Nigeria turns the page on literary past
Mention Nigerian literature and the first names likely to spring to mind are Chinua Achebe, the author of "Things Fall Apart", or the venerable Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka.
But Africa’s most populous nation has a new crop of writers whose work is a far cry from the post-colonial era of their esteemed predecessors.
Olumide Popoola’s novel “When We Speak Of Nothing”, for example, tells the story of a gay teenager seeking the father he never knew in the southern oil city of Port Harcourt.
The book, which was published earlier this year, is written in a language mixing African pidgin with London slang, and includes comical descriptions and textspeak.
For Emeka Nwankwo, from Nigerian publisher Cassava Republic, breaking conventions and expectations about literature is a way of reflecting how the country has changed.
“We are looking for an alternative way to tell African stories, funny, subversive stories,” he said at the launch of Popoola’s novel.
“What’s going on now in Nigeria is very fascinating. New voices are coming out after a long period of quiet.”
The most famous voice to emerge in recent years is the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who made her name with “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2006) and “Americanah” (2013).
Both stories have since been translated into dozens of languages while the first was adapted for cinema in 2013, starring Hollywood actors Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
– ‘Thirst for literature’ –
Cassava Republic, which was launched in 2006 in Abuja and now has an office in London, is leading the literary revolution with other local publishers such as Farafina and Bookcraft.
In just over a decade, it has published some 50 books. The bestseller, “In Dependence”, by Sarah Ladipo Manyika, has sold 1.7 million copies in Nigeria and overseas.
No genre is excluded from Cassava Republic and it has published books from science fiction and crime to homosexuality and eroticism.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s “Season of Crimson Blossoms” tells the story of an improbable affair between an ageing widow and a petty drug dealer in the conservative, Muslim-majority north.
Instead of provoking a scandal, the novel won last year the country’s top literary award, the Nigeria Prize for Literature and the author $100,000 (85,000 euros).
In another category entirely is “Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds”, an eccentric ode to local cuisine and its supposed aphrodisiac properties.
With evocative chapter headings such as “Afang Soup and Hairy Legs” and “Eating Dog”, the author Yemisi Aribisala reveals the sensual power of yams and well-cooked fish beloved of Nigerians.
Others such as Leye Adenle (“Easy Motion Tourist”) take the reader on a heart-stopping journey to the beating heart of Nigeria’s sprawling megacity, Lagos, and encounters with corruption, prostitution and drugs.
The literary revival in Nigeria has seen more bookshops springing up in working-class areas and shopping centres across the country.
It is also taking off online. E-book application Okadabooks has some 200,000 users and one million downloads.
“There is a thirst for literature in Nigeria and publishers are now responding,” said Lola Shoneyin, who organises the Ake Festival every November.
The event, held in the southwestern city of Abeokuta, has become a must for booklovers, many of them under the age of 30.
– ‘Anti-intellectual policies’ –
The expansion of literature in Nigeria in the 1960s and 70s was driven by British publishers, said Shoneyin, who is also a poet and writer.
But successive military governments in that time “frustrated the book industry”, stifling creativity with “anti-intellectual policies”, she added.
The current challenges faced by Nigerian publishers today are different but no less daunting.
Most printing, for example, is done at low cost in China or India, although some publishers are starting to bring production back home because of improved quality.
Books are not immune from the huge bootleg industry that affects Nigeria’s entire cultural sector from cinema to music. Badly photocopied books are hawked on the streets or in markets.
Distribution — from transporting books to finding reliable points of sale — also remains “a challenging experience”, said Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, the founder of Cassava Republic.
But she views the situation with an unswerving Nigerian optimism.
“A lack of infrastructure can also be an opportunity, as it allows you to think more creatively and flexibly about how to meet challenges, rather than being hampered by existing and often outdated structures that struggle to move with the time and respond to new buying and consumption patterns,” she said.