|The New Gong Magazine
Publishers of New Writing and Images
It was during the Ibrahim Babangida years that major publishing companies
said goodbye to Nigerian literature. Recession, dwindling interest, the
emergence of new authors outside Africa and the global decline in the book
industry had long sent the African Writers Series packing. Political persecution
only upped the ante. The Abacha years cast a seemingly impenetrable cloud
over the Nigerian literary firmament.
But it was not all pall and gloom in this season of anomie. Wole Soyinka won
the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 and Ben Okri followed with the Booker
Prize in 1991. However these achievements, contextually speaking, were
mighty ripples in a sick sea. It is to the eternal credit of the Nigerian writer that,
despite infamous persecutions like the executions of General Mamman Vatsa
in 1986 and Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995, the eclipse was not total, especially
among writers who could or would not flee Nigeria.
But the cactus of literature often blossoms in the desert of adversity. A
journalist, Helon Habila, ushered in the new phase of Nigerian literature onto
the global stage when his self-published prison short story, ‘Waiting for An
Angel’, won the 2001 Caine Prize in African Literature. It was like an uncorked
tap. In barely ten years new flowers of Nigerian literature blossomed: Sefi Atta,
Tolu Ogunlesi, Eghosa Imausen, Uche Peter Umez, Uwem Akpan, Biyi
Bandele, Dulue Mbachu and Toni Kan are just a few of the new dazzlers in our
The road Nigerian literature has travelled is dotted with potholes. But the
landmarks are there for all to see. Outside football and Nollywood, literature is
one boon even Nigeria’s most rabid haters agree we have given the world.
Our writers continue to bring pride to Nigeria with their solid achievements.
Prizes might not be the best way of assessing literary impact but for our
writers, both the grandees and grandchildren, to continuously win laurels on
an almost annual basis imply that we are getting it right.
In terms of literary craftsmanship we have come of age. Non-African literary
critics often denigrate African literature as sociological texts because of our
overriding concern with the peculiar dynamics of our milieu. Art for its own
sake is not popular among Nigerian writers. The claims and counterclaims of
cultural clichés used to pervade Nigerian literature. But the tide has turned in
the last twenty years in a manner that indicates literary sure-footedness
among our writers. Contemporary Nigerian writers, while acknowledging the
debts they owe their forerunners, are increasingly taking their space in the
globalized world, albeit with a Nigerian flavour. Diverse, controversial and even
‘taboo’ subjects and themes are fair game. Eg. Jude Dibia’s novels are
searing exposé on homosexuality and incest.
Our female writers have come of age rather awesomely. From a handful in the
1960s and 1970s they have blossomed into sturdy oaks that gracefully bear
the sweet burden of much of contemporary Nigerian literature. The pioneer
roles of Flora Nwapa, Zulu Sofola, Buchi Emecheta and Zaynab Alkali opened
the frontier. To paraphrase a line from Alkali’s classic, The Stillborn, these
pioneers cooked the rock and their literary daughters drank the soup.
Daughters like Adichie, Atta, Oyeyemi, Promise Okekwe, etc. While some may
quarrel with the strain of feminism that runs through some of their works we
must commend them for navigating the minefields, especially within our
Much has been said and written about the dearth of publishing outlets here.
But the bold entrepreneurs who have seen opportunities in Nigerian literature
have put their money where their mouths are in the past few years. Some may
regard the efforts of Kachifo, the publishers of Farafina books, Cassava
Publishers, Dada Books and, of course, The New Gong Publlishers, as mere
heroic experiments but if we remember that not so long ago Nigeria’s
publishing sun nearly suffered a total eclipse, then we must commend the
efforts and pray everything good comes to them. Macmillan, Nelson and other
big outfits are watching with interest. These new men of the frontier are
treating our writers like writers are treated elsewhere. Big Harry Potter-like sign-
ons are not here yet but the potential exists.
Yet, self-publishing is a problem for quality Nigerian literature. Obscurantism
that has little to do with literary craft remains a strange addiction for many
Nigerian writers, especially poets. The contemporary generation’s supposed
affinity for ‘the pleasures of the flesh’ in their works remains a sore point with
some of their literary elders, including notable critics like Professor Charles
Nnolim. Aesthetics remains a challenge. Since the demise of the Macmillan
Pacesetters series in Nigeria and writers like Cyprian Ekwensi and Kalu Okpi,
only a few intrepid spirits are giving Nigerians what they deserve in the
romance/thriller/popular fiction genres. At fifty, Nigerian literature deserves its
own James Hadley Chase, Frederick Forsyth, Agatha Christie, Barbara
Cartland, Tom Clancy and John Grisham.
However it is morning yet on creation day for our literature. I am cautious to
suggest that the government get involved in our literature; history shows that
most of those occupying our seats of power only get involved if the literature is
of the pro-establishment, lickspittle type. Perhaps the Association of Nigerian
Authors and Nollywood should seek a partnership that will bring the best of our
books into our movies. Literary websites devoted to Nigerian literature such as
naijastories.com must be commended and encouraged. The NLNG Prize for
Literature can be expanded to have sub-prizes for budding writers seeking for
a place in the sun. Other corporate organizations can emulate Fidelity Bank’s
workshops and even go further with grants and fellowships. But the real task
lies with us. In the privacy of our rooms, deep in our hearts, before our
computer screens and on virgin-clean sheets, let us flow with new words for
new ages. We should not relent in our quest for a better way of telling the tale,
reciting the poem or staging the drama so that, in the next fifty years, Nigeria
will still remain Africa’s literary power house.