inside Nigeria’s thriving literary scene


In January, the New York Times declared that “2021 is the year of African literature”. “African authors have taken the literary world by storm in 2021,” read one headline from Al Jazeera.

It is true that African writers won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Booker Prize, the Camões Prize for Literature, the Goncourt Prize and the Hennessy Book Prize, among others, last year. But in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, the literary scene is not new.

The year in the economic capital Lagos is dotted with festivals, including the Lagos International Poetry Festival, which was founded in 2015, usually takes place in October, and last year included a million-winning poetry slam naira (€2,140). .

There is also the Aké Arts and Book Festival, now nine years old, founded by Lola Shoneyin, the author of the highly successful The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. Among the hundreds of speakers were Nigerian-American author Teju Cole; EC Osondu, winner of the Caine prize for African writing; and 26-year-old Nigerian novelist Nnamdi Ehirim.

At the latest iteration of the annual Lagos Book and Art Festival, which has been running since 1999, dozens of people sat in a room to watch talks which were also broadcast on Zoom. The electricity periodically cut out, turning off the live feed as well as the lights, but the festival continued.

The writers read excerpts from their recent work, which included reflections on the Covid-19 pandemic, the Boko Haram insurgency in northeast Nigeria and urban police brutality. There were writings about religion, Rastafarianism and the use of totems as charms. In attendance was Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, an 80-year-old actor and the first editor of Africa Woman magazine, and to whom the 2021 festival was dedicated.

There have been discussions about how authors can ‘not sell themselves’ and how young writers can be supported to enter the industry. There have also been discussions about whether Nigerian writers should prioritize writing in pidgin – which is spoken by an estimated 50 million people in Nigeria, with versions in Ghana, Liberia and Sierra. Leone – rather than English, condemned by some as the language of the colonizer.

“We have to find a language that will attract the crowd more than English. English is a bastard language,” exclaimed writer Femi Morgan, whose poetry collection, The Year of Fire, came out last year.

As in most countries in the world, he later said, the life of a writer in Nigeria is not financially easy; people do it because it’s their passion. “It’s a long road and you have to constantly push yourself, and when you’re done writing, you shamelessly go off and sell. The way I sell my poetry my friends are ashamed of me, and I still make losses , but I’m happy doing what I do.

“A Girl with Blue Eyes”

Over the past two decades, national concerns about the lack of a reading culture in Nigeria have prompted national campaigns, such as the government-backed Bring Back the Book 2010 campaign, or Get Nigeria Reading Again, which was launched a year before Nigeria’s fifth largest. city, Port Harcourt, became the UNESCO World Book Capital in 2014.

Environmentalist Sola Alamotu uses the Lagos Book and Art Festival to hold sessions with schoolchildren focused on promoting literacy. The children’s book author, who runs the organization Children and the Environment and is nicknamed “The Green Queen”, said she invites celebrities to talk about the importance of books in their lives.

“We bring in mentors like actors, dancers. The important thing is that they say [the children]…’you see me up there but I read, I went to school, I got an education’. Before the pandemic, they would have had up to 1,000 participating students, but the number has been drastically reduced.

The Jazzhole, a legendary bookstore in Lagos. Photography: Sally Hayden

Alamotu says it is difficult to encourage a love of literature among young Nigerians. “Technology has taken over, kids want to go to the movies, watch their phones, be entertained, they don’t want anything too serious. Another thing is that books are expensive and not readily available economically for children… There are still many people who do not have access to books.

Having more Nigerian writers helps, she says, because the books children read have historically had little connection to their own lives. “I know a girl who wrote a book about a girl with blue eyes. I don’t know any blue-eyed Nigerians. She was obviously influenced by the books she read and those books were foreign books… I think there should be books from people from different parts of the world.

“Lots of things to write”

One of the best-known bookstores in Lagos is The Jazzhole, which serves as a cafe and record store, as well as new and used books. The walls are lined with works by writers ranging from Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison and Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie to Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo, Ethiopian-American writer Dinaw Mengestu and early British novelist Hafsa Zayyan, who has a Nigerian father.

“Books should have meaning,” says Tejuoso Kunle, who owns the shop with his wife, Tundun. “I am very concerned about getting good books [that] I think it’s ok [have] an impact on society, in particular on my society. He says their stock covers a wide range of topics but “maybe they’ll still have a progressive link.” The majority is written by Western writers, he adds, but about 40% is written by Africans, most of whom are Nigerians.

“There’s a lot of substance, a lot of elements, a lot to write about,” Tejuoso says of Nigeria. “We have a lot of stories to tell.”

His wife, Tundun, says many local writers are now self-publishing. “It seems important for young writers to write about who they are, what their society is about.”

Writing can cause clear cultural shifts, she says. The work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in particular has influenced the way many women style their hair and the pride they feel in keeping it natural rather than weaving it in or treating it with chemicals, which the protagonist of the film talks about. Adichie’s highly regarded 2013 novel, Americanah. “Black women are kissing more now,” Tundun said.

The annual Lagos Book and Art Festival was streamed live on Zoom.  Photography: Sally Hayden

The annual Lagos Book and Art Festival was streamed live on Zoom. Photography: Sally Hayden

Adichie (44) is the author of many books. Her TedX speech, “we should all be feminists”, was sampled by American singer and superstar Beyoncé. Another Adichie Ted lecture given in 2009 – “The Danger of One Story”, in which she talks about the “incomplete” stories being told about Africa, which gives the international impression that it is not is about “a continent full of disasters” – has been viewed over 30 million times.

Many of Nigeria’s most recent internationally successful authors are graduates of Farafina’s Creative Writing Workshop, which Adichie facilitated for about a decade. Among them are Ayobami Adebayo, 34, whose debut novel Stay With Me – which deals with polygamy and the pressure on women to have children – was shortlisted for the Baileys Prize and won Les Afriques; Umar Turaki, whose pandemic-related novel Such a Beautiful Thing to Behold comes out in May; and Eloghosa Osunde, winner of the 2021 Paris Review $10,000 Plimpton Prize, whose debut album Vagabonds! – a book about “queer, poor, misplaced, footless and rogue minds” – will be published in March.

“More resistant”

“In the early 1960s, with the end of European colonialism across Africa, Nigeria was at the center of a new African literary renaissance,” Adichie wrote in 2019. “But cultural production plunged with military dictatorships of the 1990s, when little fiction was published. . Today there is another renaissance, and it seems to me to be more resilient, more diverse, and less compelled to do open politics.

Young Nigerian writers tackle serious issues, LGBT+ and transgender rights, as 34-year-old Akwaeke Emezi did in The Death of Vivek Oji; to Islamic extremism, like Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday, 39; but they’re also behind everything from sci-fi to memoir to crime.

The Sunday Times Booker Prize bestseller My Sister the Serial Killer, the debut novel by Nigerian-British writer Oyinkan Braithwaite (33), is set in Lagos, with details of corrupt police, crushing rain and endless traffic jams. , but the center of its story is the relationship between two sisters, who could largely have been born anywhere.

Braithwaite was a featured spoken word artist at the 2014 Eko Poetry Slam in Nigeria. His second book, a short story set in the time of Covid-19 titled The Baby is Mine, saw a playboy locked up with his late uncle’s aunt and mistress, who both claim ownership of a new -not.

While the future of Nigerian writing seems secure, the bookstore industry is less so. The cost of purchasing hard copies is a barrier for many potential customers, especially given fluctuating exchange rates and the economic impact of the pandemic, Jazzhole co-owner Tejuoso said.

“There are a lot of readers but right now maybe not a lot of buyers. Why buy if you can download or read online? For younger people this is even more the case.”

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