Who’s Writing Who? Literary Cultural Appropriation and Ethnicity in Nigeria

Nigerian literature has always existed in the global space as ‘other’ literature, and writers often feel a moral responsibility to represent their ethnic cultures in the mainstream public space.

Recently cultural appropriation has been discussed extensively in literary circles, particularly in regard to fiction: Should writers from dominant racial spaces write from minority standpoints? Can writers from these spaces convincingly and sensitively produce literary work from minority perspectives? Considering appropriation is, at its crux, about power imbalances between majority and minority positions, should minorities have the leeway to create fictive narratives about dominant racial or cultural spaces, or about other minority cultures? While many prominent writers, such as Hari Kunzru, Kit De Waal and Aminatta Forna, suggest that the answer to these questions is a complicated and nuanced yes—fiction in its very nature is an appropriative practice; the work of the writer is to step into the shoes of the ‘other’ and build worlds populated by the ‘other’—the questions continue to swirl.

GLOBAL ISSUE, LOCAL VOICES

Nigeria currently has over 300 ethnic groups. Diverse and disparate, these ethnic groups often form the nucleus of group identity, even before nationality—many people consider themselves Tiv first and then Nigerian, or Yoruba first and then Nigerian—owing to a complex history of artificial national grouping imposed by the British. Writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for instance, proposed in Half of a Yellow Sun that the only ‘authentic identity for the African is the tribe’ and Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, has similarly suggested that Nigeria is so fractured amongst varying peoples who do not want to be one, it constitutes a non-nation. Due to these ethnic boundaries and the protectiveness with which people hold these boundaries, some of the issues around cultural appropriation in literature on a global level also find a voice on a local level.

To begin with, Nigerians do not place the same weight on dominance and power relations as occurs in global discussions about cultural appropriation. By population and political representation, the Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo ethnic groups are the dominant tribes in Nigeria with all others being minorities. However, the argument is not so much about what would transpire were these three groups to construct stories from the viewpoints of the minority groups, but about any ethnic group writing from the viewpoint of another. A cursory look at Nigerian literature over the last few decades—from classics like Things Fall Apart to more contemporary novels like My Sister, The Serial Killer—shows that Nigerian fiction is very tribe-centred. Writers largely write about where they come from or through the eyes of characters who belong to the same ethnicity. Yoruba people portray Yoruba culture and viewpoints; Hausa people paint pictures of Hausa experiences. Several interconnected reasons spring to mind for this. The first is the popular literary maxim for writers to write what they know. Authors are merely producing from what is most familiar, closest, or emotionally dear to them. Tomi Adeyemi, author of Children of Blood and Bone, for instance, has revealed that her debut novel was inspired by her heritage and personal experiences.

The second reason is the urgency the first wave of Nigerian writers felt following Nigeria’s independence to document realities outside of the colonial narrative. Early postcolonial writers such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka wrote to establish and reclaim ethnic identity, and their influence and style has trickled down to the younger generation of writers—Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani,  Lola Shoneyin and Ayobami Adebayo are examples of contemporary authors who have expressed Achebe and/or Soyinka as influences of their craft. The third is the fact that Nigerian literature has always existed in the global space as ‘other’ literature, and writers often feel a moral responsibility to represent their ethnic cultures in the mainstream public space. In Achebe’s ‘The Novelist as Teacher’, he emphasized the need for Nigerian writers to write about their own culture. Similarly, in Adichie’s ‘The Danger of a Single Story’, she espoused the importance of writers telling indigenous stories. However, because of the multiplicity of ethnic cultures that exist in the country, telling indigenous stories presents as writers documenting their own ethnic groups.

Beyond these, there is also the unspoken sense that writing from the viewpoints of the culture of other ethnic groups is an intrusion into what is not a person’s purview, just as it is in the global space. An Igbo writer constructing narratives about Hausa experiences might elicit some discomfort within the Hausa community and all the smaller tribes subsumed under it because of the deep feelings of divergence that exists between ethnic groups. The concerns would likely be familiar: What makes you qualified to tell this story? Even with research, are you accurately depicting these experiences, including the characters’ inner lives which you can’t fully understand? There may not be so much the sense or anger about one tribe profiting off or dehumanizing the culture of the other as there is in the global context, but about one person taking or trespassing on something that isn’t theirs—not to mention the fact it also feels like an abandoning or forsaking of one’s own culture to write purely from the standpoint of another.

A POSSIBLE EXCEPTION?

Historical and current offences and grievances between tribes further exacerbate the borders around ethnic groups. Tensions ignited by the civil war and ongoing violence perpetuated by some ethnic groups against others have arguably made ethnic groups more sensitive about what one group has a right to and what they do not. Hausa people writing about authentically Igbo experiences, for instance, might likely elicit strong backlash due to the tensions created by the Biafran War and feelings of Igbo nationalism. Ebira people writing about the Bassa or vice versa would draw a similar reaction, due to the decades-long ethnic clashes between both groups.

Probably the one exception to feelings of appropriation or cultural trespass is the bottom-to-top scenario which ensues between minorities and dominant ethnic groups. In the global space, minorities assuming the lens of dominant culture is often acceptable due to the unfair power dynamics which exist between both positions. In Nigeria, it could be argued that minorities pose less of a threat than one dominant ethnic group documenting the culture of another. But more substantially, minority ethnic groups tend to exist under the canopy of the majority ethnic groups in the geographical area they inhabit—smaller ethnic groups in the North are lumped under Hausa people, for example. Because, in a way, minorities are part of the more dominant ethnic group—in physicality, religious views, and cultural knowledge—it doesn’t feel like cultures have been encroached upon when minorities write from the viewpoints of the dominant ethnicity. Novels such as Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim or Born on Tuesday by Elnathan John exemplify this. Both novels, written by authors who hail from minority northern ethnic groups, centralize Hausa characters and experiences with ease, largely because of the authors’ cultural origins.

BEYOND ETHNIC LINES

Is there even a trickling of writers experimenting with ethnicity? Back in 1960, Igbo author, Cyprian Ekwensi, wrote the novel, The Passport of Mallam Ilia about a northern Nigerian man seeking revenge over the death of his wife. In more recent times, Uwem Akpan, who comes from the Anaang tribe, has taken up Biafra as a subject, even if not through the prism of his characters in his 2021 novel, New York, My Village. Some writers, such as Nnedi Okorafor, Ben Okri and Chibundu Onuzo have sidestepped the issue of Nigerian ethnicity all together by spinning fictional worlds from scratch—even though in many cases, there are still allusions to specific tribal groups. And, of course, there is a writer such as Helen Oyeyemi whose novels and short stories are often not rooted in Nigeria at all, but the myths and world beyond the country.

Overall, Nigerian writers tend to stick to their cultural bubbles, preferring not to cross ethnic lines. While understandable considering a fraught history, it does also make for one question: is the fear of crossing ethnic lines making Nigerian literature static?

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