The Nigerian Writer

12 October 2008

how far na?

i remember my prose in my secondary school days, all by 9ja authors b4 i let myself be caught with a mills&boon. the stores were entertaining and filled with knowledge, 9ja authors have been doing it and are still doing it. this is an exercpt by a 9ja author on the new and abounding future of 9ja and its writers.
It seems the gods of literature have officially tagged 2007 the year for the Nigerian writer. First Achebe won the Man Booker International Prize, then Adichie followed with the Orange Prize, and although none of them went on to win ultimately, three Nigerians were shortlisted for the Caine Prize. Also, in an interesting coincidence, 2007 saw the publication of Helen Oyeyemi’s The Opposite House, Biyi Bandele’s Burma Boy, my Measuring Time, Chris Abani’s The Virgin of Flames, and Ben Okri’s Starbook.
At a reading in London recently a woman asked, jokingly, the reason for this preponderance of Nigerian writers in the news. Is it because Nigeria is more populous than other African countries or are Nigerians more clever? Statisticians put it at one out of every six Africans being a Nigerian; so if all Africans were writers, one out of every six African writers would be a Nigerian. Interesting, but it doesn’t explain why the Nigerians are so successful, and not only in 2007 (1991: first black African Booker Prize winner, Okri, Nigerian; 1985: first African Nobel Prize for literature winner, Soyinka, Nigerian). Apart from being the most populous country, Nigeria is arguably Africa’s most complex country. What these writers are doing is explaining in intimate, human terms, this complexity — and luckily for them, they are doing it at the right time, the time of the IT revolution. This means access to a wider audience than the earlier generations who were published by Heinemann African Writers Series and confined to the Africa section in specialist bookstores.

Recently I got a mail from a woman in Yorkshire saying that my novel has helped her to understand Nigeria better. She said what she had before was an “aeroplane-view of Nigeria”, but my book has given her an “eye-level” understanding. To many outsiders Africa remains a complex conundrum, and most Africa-watchers agree that understanding Nigeria is perhaps the first step towards understanding Africa. Civil wars, dictatorships, poverty, and all the other favourite stereotypes of Africa in the press, Nigeria has them, but it also has what the press doesn’t report, most of which is positive.
But of course writers do not write because they want to interpret their countries or cultures to readers, they just write what they have to write.

But what defines these new writers (mostly seen to mean born after 1960), how do they differ from older writers such as Achebe, Soyinka, and even Ben Okri? Whereas it is possible to say that the earlier writers have their nationalist African politics in common, the younger writers seem to be less encumbered. This is not to say they are apolitical; they are very political — after all, the political could be said to be one of the defining traditions of African literature, but their politics are less unified, more individual, less predictable. This works in their favour because it frees them to explore more diverse themes. We see that diversity when we compare three Nigerian novels published between 2003-06: from Chris Abani’s Becoming Abigail (2006) about the exploitation of the main character, Abigail, by family members in Nigeria and London, to Adichie’s family tragedy in Purple Hibiscus (2003) set in Eastern Nigeria, to Oyeyemi’s fantastical The Icarus Girl (2005) set in Nigeria and the UK. Thematically the three books have nothing in common, the only thing they share is their authors’ Nigerian origin. These writers are streching the limits of their country’s borders, and questioning our stereotypic knowledge of that country.

For the sake of analysis I will divide the new Nigerian writers into two sub-categories; but I will first put them all into one broad category: they all live permanently or partially outside Nigeria. In the first category I will place those that were either born outside Nigeria, or left at a very early age. In this group are Diana Evans, Helen Oyeyemi, David Nwokedi, Segun Afolabi, Uzodinma Iweala, etc. Some of them, such as Evans and Nwokedi, are multiracial, and almost all of them will question the tag, “Nigerian writer”. To them Nigeria is merely a fictional country where they set their stories, an echo from their parents’ memories. Their characters often find themselves taking the plane to Nigeria to seek “identity”, such as the characters in Diana Evans’ 26A and in David Nwokedi’s Fitzgerald’s Wood. But this search for ancestral memories and family ties is mostly unsuccessful, they realise that home is where you live, where your happy memories were made.
The second category is of those who left Nigeria to pursue their writing career — most of them came as students or writing fellows and decided to stay on after the publication of their first books. These are people such as myself, Adichie, Biyi Bandele and Abani. These writers focus on Nigeria in theme and setting, and are very comfortable with the term “Nigerian writer”. And in their novels the very anger and frustration that drove them out of their country has now become their inspiration. It is in their books, more than in that of the first group, that we get closest to the smells and sights and pains and joys of Nigeria.
It is not hard to see that the themes of place and identity will grow in the new Nigerian writing, because as these authors are forced to make their homes in the West due to their continuing success, they seek to imaginatively reclaim their country, and to rationalise their anger at their country for being unable to keep them, to fructify their aspirations. We see hints of these themes in Abani’s The Virgin of Flames, set in Los Angeles, Afolabi’s Goodbye Lucille, set in Germany, and Oyeyemi’s The Opposite House, set in London. Oyeyemi’s book in particular has nothing to with Nigeria or Nigerians — it is about an immigrant Cuban family — but in their discussions of place and displacement you can hear the questions Oyeyemi is trying to answer for herself, about her own place.

The African has often been described as a natural story-teller. The Nigerian seems to possess that gene in abundance. Because most social infrastructures are stunted, and most dreams are never realised, the only way we can turn our defeats into victories, our fears into strengths, our shame into pride, is in our stories.
It is hard to say what the future holds for us. Already we are being described as the “next India”. In terms of stories and ability we could be. But a lot of us realise that the Indians have one thing we don’t have, a healthy publishing industry at home. After the withdrawal of most of the big publishers in the 1980s because of the failing local economy, a huge vacuum was created in publishing, and only recently has there begun to emerge an entrepreneurial class that sees the possibility of cashing in on the success of the new writers and using that to resuscitate our comatose publishing industry. Two publishers in particular — Cassava Republic and Kachifo — not only publish Nigerian editions of books such as Evan’s 26A, Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, and my two novels, but they also fly in these writers on ambitious book tours. Gradually a local fan base is being established, a reading culture and hopefully a whole book industry is being revived
this is the website for the orange prize , man booker international prize, caine prize if you want to check them out.
this is an african writers website.
this is a web archine for the association of Nigerian authors.
we are extremely proud of u all.
this should go a long way in debunking the myth that black people don't read.


  1. very well researched piece..
    and beautiful blog..where have i been?

    u might wanna check this out...
    i was blessed and hope u'll be too...

  2. and what's d title of ur book?

  3. @ temi
    thanks for complimenting my blog but like i said,its an excerpt of an interview by the times magazine America of a 9ja did take a lot of research though.
    loved the poem on your blog. pls feel free 2 come back next time 'n' let me know wat u think.


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