Stories from afar, for Nigeria
Playwright Wole Soyinka is the only Nigerian to ever win the Nobel Prize. Also a poet, Wole won the award in 1986 for his contribution to literature. Nigeria, unfortunately, hasn’t received much recognition for its literary talent and that is arguably because Nigerian publishing houses are scarce on the ground. A Nigerian writer has a much better likelihood of being published by a Western publisher than one at home.
There are many notable writers that were published this way including Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and of course Wole Soyinka himself. However there is a sadness to Nigerian writing being read outside of its borders. According to Ben Okri, a Nigerian poet and novelist:
“The best writing is not about the writer, the best writing is absolutely not about the writer, it’s about us, it’s about the reader.”
It begs the question: Why is Nigerian writing read almost exclusively by Western audiences and not the people that it relates to the most?
Literature comes in all shapes and sizes, genres, and styles. It varies from piece to piece and there are numerous story types that can interest even the most complacent reader. Books allow for escapism and the sheer variety of genres shows that a reader can escape into any world that they want - even ones completely alien to their own.
Escapism however is all well and good but it doesn’t quite match the way that literature from your home city written about the place you’re from can make you feel. It’s more like a conversation with an old friend and it allows you to reminisce perhaps, or at least to see something familiar through another’s eyes.
In 2009 the Nigerian novelist Chimamanada Ngozi Adichie appeared on a TED talk and she discussed how Nigerians struggle to identify with characters from different ethnic backgrounds. This is true of people of colour in general and Ms. Adichie spoke from her heart regarding the revival of stories that people from her ethnicity could relate to. She talked at length about the fiction that she was reading and how it reflected her culture..
Ms Adichie’s talk was inspiring as she told the audience that literature had the power to connect people on both cultural and geographical levels. The stories that we read say a lot about who we are but they also allow us to see the breadth of human expression - that crosses international borders.
Anecdotal evidence serves a purpose but there is always the need for further research too. We interviewed Nigerian readers and discovered that many of them hadn’t ever really experienced writing that originated in their home country. According to 26 year-old GP Zainab:
“I don’t really recall any Nigerian literature up until my late teens when I read Chimamanda’s books like ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, which I found a lot more captivating because I could relate to the story a lot more.”
Zainab’s view was shared by Zuby, a 24 year old law student and she said that there was “more Western Literature available for young people than Nigerian or, at least, we were more exposed to the Western books. I particularly remember reading Enid Blyton’s books.”
Clearly Western writing is disproportionately influential in Nigeria but there is also a lack of choice with the genres available being somewhat limited. According to 29 year old sound designer Leke.
“I would have liked to read more books from Nigeria but where my interests lay when I was living in Nigeria there was not that type of book being written. In my early teens I wanted to read about spies and detectives and there were no books about that. I am still not sure it there are (Nigerian) books written for teenage boys with overactive imaginations.”
Nigeria's publishing industry
The Nigerian publishing industry may be to blame for the lack of home grown writing. Nigerian authors really struggle to find a publisher as there is a real dearth in this industry. Even if an aspiring author does manage to get in touch with a publishing house it is unlikely that they will ever be published. Most publishers don’t accept unsolicited work as they have come to expect poor quality from unknown and untested authors.
However there is still a market and one that is increasing. There are plenty of Nigerians that will go to great lengths to get their hands on Nigerian literature and this includes pirating ebooks. A comment on a forum thread stated:
“You want to know why there are no literary agents and authentic publishers in Nigeria? Check out this and see the reason for yourself.”
The comment linked to a website that allowed users to download ebooks of pirated novels. Piracy is a growing problem the world over and it is increasing thanks to better internet connectivity.
But the state of the Nigerian publishing industry can be traced much further back than the advent of the commercial internet. In the 1980’s an economic downturn put an end to the hopes of a thriving self sufficient publishing industry and the paper and pulp factories also went bankrupt. It had nothing to do with creativity but logistics and the material shortage still exists today. Any books published in Nigeria have to be made from imported materials and this drives the price up - for many it kills any dreams of their work being published.
Nigerian writer and critic Adewale Maja-Pearce had this to say on the state of publishing in his home country: “The problem is the affordability of books, and their availability… Publishers just don’t have the infrastructure.”
It is a problem of infrastructure then and one that can only be addressed within a wider economic context. Nigerian publishing is also mostly privatised meaning that there is little in the way of regulation ensuring that there are many ‘cowboy’ publishers. According to Adewale, “Most Nigerian writers hanker to be published abroad.
Unfortunately, we have yet to develop a decent book-reviewing culture in the national papers. People just tend to puff each other’s books.”
It is a problem of trust that plagues the Nigerian publishing industry. Authors don’t believe that their print aspirations can be met and publishers don’t believe that authors can deliver the quality that they expect and fear that they won’t be able to sell the writing itself.
African literary tropes
The traditions of Nigerian literature are arguably synonymous with its trends. Nigerian professor of African literature at Imo State Univeristy Isidore Diala suggests that successful contemporary novels are published because they retain themes from classical literature. Thematically they consider politics, they challenge colonial myths, and they document struggles for independence and self-determination.
That’s not to say that genre pieces fail to get published. The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutola being a notable exception, but books like that are not received terribly well, they don’t remain in the zeitgeist for as long, and they are often quickly forgotten by potential readers too.
But once more we have to return to the state of the Nigerian publishing industry. It’s likely that the blame for the lack of diversity in literature there lies at their door. For a new writer it is unlikely that an unusual genre piece will be published on home soil and that is why authors seek representation from Western publishing houses, and seek an audience of Western readers. It’s this paradigm that perpetuates the lack of Nigerian writing being read by Nigerian readers.
Ms. Adichie discussed the legacy of such a trend in her TED talk. A Western audience often has preconceptions regarding African literature and they expect it to be representative of their view of African culture. This means that literature often reflects tropes like Africa being inherently tribal, the sublime natural world, and of course the poverty and violence too. But that negates much of what is true about contemporary Africa. It is a large continent, it’s far bigger than Europe, and each country has its own heritages, languages, and political infrastructures.
Unfortunately for African authors the type of literature that does well in the Western world is writing that speaks to the stereotypes. Ironically enough the writing that doesn’t reflect preconceptions of African life doesn’t do so well because it is seen to lack authenticity.
The story of a writer
For Nigerian writers the dream of becoming a published author can seem unrealistic. But it can happen and Award Winning author of Behind the Clouds Ifeoma Okoye has some advice for aspiring writers. At the start of her career Ifeoma “didn’t know of any solely indigenous publishers in Nigeria.” So she entered a writing competition run by Macmillan and she won first prize.
Her prize was the gift of being published and this early success spawned several published children’s books with Tana Press - a Nigerian publishing house. According to Ifeoma, “Tana Press approached me personally and asked me to write some children’s books for them and I did.” Ifeoma found success in Nigeria meaning she never had to make the choice between the West and being published at home.
However, Ifeoma does not recall reading any Nigerian literature when she was a teenager and she also argued that the publishing infrastructure in her country was lacking.
“There is, to my knowledge, no bookshop in the country that has a branch in all the state capitals and in other important towns. The postal services are slow and unreliable. Distribution of books by public transport is slow and costly.”
That’s not all as a lack of internet access ensures that there just isn’t access to the books being published. Couple that with a complete lack of infrastructure and it becomes clear that there simply aren’t enough book shelves for even the books that are being published.
Then there is Ifeoma’s contention that culturally Nigerians don’t often read for fun: “Most read only to pass examinations (and this ensures that) publishers here publish more textbooks or what I choose to call ‘compulsory reading’ than they publish books that we read for pleasure.”
Ifeoma chose to publish her most recent novel, The Fourth World, herself. This was after contacting numerous publishing houses and literary agents in the West and finding that she wasn’t happy with what they could offer.
There is hope
Nigerian literature is clearly in the midst of a tumultuous time compounded by a lack of infrastructure and economic hardships. But storytelling is still big business in the African country and it is finding notable success in Nollywood. This is the name given to Nigerian cinema and as of 2013 it has become the third most valuable film market in the world after the USA and India.
The authentic depiction of Nigerian life that is lacking in literature can be found in its filmic output. Nigerians are finding that film has a better way of meeting their storytelling needs and perhaps it suggests that where literature fails narrative film succeeds. Telling stories is a tradition that should never die out and it is something that will always survive and take whatever form is simplest. It appears that for Nigeria that form is film and it shows that stories will survive even the most inhospitable of settings.
Ana is a content producer based in London, in the UK. Her topics of interest include social justice, urban lifestyle, unconventional lifestyle and investigative journalism. She has a degree in Journalism from the University of Westminster and is currently a Press Officer at Monitise Group. Follow Ana on Twitter @ZoriaAna.