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Eight Nigerian authors discuss Nigeria’s literary culture

In January, Orange prize-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reacted angrily to a question about the presence of bookshops in Nigeria. Here, eight Nigerian writers give their own response to the query

Today we explore Nigeria’s youth culture community, through the lens of some of the country’s most influential young thinkers.

Late last January, during a Q&A at La Nuit des Idées, a Parisian cultural festival, the Nigerian author and guest of honour Chimamanda Adichie was asked by a French journalist, Catherine Broue, whether Nigeria “had any bookshops”. The audience gasped; Broue tried to clarify: “When people talk about Nigeria it’s about Boko Haram, it’s about violence, it’s about security. I should like you to tell us something about Nigeria which is different…and that is why I’m saying are there bookshops? Of course I imagine there are.” Adichie’s response was blunt: “You know I think it reflects very poorly on French people”, (the audience cheered), “that you’ve had to ask me that question...surely, it’s 2018. I mean, come on. My books are read in Nigeria. They’re studied in schools, not just in Nigeria but across Africa and it means a lot to me”.

After the interview, and after a nightmarish social media pummeling, Broue would counter that her question was an attempt to “impersonate the ignorant” in order to enlighten them. Why knowing that Nigeria had bookshops would disabuse anyone of the belief it was perpetually overrun by frightening militias, or why the responsibility lay with Adichie to disabuse this group at all, were flaws in this enterprise pointed out by other commentators. More seriously, Broue’s statement still didn’t explain why she felt such a question needed to be answered. Nigeria’s literary tradition is more than slightly prestigious, and Adichie is a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and a past member of the Time 100. She has been granted the recognition from Western editors and publishers that “African literature” must (historically) rely on for success in Western markets; on these terms alone, it would appear self-evident that she had somewhere in the country found access to the means for developing her art. Why, then, did the presence of a Nigerian author, on stage in Paris, answering questions about her prize-winning books, still not verify the presence of a Nigerian reading culture?

Later, on Facebook, Adichie offered her take on the logic, conscious or not, permitting Broue’s question. It was the same, persistent logic that reduces an entire continent to a few exotic fears and exhilarations (“Boko Haram, violence, security”). The question derived from “a deliberate, entitled, tiresome, sweeping, base ignorance about Africa”. “I do not expect a French person to know almost everything about Nigeria,” Adichie wrote, “I don’t know almost everything about France. But to be asked to ‘tell French people that you have bookshops in Nigeria because they don’t know’ is to cater to a wilfully retrograde idea — that Africa is so apart, so pathologically ‘different,’ that a non-African cannot make reasonable assumptions about life there.”

The online ire generated by the moment has produced different reactions. Sede Alonge, writing in The Guardian, called for a sense of perspective. He acknowledged that Broue was “tactless”, and that she asked a “very silly question”. But outrage, he argued, would be better directed towards Nigeria’s graver troubles, like: “the failings of successive governments who have reduced the country to an easy target for ridicule” and “the (in)accessibility of books for millions of children growing up in Africa’s most populous country”. Continuing Dazed’s Nigeria Day series, we asked eight of the country’s most exciting young writers to offer their own reactions to the interview question. Their answers, which follow below, are insightful, measured and conflicting.

OTOSIRIEZE OBI-YOUNG

Otosirieze Obi-Young’s fiction appears in The Threepenny Review and Transition, and has been shortlisted for the Miles Morland Scholarship and the Gerald Kraak Award. He is Deputy Editor of the African literary culture platform Brittle Paper. He has completed a collection of stories, You Sing of a Longing, and is working on a novel.

Mine was not an upbringing filled with choice books. But there were thriving bookstores. However, the bookstores did not thrive because they were stocked with serious literature books by Africans — and a good number of them had books required for O Level examinations — they thrived because they stocked and sold mainly textbooks and romance novels by Westerners. I was in secondary school, having found Ngugi’s Weep Not, Child and reading Isidore Okpewho’s The Last Duty and J.P. Clark’s poetry, when I began thinking of becoming a writer. A pondering solidified by Half of a Yellow Sun in university. Walk into the average Nigerian bookstore, walk to a roadside bookseller, and ask for a novel by an African, and you would be offered Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s books first. Our bookstores lack needed books due to the defunding of public education, but a milder response would be an endorsement of cultural condescension.

SIBBYL WHYTE

Sibbyl Whyte is a writer whose work has appeared in Gypsiana, Naijastories and the Brittle Paper. She is curating a forthcoming anthology called Erotic Africa: The Sex Anthology.

Growing up, reading was a ritual and my father was proud of this ability of mine to shut out the world and fall into books, so he supplied me with them. Bearing that in mind, bookstores have always existed alongside me. However, the bookstores my reading history is most intimate with, are not buildings, they are the tarpaulins spread on the ground by the roadside or in markets upon which hundreds of books lie, drawing book-lovers in, causing them to pause, change direction, and pick a book or more.

In 2012, I got connected with kindred spirits who shared my love for literature. Not only did I find that the internet possessed an inexhaustible supply of books, I found a new pathway to stories – writing. For that question to be asked in this age where books are made available following mouse-clicks on a webpage, is to expose oneself as being unaware of the direction the world is headed in, digitally speaking.

ARINZE IFEAKANDU

Arinze Ifeakandu was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2017 and was a 2015 A Public Space Emerging Writer Fellow. His fiction appears in A Public Space and is forthcoming in One Story. He is working on a book of short stories.

Chimamanda has clarified that the interviewer was being sarcastic when she asked the question, still the fact that a lot of French people would assume that there are no bookshops in Nigeria shocks me. But it shouldn’t. Recently, a young Nigerian man sent me a message, bristling at what he called my “Gay agenda”. Making Facebook posts about gay life, he reasoned, was “hypocritical”, considering the fact that “normal straight people” do not rub their “experiences in everyone’s faces”, which is such utter bullshit because everywhere I turn to, a man is telling me about his girlfriend. I write fiction with queer characters living normal lives, and I get this sort of backlash often. Just like the assumption that Nigeria has no bookshops, the backlash is borne out of arrogance and a cultivated blindness to one’s privilege.

JK ANOWE

JK Anowe is the recipient of the inaugural Brittle Paper Award for Poetry in 2017 for his poem “Credo to Leave,” published in Expound. He is Associate Poetry Editor at Praxis Magazine Online and lives, teaches and writes in Nigeria.

Developing as a writer in Nigeria might not be the most promising scenario considering the lack of infrastructure, the dependence on Western institutions to validate our works, or the fact that certain subjects are overlooked, deemed un-African or un-Nigerian, or not urgent enough to be written about ― like my own poetry, which interrogates the self and the psyche through mental illness. Despite this, I do come from a rich reading tradition. I have memories of skipping class to frequent our secondary school library, well-equipped with all manner of books, African or otherwise. In university, studying French and German, I was exposed to works by W.G Sebald, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Guillaume Apollinaire, Ahmadou Kourouma, Camara Laye, David Diop, etc.

So, while bookstores are not central to my relationship with books in Nigeria, I find the question quite ridiculous, and Adichie’s response, to put it mildly, generously considerate.

KELECHI NJOKU

Kelechi Njoku is an editor at Kachifo. He was shortlisted for the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and his work appears in Adda, Litro and on several other platforms.

If a society is home to 65 million non-literate persons and 10 million children who are out of school, then the most elementary questions may be asked of its culture. Broue comes from a country where a book can sell 600,000 copies in one year — whereas it has taken the Nigerian publisher of a popular African author seven years to move a mere 1,000 copies of his book. What we have as “bookstores” here would often not stock literary books because no-one is buying them. Adichie is one of maybe three writers whose names are recognisable on the streets. All over the world, literature struggles to stay culturally relevant alongside TV — with all the PC writing going on there now — and social media. If developed societies (with their half-million-copy sales) are having it bad, it makes sense to wonder how worse-developing countries like Nigeria are faring.

IFE OLUJUYIGBE

Ife Olujuyigbe is a writer, freelance editor and film critic. She has been published in a number of literary platforms and anthologies, won two short story prizes and was longlisted for the 2017 Writivism Short Story Prize. Her collection of short stories is set to be published in 2018.

I was eight when I came upon my father’s incredible stack of neat old books, and this was where my journey as a reader, and eventually, a writer, began. I still have vivid memories of reading Ola Rotimi’s Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again.

The bookstores I was exposed to before then were mostly school-centred, with options so homogeneous, you had to learn to make do. Roadside kiosks of motivational books, foreign romance novels, and from time to time, books by the all-too-familiar Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe are a common sight, but the occasional bookstore is filled with an assortment that includes more African literature by the day. Book festivals and readings are further helping curious readers like me get acquainted with brilliant African writing. And of course, there is the blessing of the internet which now brings books to you in only a few clicks.

PRINCE JACON OSINACHI

Osinachi is a writer, visual artist and academic librarian in one of the universities in south-east Nigeria. His work has appeared on African Writer, Cultural Weekly, Brittle Paper, The Muse and other titles. He has a short fiction upcoming on Megacity Fictions.

In junior secondary school, I was the tight-belted teenager unofficially referred to as “the class reader”. It was there that my love for literature written in Igbo and English started. Unsatisfied with just what we were given in class, I started looking out for where I could get other books, to discover what they contained. As a young boy hawking on the roads of Aba, I encountered a secondhand bookshop in “Shopping Centre”. I got most of the books there almost for nothing, and within months I had evacuated my mother’s cupboard and turned it into a personal library — a library full of books by only white authors.

Today, there are still second-hand bookshops in Aba, but they exist side-by-side with new and modern ones. In addition to that, the booming publishing industry in Nigeria and the whole of Africa has led to an abundant availability of books by African writers which are also being sold in these bookshops.

As a millennial, I know how much education one can get from the internet. Therefore, I was shocked by Caroline Broue’s question to Chimamanda Adichie. Generally, getting a bookshop here isn’t as hard as finding an iyi uwa. And you don’t need to give an arm and a leg to buy one. Some books sold in Nigerian bookshops can cost as little as N3,600 ($10), and that is what most Nigerians spend on data subscriptions every month.

Broue should have paused to consider if it makes sense to ask that question when a Google search of “bookshops in Nigeria” brings up a map of bookshop locations across the country, including their phone numbers for contact. She should have paused to ask instead, “Do Nigerians read?” That is another thing altogether, and that is the right question she failed to fire.

HAUWA SHAFFII NUHU

Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu’s work has appeared online and in print, on platforms such as Ake Review, The Kalahari Review, Eunoia Review, Brittle Paper and Expound magazine. 

Growing up, I was surrounded by books of all kinds, and a thriving culture of reading. So I had a circle I could always return to to dissect the books I had read. And though I did not know it then, it was a stage/cycle that would in future prove requisite to my writing. There was also the mentorship scheme I underwent which gave an almost unlimited access to a library.

There is no shortage of bookstores in Nigeria. While stuck in a car in traffic, you have mobile book sellers waving books at you, sometimes even giving you an animated summary of the books. On the internet, you find bookstores that deliver nationwide, with an array of rich collections. In the neighborhood, there are book shops you can walk into. The real challenge is the affordability of these books to the average Nigerian, and the availability of poetry books published outside the country. Especially the latter.

With thanks to Otosirieze Obi-Young — deputy editor of Brittle Paper — for his research assistance.

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