'We have a lot of stories to tell': inside Nigeria's thriving literary scene – The Irish Times
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Writers and organisers take to the stage at the annual Lagos Book and Art Festival. Photograph: Sally Hayden In January the New York Times declared that “2021 was the year for African literature”. “African authors took the literary world by storm in 2021,” read an Al Jazeera headline. It is true that African writers last year won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Booker Prize, the Camões Prize for Literature, the Prix Goncourt and Hennessy Book Award, among many others. But in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, a literary scene is nothing new. The year in economic capital Lagos is dotted with festivals, including the Lagos International Poetry Festival, which was founded in 2015, usually runs in October, and last year included a one-million-naira (€2,140) winner-takes-all poetry slam. There is also the now nine-year-old Aké Arts and Book Festival, which was founded by Lola Shoneyin, the author of the highly successful The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. The hundreds of speakers have included Nigerian-American author Teju Cole; Caine Prize for African Writing winner E C Osondu; and 26-year-old Nigerian novelist Nnamdi Ehirim. At the most recent iteration of the annual Lagos Book and Art Festival, which has run since 1999, dozens of people sat in a hall to watch discussions which were also broadcast on Zoom. The electricity periodically cut, shutting off the live feed as well as the lights, but the festival continued. Writers read from their recent work, which included ruminations on the Covid-19 pandemic, the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria’s northeast, and urban police brutality. There was writing 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 were talks about how authors can “not sell out” and how young writers can be supported in getting into the industry. There were also discussions about whether Nigerian writers should prioritise writing in Pidgin – which is spoken by roughly 50 million people in Nigeria, with versions in Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone – rather than English, condemned by some as the language of the coloniser. “We have to find language that will pull the crowd more than English. English is a bastard language,” exclaimed writer Femi Morgan, whose poetry collection, The Year of Fire, was released last year. As in most countries in the world, he later said, life as a writer in Nigeria is not easy financially; people do it because it’s their passion. “It’s a long road and you have to consistently push yourself, and when you are done writing you go away and shamelessly 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.” Over the last two decades, domestic concerns about a lack of a reading culture in Nigeria have prompted nationwide drives, such as the government-backed 2010 Bring Back the Book campaign, or Get Nigeria Reading Again, which was launched a year before Nigeria’s fifth largest city, Port Harcourt, took over as Unesco World Book Capital City in 2014. Environmentalist Sola Alamutu uses the Lagos Book and Art Festival to run sessions with schoolchildren focused on promoting literacy. The children’s book author, who runs the organisation Children and the Environment and is nicknamed “the green queen”, said she invites celebrities to speak about the importance of books in their lives. “We bring mentors like actors, dancers. The important part is that they will tell [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 as many as 1,000 students taking part, but the number has been drastically reduced. Alamutu says there are challenges in encouraging a love of literature among young Nigerians. “Technology has taken over, children want to go to the movies, look at their phone, just entertain themselves, they don’t want anything too serious. Another thing is that books are expensive and they’re not easily available economically for children…There are still a lot of people who don’t have access to books.” Having a larger number of Nigerian writers helps, she said, because the books children read have historically had little relation to their own lives. “I know a girl who wrote a book about a girl with blue eyes. I don’t know any Nigerian with blue eyes. She was obviously influenced by the books she had read and those books were foreign books…I feel that there should be books from people from different parts of the world.” One of the most well-known bookshops in Lagos is The Jazzhole, which serves as a coffee shop and record store, as well as being packed with new and secondhand books. The walls are lined with work by writers from Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison and Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie to Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo, Ethiopian-American writer Dinaw Mengestu and British debut novelist Hafsa Zayyan, who has a Nigerian father. “Books have to be meaningful,” says Tejuoso Kunle, who owns the shop with his wife, Tundun. “I am very concerned about getting good books [that] I think will [have] an impact on society, especially my society.” He says their stock covers a wide range of subjects but “maybe they will always have a progressive link”. The majority are by Western writers, he adds, but about 40 per cent are by Africans, most of whom are Nigerian. “There’s a lot of substance, a lot of elements, a lot of things to write about,” Tejuoso says about Nigeria. “We have a lot of stories to tell.” His wife, Tundun, says many local writers now self-publish. “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. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work in particular influenced how a lot of women style their hair, and the pride they feel over keeping it natural rather than getting weaves or treating it with chemicals, something the protagonist in Adichie’s much-lauded 2013 novel Americanah talks about. “Black women are now embracing themselves more,” said Tundun. Adichie (44) is the author of numerous books. Her TedX speech, “we should all be feminists”, was sampled by US singer and superstar Beyoncé. Another Adichie Ted talk given in 2009 – “The Danger of a Single Story”, in which she talks about the “incomplete” stories that are told about Africa, which leads to an international impression that it is only “a continent full of catastrophes” – was viewed more than 30 million times. Many of Nigeria’s more recent internationally successful authors are graduates of the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop, which Adichie facilitated for about a decade. They include 34-year-old Ayobami Adebayo, 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 the Prix Les Afriques; Umar Turaki, whose pandemic-related novel Such a Beautiful Thing to Behold comes out in May; and Eloghosa Osunde, winner of the Paris Review’s $10,000 2021 Plimpton Prize, whose debut Vagabonds! – a book about “the queer, the poor, the displaced, the footloose and rogue spirits” – will be published in March. “In the early 1960s, with European colonialism ending all over Africa, Nigeria was at the centre of a new African literary renaissance,” Adichie wrote in 2019. “But cultural production dipped with the military dictatorships of the 1990s, when little fiction was published. Today there is another renaissance, and it feels to me more resilient, more diverse, and with less of an obligation to overt politics.” Young Nigerian writers are tackling serious topics, from LGBT+ and transgender rights, as 34-year-old Akwaeke Emezi did in The Death of Vivek Oji; to Islamic extremism, like 39-year-old Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday; but they are also behind everything from sci-fi to memoir to crime. The Booker Prize-longlisted Sunday Times bestseller My Sister the Serial Killer, the debut novel by Nigerian-British writer Oyinkan Braithwaite (33), is set in Lagos, with details about the corrupt police, the crushing rain and the never-ending traffic jams, but the focus of her story is the relationship between two sisters, who could largely have been born anywhere. Braithwaite was a featured spoken word artist in Nigeria’s 2014 Eko Poetry Slam. Her second book, a novella set in Covid-19 times called The Baby is Mine, saw a playboy get locked down with his late uncle’s aunt and mistress, both of whom claim ownership over a newborn baby. While the future of Nigerian writing seems secure, the bookselling industry is less so. The cost of buying hard copies is an impediment for many potential customers, especially given fluctuating exchange rates and the economic impact of the pandemic, said The Jazzhole’s co-owner Tejuoso. “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 the younger ones that is more so.” Subscribe.
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