By Emma Shercliff
How is Nigeria’s literary scene changing? Emma Shercliff, a publisher based in the nation’s capital, Abuja, takes a look.
Despite a vibrant literary scene, Nigerian-based authors are not well known outside Nigeria
When I was last in the UK, I conducted a survey among dozens of my friends, colleagues and acquaintances in the UK publishing industry, asking, ‘How many Nigerian authors can you name?’. Most people managed to identify Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Ben Okri, but not a single one of them mentioned an author based in Nigeria.
In recent times, the most widely read Nigerian novelists writing in English are those such as Helon Habila and Teju Cole, who now reside in the West. Despite first being discovered and published by Nigerian publishing houses, they have received affirmation at home by being published in the UK and US. However, there is an incredibly vibrant literary scene in Nigeria itself. It is gaining recognition, and a new BBC radio documentary, Writing a New Nigeria, profiles 15 authors, all of whom currently reside and write in the country.
Nigerian-based publishing houses are providing an outlet for new writers
Nigerian literary greats Amos Tutuola and Chinua Achebe were first published by UK publishing houses, Faber and Heinemann, in 1952 and 1958 respectively. This was the beginning of a long tradition of novels written by African authors being published in the West before being imported back to the author’s country of origin. The celebrated Heinemann African Writers Series, established in London in 1962, had an enormous influence on the (predominantly male-authored) African literary canon, publishing more than 350 titles between 1962 and 2000. Popular novels, such as those published as part of Macmillan’s Pacesetters series, were widely distributed and read throughout Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, although they were actually conceived, edited and illustrated in the UK. It has only been over the past ten years that a new generation of publishing houses – such as Kachifo, Cassava Republic and Parresia Publishers – have started publishing contemporary fiction in Nigeria. This is providing an outlet for a new generation of writers in a literary landscape still dominated by large educational publishing houses.
Nigerian authors are choosing to write for Nigerian audiences
Novelists Igoni Barrett, Lola Shoneyin and Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani have all found success in the West, yet these authors remain grounded in Nigeria. Their works tackle weighty issues of identity, corruption and polygamy, and use humour and irony to great effect.
Poets such as Titilope Sonuga, Dike Chukwumerije, Dami Ajayi and Efe Paul Azino are writing firmly for a Nigerian audience. Their poems take on Nigeria’s political, economic and social concerns, and often reflect contemporary events with an immediacy impossible in other forms. For example, Titilope Sonuga’s powerful poem Hide and Seek was a direct response to the violence taking place in Northern Nigeria, and the kidnapping of 270 schoolgirls from Chibok in April 2014. She asks ‘What do we do with all these bodies? How do we know whose arm goes where?’, and states that her poem was written ‘For the children of the Yobe Massacre, for the people of the Nyanya bombings, for the 200-plus girls still waiting and for all the nameless, faceless victims of a nation in crisis’.
More Northern Nigerian novelists are writing in English about unknown aspects of the country
Perhaps one of the most exciting literary developments of the past year is the emergence of novelists from the North, such as Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, who are writing in English about aspects of Nigeria that are as unknown to their fellow countrymen in Lagos, Ibadan and Enugu as they are to readers in the West. In this region, there is a strong tradition of authors writing in Hausa, but their work is rarely circulated outside the North, so outside exposure marks a departure from tradition in this case.
Ibrahim’s novel Season of Crimson Blossoms is set in a conservative Hausa society and tells the story of an illicit relationship between a 55-year-old widow and a 25-year-old street gang leader. As Ibrahim explains in the BBC documentary, his aims were clear:
‘It’s about telling people that there’s a lot more happening in the North than Boko Haram, than people killing people. It’s about humans, who have universal concerns, people who want to love, who suffer from heartbreaks, who have desires and ambitions and hopes…’.
Elnathan John’s debut novel Born on a Tuesday, which has just been released in Nigeria and will be published in the UK in April 2016, looks at the personal stories behind the headlines. In the same documentary, he talks about the implications of story-telling. John argues that certain groups of people in Nigeria, such as Almajiri boys who receive Koranic education away from home, or poor people who roam the streets begging for food, are often reduced to numbers and figures, and their humanity forgotten. However, he says that telling stories is one way of providing ‘some sort of nuanced approach’ to how we talk about fundamentalism, culture, the relationship between the two, and also about violence and conflict.
As Nigerian writers and publishers become more confident, the literary landscape is moving its attention away from the West
The literary landscape in Nigeria is changing. The conversation about Nigerian writing, and, more widely, African writing, is taking place on the continent, without affirmation from the West. A series of readings, launches and festivals held in Nigeria over the past few months have generated much debate and excitement. The recent Ake Festival, held in Abeokuta, drew celebrated novelists Taiye Selasi and Helon Habila, as well as celebrated poet Niyi Osundare, to converse in Nigeria itself. In East Africa, the Kwani Litfest (Nairobi), Storymoja Festival (Nairobi) and Writivism Festival (Kampala) are now drawing in writers and guests from around the world.
Publishers are seeking to reflect authentic voices from the African continent
There is also an increased confidence among publishers. Rather than feeling the need to explain or mediate writing for the West, African publishers are seeking to reflect the authentic voice of the continent. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s debut novel Season of Crimson Blossoms is peppered with Hausa; Eghosa Imasuen‘s Fine Boys has smatterings of pidgin throughout. Working with a publisher based in the country allows for a greater level of cultural understanding that is often much harder to achieve with an overseas publishing house. Author Elnathan John gives the example of working with an American editor who asked him what a ‘go-slow’ was. Every Nigerian knows the answer: it means a hold-up or traffic jam. He says, ‘I use “go-slow” as an English word. Without apologies’.
Lagos-based publisher and author Eghosa Imasuen objects to the way in which Nigerian English has hitherto been represented on the page. As he explains in the documentary, the italicisation of words can be quite political: ‘egusi‘ would be italicised, but not the French word ‘escargot’. He also objects to how things are explained unnecessarily for international audiences. For example, if you write ‘He dipped his hand into the eba’, a phrase will follow to explain that eba is ‘that yellow globular mashed potato clone made from Cassava chippings’. When he talks about this his frustration is evident: ‘You’re like arrghhh, don’t explain it, they can Google it!’
Bringing Nigerian writing to the UK without taking away the autonomy of Nigerian writers and publishers
Cassava Republic Press is one example of a publishing house that is breaking the mould. In a reversal from the traditional model, Cassava – now firmly established in Nigeria – has announced plans to establish a base in London from which to publish and distribute African authors. Publisher Bibi Bakare-Yusuf plans to bring Nigerian writing to the UK, strengthening the bonds between the two publishing landscapes, but without taking away the autonomy of Nigerian writers and publishers. A lack of distribution networks and myriad logistical challenges such as customs charges, poor road networks, and the high cost of transportation have until now prevented printed books from being more widely distributed out of Nigeria. Establishing a base in London will open up possibilities of distributing more titles more widely, including to East and Southern Africa.
Online literary magazines are bridging the void left by physical distribution challenges
Digital developments are also changing the landscape. Online literary magazines, such as Saraba Magazine and Jalada, are bridging the void left by physical distribution challenges. Their content, such as Jalada’s 2014 sex anthology, showcases confident African writing that needs no affirmation by the West. Ankara Press offers inspiring and entertaining stories by and for Africans, published in Nigeria, but available for purchase from anywhere on the globe.
The face of Nigerian, and African, literature is changing – the challenge is to keep your finger on the pulse.