Wahala Zone Blog, 11 Apr. 2016, http://nnedi.blogspot.com/2016/04/naijamerican-eyes-on-lagos.html.
—. “Organic Fantasy.” African Identities, vol. 7, no. 2, Routledge, May 2009, pp. 275–86. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, doi:10.1080/14725840902808967.
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Okorafor’s ‚Lagoon‘.” Anglistik, vol.
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 For recent scholarly engagements with Lagoon, see Crowley Dustin’s “Cosmos and Polis: Space and Place in Nnedi Okorafor’s SF ” (Dustin 2019), Jude Melody’s “Intimate Objectivity: On Nnedi Okorafor’s Oceanic Afrofuturism” (Melody 2017), Moira Marquis’ “The Alien Within: Divergent Futures in Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9” (Marquis 2020) and Hugh Charles O’Connell’s “‘We Are Change’: The Novum as Event in Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon” (O’Connell 2016).
 See Jodi Melamed’s Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism for analysis of the effectiveness of the reading group model.