Nigeria’s literary renaissance has so far failed to trickle down to the bulk of the population
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‘‘When I started writing in the early 2000s, there were very few other young Nigerians being published internationally — Chimamanda Adichie, Helon Habila, Chris Abani and Sefi Atta,” recalls Chika Unigwe, the Nigerian novelist. “Farafina was one of the few local publishers dedicated to quality fiction, and you could count the number of literary events on the fingers of one hand.”

A little over a decade later, much has changed. Publishers such as Cassava Republic and Parrésia are at the centre of a thriving literary scene. Book festivals, once restricted to Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, are springing up in Abeokuta (the Ake Book and Arts Festival) and the oil industry hub of Port Harcourt (the Garden City Literary Festival) — the city notorious a decade ago for kidnappings of expatriate oil workers. In April, Port Harcourt ended its year-long stint as Unesco’s World Book Capital.

Well-paying literary awards have followed. The Nigeria Prize for Literature, which rotates annually between fiction, poetry, drama and children’s literature, and is awarded annually by Nigeria LNG, the liquefied natural gas company. The winner receives $100,000 in cash, making it one of the richest book prizes in the world. In 2013, the Nigerian arm of Etisalat, the United Arab Emirates-based mobile phone company, launched a pan-African first book prize. The biennial Wole Soyinka prize, named after Nigeria’s only Nobel laureate, awards $20,000 to its winner. And this year, the FT/OppenheimerFunds Emerging Voices competition for African and Middle Eastern fiction joins the list.

“Nigeria’s literary scene has burgeoned into this splendid, vibrant space,” says Unigwe.

The literary renaissance coincided with Nigeria’s return to democracy from 1999 after 16 years of military dictatorships. The newly elected civilian government introduced economic reforms, the most significant of which was breaking the monopoly of the state-run telecoms company by auctioning mobile phone licences to private companies. The reforms, combined with rising oil prices, generated growth and led to increased sponsorship budgets for banks, breweries and mobile phone companies, some of which pays for the proliferation of writing workshops, literary awards and festivals.

But much prosperity has failed to trickle down to the bulk of the population, more than half of whom live below poverty and literacy lines. Most Nigerian newspapers sell fewer than 40,000 copies a day to a population of 173m, and publishers consider a book that shifts 5,000 copies to be a bestseller.

Commercial success for writers and publishers can be a curse — attracting the attention of pirates, who are estimated to control 90 per cent of the book, music and film publishing industries in Nigeria.

The pirates are inventive, printing copies in the same countries as the originals — China, India, Singapore, Malaysia and Dubai. They are also nimble when it comes to distribution. Novelist Eghosa Imasuen, chief operating officer of Kachifo, one of Nigeria’s leading independent publishers, says pirated copies of a recent release (a much-awaited memoir by former president Olusegun Obasanjo) were already circulating in Nigeria as the consignment of the originals languished at the ports in Lagos, awaiting clearance through customs.

On the streets of Lagos and elsewhere the pirates tap into an efficient network of open-air book markets and street vendors. Formal bookshops — on which publishers are dependent — are few and far between. Published books even sometimes carry the contact details of their authors so that readers can arrange personal deliveries.

But the digital economy looks set to shake up the country’s literary scene. As Elnathan John, satirist, blogger and short story writer, explains, the internet “has opened the door to hitherto shut spaces”.

A street vendor in Lagos — formal bookshops are scarce in the city

Online penetration rates are rising fast in Nigeria, mostly on mobile phones, which in 2011 overtook desktop computers as the most common means by which Nigerians access the internet. Today, more than half of the 146m active mobile phone lines in Nigeria are connected to the internet. With the accompanying revolution in online payment systems, authors and publishers are turning to online marketplaces — book-only websites such as Iqra and Sunshine, and Amazon-type platforms such as Jumia and Konga — for their books.

Okadabooks, named after the daredevil motorcycle taxis that criss-cross the jammed streets of Lagos, was founded in 2013 by engineer and writer Okechukwu Ofili. It offers Nigerian books as mobile phone downloads, with payment by Etisalat recharge card, among other methods.

The push to launch Okadabooks came from the frustration Ofili felt dealing with a now defunct Lagos bookshop that he says was stalling on paying the thousands of dollars it owed him for books sold. Okadabooks now has 49,000 users, who have downloaded more than 500,000 books.

Most books on the site sell for around $1 per download; those by popular authors such as Chimamanda Adichie for up to $4. “People say Nigerians don’t read — we’re proving that Nigerians read,” Ofili says.

For a country that leapfrogged landlines to mobile telecoms, and where most people carry more than one phone, the service makes good business sense. Nevertheless, publishers and writers say the limitations of the domestic publishing industry are going to be around for a long time to come.

Wole Soyinka at a cultural event in Berlin in 2012

For now, foreign publication remains the defining dream for home-based Nigerian fiction writers. A book deal from a leading publisher in Europe offers everything Nigeria does not: regular royalty payments, attendance at leading book festivals and prestigious fellowships. Successful Nigerian writers who are read abroad owe that to being published abroad. Because Nigerian audiences tend to look abroad to validate their literary reading choices, publication and acclaim at home is guaranteed.

One unintended consequence of this obsession with western attention is that Nigerian writers feel at the mercy of publishers and audiences with limited appetites for African fiction. “It feels like there’s only one space for the black person at the dinner table, and the whole idea is like an audition to replace that black person at the table,” says Elnathan John, twice shortlisted for the UK’s Caine Prize for African Writing. “The expectation is that you’re coming to upstage other people, when in fact you just want to write.”

But conversely, this discomfiture with western domination pushing writers may be good for the local scene. After her debut novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, was published to critical acclaim in the UK in 2010, Lola Shoneyin did not see why all the interesting conversations she was having in European book festivals could not be taking place at home.

“I asked myself, why am I talking to all these people [abroad] when the people I really want to be talking to are my people,” she says. Which is how the annual Ake Book and Arts Festival was born, in Abeokuta, home town of Wole Soyinka, Africa’s first Nobel laureate in literature, to bring together emerging and well-known African writers from around the world.

Bright stars

A Igoni Barrett (Lagos). Barrett’s debut novel, Blackass, was published this year by Chatto & Windus, and was longlisted for the FT/OppenheimerFunds Emerging Voices award. He has previously published two short-story collections, From Caves of Rotten Teeth (2005) and Love is Power, Or Something Like That (2013). Last year he was named in the UK’s Hay Festival’s Africa39 as one of the 39 best African writers under 40.

Elnathan John (Abuja). A short-story writer, satirist, blogger and columnist, shortlisted twice — in 2013 and 2015 — for the Caine Prize for African Writing. His first novel will be published in Nigeria in 2015 by Cassava Republic Press, and in the UK and US in 2016.

Ayobami Adebayo (Ile-Ife). She is a 2014 graduate of the creative writing masters course at the University of East Anglia. Her debut novel, Stay With Me, was shortlisted for the Kwani? Manuscript Project Prize in 2013 and will be published this year by Kwani? Books.

Ukamaka Olisakwe (Aba). A novelist, short-story writer and columnist whose debut novel, Eyes of a Goddess, was published in 2012. She was in last year’s Hay Festival Africa39. Her short story This is How I Remember It appears in the Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara anthology.

Rotimi Babatunde (Ibadan). His plays have been performed in Sweden, the UK and the US, and his short story Bombay’s Republic won the 2012 Caine Prize. He is currently working on his first novel.

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