Nigeria: Literature and the state of the restless muse in the 21st century by Ikhide Ikheloa
This essay is really about my view on the state of Nigerian literature. However, in the 21st century, it is difficult to discuss Nigerian literature in isolation of African literature. In the world of literature, Nigeria is a classic example of what is going on in pretty much the rest of Africa. Decades after independence, Nigeria still suffers from a shortage of funded, robust publishing houses dedicated to processing the renaissance that Nigerian literature is currently undergoing. Just the other day, I read a petition against Pearson organized by Professor Jane Plastow, a scholar based in the UK. She petitioned the publishing company, because of its refusal to re-issue some classics of African literature in the Heinemann African Writers Series. The petition saddened me. Over five decades after colonialism, African literature is still defined by its glorious past. In the classrooms, at least judging from anecdotal evidence, there seems to be little innovation on the parts of those who teach literature. Professors of African literature are stuck in a 20th century paradigm; teaching ancient scrolls, and beholden to the West and her Eurocentric standards.
To be sure, African literature as documented in the African Writers Series deserves some sort of rebirth; it would be great if Pearson and/or governments could digitize these works for posterity and make them freely available just as the University of Kansas curated many copies of works of what is now popularly known as the Onitsha Market Literature. Although this petition is wrong, it however, offers a crystal clear look into the dysfunctional gatekeeping that has made African literature a pejorative in the eyes of those in the (Western) world. They who see Africa only through the eyes of a single story of war, rape and other songs of sorrow. For one thing, Pearson is a profit industry and its decision to acquire the African Writers Series collection was certainly not altruistic. Perhaps the petition should have encouraged them to do some public good by digitally archiving the novels and making them available free to whomever wants to read them.
The petition makes the startling observation that the failure of Pearson to print these historical texts limits the choices of lecturers in teaching texts for African literature. Such an assertion is alarmingly false. Any serious lecturer worth his or her salt has more books and resources available to them today to teach African literature. It is called the Internet. It is a bogus claim to make in the 21st century. What I fear is that there is an urgent need to audit what is being taught, while radically revamping the course content, and methods.
Five decades after independence from colonialism, many African states are openly and proudly anti-intellectual and allergic to promoting good reading and writing. Consequently, we are in this space where there seems to be a culture of entitlement and privilege where we demand the West to save our scripts and stories. The West and Pearson owe no allegiances. We have to do the right thing for ourselves. Instead of this petition, energy should be expended in ensuring African states publish the said texts themselves.
Nigerian literature has a well-documented history of innovation. Let us rise in song and salute all of those writers and thinkers who through the ages have stared the world in the eyes and insisted on telling their stories using whatever medium is available. The writers of Chinua Achebe’s era wrote great stories and we are all lucky these stories were carefully documented. These books are incredibly important; they were critical in raising a generation from the 60s to the 80s who had no choice but to entertain and educate themselves with books. The early writers were priests burdened with their writing and many of them wrote under difficult conditions (Wole Soyinka famously wrote The Man Died on toilet paper), many like the mythical Christopher Okigbo died in a hail of bullets. In addition, other wars were fought; Flora Nwapa and Buchi Emecheta used their books to shine a light on patriarchy and gender issues. There was Cyprian Ekwensi, TM Aluko, Elechi Amadi, Chukwuemeka Ike, Odia Ofeimun, Ola Rotimi, Gabriel Okara and all the literary warriors of that subculture called Onitsha literature, led by the delightful Galileo A Ogali.
The literary pioneers of the immediate postcolonial period birthed an army of talented and gifted writers who have made Nigeria proud. Today, any talk of literature is not complete without discussing the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila, EC Osondu, Chika Unigwe, Chibundu Onuzo, Chinelo Okparanta, Okey Ndibe and many others. Many of them regularly feature in prestigious Western prizes like the Caine, the Man Booker and the Orange Prize. A new brilliant entrant into this pantheon of the famous is Chigozie Obioma whose debut book, The Fishermen has garnered international accolades including being shortlisted for the Man Booker prize (see my review here). There is however, the collective face that seem to present an almost impenetrable door to the sum of Nigerian literature, the digital writing that takes place minute by minute on social media. As with the rest of Africa, Nigerian literature is defined in the West through books written by a select few who live mostly in diaspora. Understandably, this is unlike earlier decades. Recently, books are an important but increasingly narrow sliver of the sea of Nigerian writing. Relying on the books of a few authors validated by Western press, to define Nigerian literature is to distort the realities of this literature.
As is obtainable in the rest of Africa, there is diaspora writing, and there is writing by those living in Nigeria. Many people in Nigeria are doing awesome work especially on the digital front. But let’s face it, they are stymied by a chronic lack of funding – and the reactionary machinations of the powerful keepers of the king’s literary gates. There is a plethora of well-funded conferences and initiatives but they tend to promote books alone. It is like being in the 20th century; books everywhere, no mention of the fact that over 90% of Nigerian literature is digital. There are new and exciting, albeit unsung writers doing truly exciting stuff on the Internet. They are challenged by the orthodoxy, of writing, reading and publishing in the age of social media. There are few indigenous publishing houses to nurture their work and they have had to struggle against compromising the language of their narrative in order to be accepted by a wider audience, and presumably get the attention of the Western publishing houses. As I have said ad nauseam, the willingness to adapt to the eyes and ears of the West has come at a cost to the history and trajectory of Nigerian (and African) stories.
There is some good news. Nigerian writing is growing as writers are beginning to develop confidence in their own stuff. You should read the defiant and beautiful writing in Igoni A. Barrett’s new book, Blackass. There is more where all that loveliness came from – on the Internet. I am thinking of young men and women like Elnathan John, Saddiq Dzukogi, Lesley Arimah, Chikodili Emelumadu, Richard Ali, Olisamaka Olisakwe, Pearl Osibu, Hymar David, Onyeka Nwelue, Jumoke Verissimo, Dami Ajayi, Eghosa Imasuen, Kola Tubosun, Gimba Kakanda, Tolu Ogunlesi, Michael Ogah, Sybbil White, Emmanuel Oluwaseun Dairo, TJ Benson, Miracle Adebayo and Soogun Omoniyi who on a typical day make their social media walls living chapters of perpetual online books. The collaboration online is phenomenal; Flash fiction competitions on Facebook among young writers. Their stories are addictive, and to be honest difficult to replicate in a flat one-dimensional space like the book. Out of necessity, Nigerian writers are on the leading edge of new and exciting innovations in literature, and they are doing quite well with it.
There was an army of thinkers before them who first saw the possibilities of the Internet and its role in the democratization of writing and reading. I am thinking of writers like Afam Akeh, Remi Raji, Nnorom Azuonye, Lola Shoneyin, Obiwu Iwuanyanwu, Amatoritsero Ede, Chuma Nwokolo, Sola Osofisan, Tade Ipadeola, Toni Kan, Molara Wood, Muhtar Bakare, Victor Ehikhamenor, etc. who started working in list serves and mailing lists, websites and blogs and quietly continue to influence and mentor many young writers of this generation. Many of them are not household names, but when the history of Nigerian literature is written, their names will be extracted from the archives of obscure mailing lists along with internationally known names like Adichie, Osondu and Unigwe. Some of them persist in creating networks and opportunities for young and established writers like the upcoming Ake Book Festival, Farafina and the Fidelity Bank workshops run by Shoneyin, Adichie and Habila respectively. The Association of Nigerian Authors, brainchild of Achebe struggles but still does a lot of good work with Nigerian writers. Overall, Nigerian writing needs massive support. This year, the $100,000 NLNG prize was not awarded because the judges did not deem any of the entries for this year’s genre (Children’s literature) worthy of a prize. This is hard to believe but then I have always argued (here and here) that the one million dollars annual expense of running the award is wasted on prizes instead of being used to support worthier causes like indigenous publishing and meaningful collaborations with institutions and publishing outfits already doing great work with Nigerian writers.
Nigerian literature is a colorful proxy for contemporary global trends. The book is dying a slow death, the new medium is the Internet and what constitutes dialogue today is difficult to replicate in a book. On social media, readers are mostly reading the wrong things in the right places, while writers are elsewhere buried in books that few read, writing all the right things. It is a failure of leadership. The readers and the writers must meet again in the same space, tell each other stories and perhaps make money in the process. That would require a paradigm shift, a change in mindset and a new business model that is not centered on the book. In the meantime, this is a great time to be alive if you love Nigerian writing. There is a lot of it free – on the Internet. What are you doing, reading this? Go type LOL on some writer’s wall!
The challenges facing Nigerian literature are not unique to her. The disproportionate impact change is wreaking on African countries that do not possess robust mechanisms for adaptation is worrisome. How do we define literature today? Why books and not ideas? Why literature and not just writing? Writing is often thought of in terms of fiction, even though many writers are excelling in creative nonfiction and essays. How is literature defined in this Internet age? The world has returned to the interaction call-and-response storytelling of old. If you don’t believe, visit an active Facebook wall and read the “comments” to a post. You will see why it is getting harder to read a book. It has no comments section!
There was a time when there was an outcry against the single story that African literature was becoming. Internet literature changed this because it complements the book and the result is a more nuanced narrative with depth and range. But the amazing work of brilliant young people is being ignored because powerful old people don’t read digital content. I cringe when I see these youngsters try to conform by writing wretched books that no one reads. Meanwhile readers are perched on okadas, reading Linda Ikeji on their cell phones. I dream of the day I can get millions to read Adichie rather than Linda Ikeji on their cellphones. I have nothing against books, I just think we are missing a great opportunity by ignoring Africa’s publisher of choice, the Internet. We need more collaboration to have a robust conversation among dreamers and doers to tell the world that Africans like Nnedi Okorafor also write sci-fi and they do it well. It is time to change with the times.
We must now talk about purpose. What is the purpose of all this writing? In my mind’s eye, I can see the typical Nigerian writer cowering in the dark, at home squinting askance at Soyinka’s admonition: The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny. The Nigerian writer has become adept at speaking from both sides of a quivering mouth – or marinating a stony silence in the face of rank injustice. Democracy is the new dictatorship in Africa; it has allowed men to trade uniforms for civilian clothes and continue the rape and pillage unabated. What has been happening in Nigeria since 1999 is more farcical than George Orwell’s Animal Farm. But the question remains: What should be the role of the writer in this dispensation? I hate to prescribe what I am unable to participate in. I imagine writers in the dark furiously scribbling away on a smartphone, writing that next work of fiction based on all of this. Books have always played a role in change. In the absence of the Internet, TV and radio, a book was the call to arms.
The Nigerian writer must be innovative. Imagine writing a short story all inside a DM or Whatsapp chat or Facebook message. How radical is that! Dear young writer. Be bold. Create new frontiers. Wean yourselves off of orthodoxy and the stifling confines of the classroom. Write a new story, make it an app, like Editi Effiong’s Bride price. Now, that is innovation.