Who’s Afraid of Nigerian Literature? The Resilience of Nigerian Writing

The exodus of a new generation of Nigerian writers has sparked discussions about the state of Nigerian literature in recent times. Some have asserted that Nigerian literature is dead or dying and that writing from within a Nigerian context, from home, is becoming an endangered art.

The year is 1997. Mirrorwork, a new anthology of Indian writing has just been published and Arundhati Roy appears alongside Salman Rushdie on the nowdefunct (for good reason) Charlie Rose, on a press tour. They are talking about the literati, the promise of India’s cultural power and its surge of new writing in verdant English as personified by Roy. The occasion is India’s independence golden jubilee. Parts of the interview play out like a duel. A young Roy appears to be fighting to control a narrative with fixed positions. She can choose the optimism’ of the West looking at a sub-continent on the verge of global recognition and economic boom or the pessimism of the citizen informed by all the attendant problems of a post-colony. New to the international writer game, citizen Roy chooses pessimism. For Roy, the citizen is caught in a complex role play, welcoming the West and fighting it at the same time. The writer as citizen walks a national tightrope, riskingin the case of Rushdielife, and imaginative freedom. The fourth person on the table, the former United Nations bureau chief for the New York Times, Barbara Crossette, has done some time in India. She is full of expatriate insight. Roy holds her own against Crossette and a Rushdie who is assured, measured and tentative, straddling the global West and India. Roy wants it to be known that the framing of Mirrorwork and to an extent her new novel outside of an Indian context as a distinct phenomenon, and sign of a new literary awakening, is manufactured euphoria. 


Recently, when conversations about the health of Nigerian literature resurfaced online, spurred by the mass exit of a new breed of writers in the face of economic decline, it was this conversation that came to mind. The claim made was that Nigerian literature was dead or dying and that writing from within a Nigerian context, from home, was becoming an endangered art. The claim and the reactions that followed it mirrored many aspects of the Roy-Rushdie conversation but, crucially, it contained a half-truth. Nigerian literature has, to borrow a phrase from the poet, Nicole Sealey, been capable of ‘brief animations’ from time to time. But save for a small cluster of significant events, it is doubtful that a sustained literary awakening has occurred yet in a way that might indicate that the Nigerian writer in any mould has not always been the rare, endangered thing. 

Of the many questions posed since these conversations began (by several writers), the most compelling have been these: what losses accrue when the writer chooses to leave home to become a ‘working’ writer in search of a promised ideal? And, whatever gravity we assign this loss, is it equal to a psychological death, writer suicide; a rejection of the real and absurd? It’s an old question with a new urgency. Again, it invites us to think about the peculiar limitations faced when anyone anywhere in the world tries to become a writer and comes up against the all-too-real barriers to entry. But, specifically, the cost of doing this in a country without framework. A new generation of writers is coming to terms with these questions that are somewhat metaphysical—about fate: who is fated to write the work that defines a generation? And socio-political—a probing of complacent hierarchies and the distribution of resources? What, the aspiring writer wonders, can a competent (even remarkable) writer do with the resources that they are allotted in an unequal, dysfunctional society? Time being a fixed or finite quantity, and writing being Sisyphean. Thus, invoking the great Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and novelist, Leonard Cohen, who bore with grace his fate as an absurd hero and declared with great equanimity that he thought he would do well posthumously. This was Cohen acknowledging the maxim of the marketplace. A writer as cog in a production line, awaiting ordination by the variable forces that make a writer a writer: the Gods; a great marketing team; if Michel Foucault is to be believed, a significant alignment/misalignment of the writer’s aims with the aims of the powerful; and most definitely, hopefully, good prose. 

In wading into the discourse, I’m not attempting to answer any of the questions posed so far. I’d like to offer the account of a witness primarily because I fit the profile of the accused: that week when these conversations peaked, I had a poem out in an American literary magazine bemoaning my newly immigrant fate. Hence, this is in a sense a response to the accusation of leaving Nigeria. 


I first came online in 2007. By word of mouth and some coercion, I opened a Facebook account and found them, the young Nigerian writers and readers who shared things like ‘Reading Kafka and sipping green tea’ on their walls, impossibly (at least to me) self-aware, clear-minded, and ambitious. Disciples of Wole Soyinka, Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag, and Albert Camus alike. They wanted to preen over a sentence imitative of Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, but also, they wanted to reimagine possible worlds for a new kind of Nigerian writing. They shared their writing online and got into hot-headed arguments. They considered these often-polarizing online fights critical to the health of the literati. A significant subsect of these people was overtly fascinated by the then-new writer on the scene Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and seeking the likeminded. Just as fascinated, I wanted to discuss the marginal characters that Adichie had an uncanny ability to render with such acuity—evident for me in the astute and exacting Obiora in Purple Hibiscus—the kind of young Nigerian whose pragmatism and idealism is a crushing weight, who you might walk past in the entryway of some book reading with the literati gathered, engrossed in the quiet rooms where literary events were frequently ongoing. In these readings, an online brigade often materialized in real life. They would stir up controversies by asking probing, dissenting and passion-charged questions of an author, and then resurface online again to finish what they had started.  

It is from this crowd that a new generation of writers would emerge. Most of them, too young to, or decidedly unwilling to buy into the preoccupations and romanticisms held sacred by the older generation—case in point: was it a great moral failing for the poet ancestor, Christopher Okigbo, to abandon his primary duties as a poet to fight in the country’s civil war or was it not? In the years that followed, they began to actively regroup in MFA programmes in the US and the UK and Canada. Several events overlap here before the migrations: a hunger for new literary heroes; the birth of a new cultural force online; the flourishing of literary festivals. These, happening alongside the gradual socio-economic decline of Nigeria began to undo policies that had engineered the literary awakenings within which the current literary stars flourished. Why did migration become inevitable? The generation spawned within these cultural spaces, as other writers have noted, saw the signs early.  


In the Nigerian literary imagination, especially post-internet, for readers who found themselves online more so on Facebook and Twitter than on Myspace, the defining event within which other events find their shape and form is the arrival of Adichie on the scene. Here, the publication of Ben Okri’s The Famished Road in 1991 is a supernova event; outside of current literary reckoning, consequential yet obscure. The mainstream consists of a narrow strip within which the 2008 publication of the exciting i am memory, a collection of poems by the generation-defining, fresh-voiced poet, Jumoke Verissimo; the 2011 publishing of Eghosa Imaseun’s Fine Boys, the first contemporary novel in pidgin English; the 2012 formation of the WriteHouse, a fledgling writer’s collective in Ibadan that published an inventive first collection of poems like Dami Ajayi’s Clinical Blues, register in the long-term literary imagination as barely monumental. All the books. This is a repeating sequence where the arc of Nigerian literature begins with Chinua Achebe and/or Wole Soyinka, bends toward Okri and then moves decisively toward Adichie. This arc is Western. It does not include writers we have known and loved. Writers in our own arcs. However, by the time it gets to Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ and Akwaeke Emezi in the 2010s, it begins to bifurcate. It becomes significantly more complex. 

If you found yourself at the University of Port Harcourt sometime in 2008/9 like me, you may have walked through the bend-down-select bookshops by the photographers’ arcade and found a second-hand copy of Yiyun Li’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. Like me, you may have wandered afterwards into the new university senate building and into one of the halls where Mandela hostel boys heckled the talent during campus talent shows. This is where I met the Ghanaian writer, Kofi Awoonor, who patiently listened to me ramble on about how I adored his poems. Here, Okey Ndibe, scholar and author of Arrows of Rain, a Kafkaesque debut novel hailed as being in the lineage of Achebe stood outside this hall chatting between hosting duties. The playwright and novelist, Sefi Atta, spoke with an intense group of aspiring writers in some corner of the hall. The air was agog with the promise of the Nobel Laureate Soyinka’s arrival. A synesthete’s paradise of books, imminent dry season, new campus furniture, people everywhere, distinct faces; you had to be there. That this was transient even in the moment of its unfolding, is now both part of its allure and legend from an enchanted time. Even then, as we listened to the writers speak, we wanted to deify them and dethrone them, to become them. Love invariably turns to strife. They were gracious, mercurial, and generous. Some of them. At one of the book festivals in Port Harcourt where the Kenyan writer and thinker, Binyavanga Wainaina, held court, in the hall, a mix of writers—emerging, established, heroic and obscure; a few of the greats came to watch the younger writers, to engage with what new ideas there were. 

In a hall somewhere in Abeokuta a couple of years later, I am seated with a group of aspiring writers. Above us, literary guests and dignitaries mingle in an executive hall on the first floor. Among us, a writer who I can no longer identify is making portraits of us hopefuls on 6 x 6 canvases. The dreams are palpable. The following year or so, one of the writers on that table, Romeo Oriogun, would go on to win a Brunel International African Poetry Prize, and about a decade later win the crowning prize for Nigerian literature, the NLNG Prize. It matters to say that his poems did many impossible things including map a new territory for queer writing rooted in the present moment, written from great precarity at home. But, in many ways, his journey is invariably one of exile in a country where the writer must confront this decision to leave home in order to survive and write. Our apprehension of the work of this poet begins after he wins the Brunel and is consolidated after he publishes internationally. He becomes a writer of our generation firmly rooted in the literary firmaments after he interfaces with the Western literary machine. 


Whether it is aware or willing to acknowledge the global conditions that create this lopsided relationship, the Western literary machine plays an oversight role in assigning value to the work of art in the global and by extension Nigerian marketplace. A conversation I had about two years ago with the cerebral M. Phuong Ho whose analysis of anything is a work of art in itself, is necessary to invoke here. We were in New York, walking through West 10th Street in Greenwich Village, aimlessly. I was interested in something she had said about who gets to assign value to a piece of art and what self-work was required before this kind of task. I found her take on this very clarifying. How does one assign value to a piece of art so far outside the frames of one’s education in sensibilities? Who gets to do the messy work of dismantling mindset? What happens when mindset materializes as craft talk? I’m paraphrasing her questions and possibly doing injustice to her ideas, but the key concerns align, I think. What essentially is the Mona Lisa to a person far outside of European sensibilities beyond the fact that we are told daily through a process of acculturation that it is a valuable expression of genius? That the small muscular flex in the arms of David announces indisputably Michelangelo’s ineffable genius. And why, to assign genius to Ben Enwonwu’s Tutu, must we do a lot of anthropological explaining? Over and over. So that we cannot quite fully imagine what it is to make art without imagining at some point how it might play in the marketplace of globalized value assignation and canon-making. It’s a disease of the mind. But the far greater loss is that it, by its very nature, is limiting. It does not give room for play, misadventure, or multiplicity. And we cannot negate its reach. To reject the machine is to imagine an enterprise in a vacuum. It is also to exist in a purist’s nightmare. An ideological, experiential, and linguistic Mobius strip from which it can be impossible to escape. 

Still, for the writer who migrates to escape the strip, the literary enterprise left behind is of consequence. It once had a life force. By the first half of the millennial decade, it is bordered on the one end by genre fictions where tons of erotica and comics illustrated and non-illustrated appear on newsstands disseminated by local merchants, pre-internet. In this world, literary fictions exist but are slim pickings. There are poems in response to poems. The literature of conflict rooted in a civil war that drew moral lines atop ethnic lines. By the first half of the second millennial decade, it is bordered by a cornucopia of new writing: poems and prose published in Farafina Magazine, Black Biro Magazine, African-WritingOnline.com, Sentinel and Saraba Magazine, mostly moribund.  

Right now, however, the literary metabolism is weak. To the extent that it mimics real signs of life, there are writers who attempt to recreate the old fervour in new magazines—such as Agbowό, A Long House, Isele, Márọkό and Efiko—and writers who attempt to bend the arc of the Western literary machine, make it do their bidding. To the extent that there are literary communities, they tend to function in sects. Some of them put forward arguments that attempt to weigh prose or poetry to gauge how Nigerian it is. Some question what experiences count as Nigerian ones; what literary influences are authentic. At the risk of replicating the problems inherent in questions like these, there is a need to separate the concerns so that we can see how, if and where they overlap. A few things: it is one thing to honour the length of our literary history, read our own masters, and never question our right to tell our own stories. It is another thing to accept that literary influence is not necessarily mediated by clean borders even if a writer can and should have a hand in choosing who their influences are. To the extent that a text can be oversimplified and judged by how Nigerian it sounds, this can mean anything from its language affecting the speech making that happens in a public bus—in a Nigerian city like Warri, forces born out of the urgency of the moment can shift a word like ‘driver’ to ‘pilot’ to ‘pilé’ within the space of a single bus trip. Or the often maligned, phonetically mixed and grammatically flawed English many Nigerians speak. It is reductive and futile to police language and experiences in this way; a writer’s literary origins and inheritance belongs to the writer. But if we must, it needs to be said, too: where language functions at its most subversive and unmediated, it’s often the case that the unequal exchange or the capture of language as product results in very little benefits for its generators. 

That said, there are many new novelists and poets who use language as a sum of their influences and aspirations in the way that the Senegalese filmmaker and poet, Djibril Diop Mambéty, used the camera. Simultaneously unschooled, schooled, and schooling in his rejection of Western sensibilities primarily. This intention to ‘blow everything up right now’ is most typified and celebrated in Eloghosa Osunde’s and Emezi’s debut novels Vagabonds! and Fresh Water respectively. It’s hard to say if it matters that both authors are multilocal, able to move between the West and home, and in possession of cultural currencies that are hard-won and bestowed. But these debuts mark a different kind of cultural moment. The authors do not court relatability as much as they insist on the fact that their persons and projects are sui generis. Both seem to have a desire to un-structure history and language in prose that is rooted in the postmodern imagination where everything about the historical record stays open to questioning and repair however drastic the measures. This idea calls to mind Foucault’s archaeology. A radical re-looking at disturbed histories. In the original essay that announced the death of Nigerian literature, it is implied that there has been no strong, ‘tally-marking’ literary fiction debut in recent history, at least within the last decade. There is a funniness to this kind of oversight. But, more importantly, it betrays a canon that is symptom-ridden and unyielding. This canon insists that an author must first offer some kind of defence, reason, or factual evidence for the fictional liberties they have taken. And, in omission, suggests that it is anything but a matter of personal taste to carry on as if certain books do not quite rise above a positivist reading. Or do not meet the unclear standards which must be met for a book to exist as a record of something outside of itself.  

In the end, if anything is lost when the writer leaves home, the different strategies we invent for living in multiple localities can mitigate much of that loss. The languages—old and emergent—we create are roomy. The books we make with them allow elasticity. For instance, the frenetic energy of ‘A Nairobi Story of Comings and Goings’ by A. Igoni Barrett typifies this. It leans into all its necessary frequencies, impulses, and influences. In this short story, the character is at once in transit, at home, dislocated, rooted, uprooted, out of step and instep with the world where nothing is static. Books can be clean and tidy or they can be a calculated mess. The experiences of the people who write them can be as singular as they are collective. There are very real geopolitics that dictate who gets to decide what writing matters and where the mainstream is, and there is the realpolitik of living, surviving and dreaming. The points at which they meet and diverge daily can be hard to pin down, subject to constant negotiations and resistance by the people who live at the interstices. Books will contain this inventory of time and movement. 

So what now? I find building/house analogies apt for most things. What feels to me an apt analogy for the present moment is from the architect, Søren Pihlmann, who suggests that in rejecting the existing structure for whatever reason, dysfunction in this case, we must imagine the construction site as the narrative. A kind of narrator emerges who cannot be interested in simple fixes for bypassing whatever losses accrue in migrating, in a world where the writer must leave to survive the collapse of the structure. This narrator hopefully takes their ethos and impulses from a borderless stance as well. And a reader must rise to meet it every time. One that isn’t thinking about this encounter as losing ground as much as they are thinking about reconstruction, renewing this contract constantly. A framework may rise to meet it someday, possibly soon

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