When Chinua Achebe published Things Fall Apart, everything changed. Nigerian literature owes a lot to that originary, almost fabled moment - but there is much more to this ever-evolving story…
On any occasion when the words Nigeria and Literature are spoken of in the same sentence, whether by eager students at a secondary school in Lagos or by a foreigner who has never set foot in Africa, it is inevitable that three writers are mentioned: Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. We could call them The Big Three.
Achebe’s legend precedes him: he is commonly referred to as the father of African literature. The hardback publication of his novel Things Fall Apart on 17th June 1958, by the London publishing house William Heinemann, is of great significance to the history of African literature. It has sold around 10 million copies and has been translated into over 50 languages. He was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1987 and won the Man Booker International Prize in 2007. The phrase ‘literary icon’ perhaps doesn’t cut it. Of his work, the academic Simon Gikandi states: ‘Achebe is the man who invented African literature because he was able to show… that the future of African writing did not lie in the simple imitation of European forms but in the fusion of such forms with the oral tradition.’ This month marks the 10th anniversary of his death.
Wole Soyinka is our Nobel Prize winner, a Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He has won the Special Prize of the Europe Theatre Prize, and the University of Ibadan arts theatre is named after him. When I was growing up, his name was often spoken of in hushed, reverent tones. I still remember our English teacher at school in Abuja describing his genius as one that can’t be categorised.
Adichie is one of the most successful writers working today. Her first novel Purple Hibiscus was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2004; for her short stories she has won the O. Henry Prize and the Caine Prize. She won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2007 for Half of A Yellow Sun, which was adapted into a film starring Thandiwe Newton, Genevieve Nnaji and Chiwetel Ejiofor. She’s also been sampled by Beyoncé.
Sixty-three years after its independence from Britain, despite many internal crises, Nigeria has produced world-famous writers whose works have left an indelible mark on African literary culture.
Sixty-three years after its independence from Britain, despite many internal crises, Nigeria has produced world-famous writers whose works have left an indelible mark on African literary culture. But turn your eyes away from the literary firmament for a moment and gaze on the ground beneath you and, like me, you might be left with questions. Knowledge of The Big Three fills any Nigerian with pride, but it does not tell us much about the context in which their success came about, nor does it inform us of the trends in Nigerian writing and publishing from the 20th century to the present day. It feels vital to acknowledge the efforts, at times unrewarded and unrecognised, of the literary workers and writers of heterogeneous tastes, concerns, ethnicities and geographies who make up the behemoth we refer to as Nigerian literature. My argument is not that these writers need to be ‘rediscovered’ as such, but that engagement with the intellectual formation known as Nigerian literature requires the unweaving of master narratives and individual success stories in order to properly view a much wider range of talent, purpose and voice in Nigerian writing.
In many ways, the predominance of Nigerian writing in the cultural discourse around African literature can be partially attributed to the Heinemann African Writers Series, which had its heyday in the 1960s and Seventies. That vanguard series enabled the distribution of many African novelists, allowing them to reach larger audiences, crucially within the continent. The series published the likes of Bessie Head, Ousmane Sembène, Ayi Kwei Armah as well as the Booker-shortlisted and winning writers Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing. But a key factor in the Nigerian story was the appointment as editorial advisor of Achebe, who from 1962 encouraged Nigerian writers to submit and publish their work. By the end of the 20th century, there were some 500 novels by Nigerians in print. Achebe viewed the African Writers Series as ‘the umpire’s signal for which African writers had been waiting on the starting line.’ It permitted future generations of African readers to find more than dusty covers of Charles Dickens and William Wordsworth arranged on their parents’ bookshelves and to encounter ‘works by their own writers about their own people.’ Aside from the role played by Heinemann, the boom in Nigerian writing in the 20th century emerges from a time in which educational opportunities both at home and abroad were combined with resistance to the British Empire. The dawn of a new nation brought with it the responsibility of writing the future, writing a new Nigeria, one in which our stories were on an equal footing with any European creation.
Academics have characterised the development of African literatures as the struggle to forge a literary tradition in the wake of colonialism. To this end, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who was longlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize, expressed his idea of the three ‘stages’: the ‘age of anti-colonial struggle;’, ‘the age of independence’, and the ‘age of neo-colonialism.’ His argument suggests that African writers do not write books just for the sake of it, but to engage in an ideological battle whose rules are governed by the concerns of a particular age. The generational model captures the preoccupations of a set of writers, seeking to unite their fictional proclivities.
The first generation of Nigerian authors began writing between the 1950s and the 1970s. They include Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi and Gabriel Okara, to name a few. They were mostly male writers, with the exception of a few women such as Adaora Lily Ulasi and Flora Nwapa. (Fun fact: Nwapa set up her own publishing house to publish women’s fiction in a nearby shed.) These writers wanted to challenge the designation of Nigerians (and Africans) as primitive, without history or culture. The novel had the potential to rebut this racist logic by taking as its subject the traditions that were once thought to be shameful. Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine in one example - it purposefully depicted an orderly society ruled by African gods. Fiction of the first generation was also concerned with the Biafran War (1967- 1971) and writers of the south east (Biafra) toured the US to raise awareness of the murder of Igbos.
Nigerian literature is in dialogue with itself, with its own fraught past, in a concerted effort to understand the nation from which it originates.
Many writers of the second generation – such as Buchi Emecheta – began their writing careers in the early Seventies, but some of their best known works were written during the 1980s. The boundaries of each generation are not well-guarded. Second generation writers increasingly turned to the topic of political corruption and violence. They demonstrate an anxiety over the disintegration of commonly held morality and value systems – evinced by titles such as Labo Yari’s Climate of Corruption, written in 1978. Women’s writing also grew in this period: Zeynab Alkali published The Stillborn in 1984 and Helen Obviagele wrote novels for the popular Pacesetters book series.
Chris Abani wrote his first novel Masters of the Board (1985), a political thriller, when he was 16; afterwards, he was arrested on suspicion of attempting to overthrow the government. If anything markedly differentiates the first generation from the second, it is this: military rule and the escalation of democratic turmoil turned writers into walking targets, especially those like Ken Saro Wiwa and Chris Abani who directly criticised the government in their works. Many were imprisoned and tortured. If writers are shaped by the times they live in as much as they have a role in the shaping those times, the writers of the second generation had to endure the onslaught of state repression and censorship, alongside a decline in funding for publishing and other artistic endeavours. By the 1990s, the belt-tightening advocated by global financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank, and implemented in the form of austerity measures, left little room for spending on culture.
It could be argued that the writers of the third generation – like Adichie, Ben Okri, Helon Habila and others – carry the burden of history. Whereas Achebe et al were in a sense inventing themselves and what it means to be an African writer in the modern world, those who came of age in the 1990s and early 2000s had a received idea of the duties of the Nigerian writer. A precedent had been set, a gauntlet thrown. Habila, speaking in Poets & Writers magazine, set out to differentiate his work from that of Achebe and even of Ben Okri (who won the Booker Prize in 1991). He views his work as a break with a tradition that favoured oral histories by choosing instead to write about ‘the reality that is happening now.’. Habila’s words are useful for making sense of how Nigerian writers are often split into two camps, those who write about myth or folk tales from pre-colonial times and the ‘realists’, those who take a good, hard look at violence, poverty, societal decay.
The classification of Nigerian writing generationally and thematically starts to fall apart the closer we get to the present day. Contemporary Nigerian writers - the fourth generation - are as interested in pre-colonial history and social life as any of the writers from the first generation. The novel by Eloghosa Osunde, Vagabonds! – published last year – follows the spirits of Lagos. Akwaeke Emezi’s debut, Freshwater, is told from the point of view of multiple Ọgbanje (spirit children) dwelling in a single host body. In his 2015 Booker-shortlisted novel The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma explores prophecy and its material consequences. He has stated that his wish is to preserve pre-colonial culture. Similarly to Freshwater, the main protagonist of Obioma’s second Booker-nominated novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, is guided by a spirit being or chi. The spiritual or mythological is not opposed to the social in Nigerian literature; when I read these books they do not appear as separate, but as two related modes of inquiry and knowing employed by writers as they navigate the complex burden of their history and look to an uncertain future.
Instead of a straight line, we have something resembling a circle. Writers repeatedly return to and in a sense rewrite the past, both literary and historical. The desire to explore traditions and beliefs from a time before colonialism is not a static endeavour, but one weighted with the tensions and anxieties of the present. Present-day tensions tend to find expression in religious or spiritual subject matter and the material conditions determining life in Nigeria. In terms of the latter, Nigerian writers turn to crime fiction when they wish to tease out government corruption, interpersonal violence and social mores in the country. Oyinkan Braithwaite’s Booker-longlisted novel My Sister the Serial Killer is a recent contribution to the crime fiction genre referred to as Lagos Noir. Writing of this ilk portrays a Nigeria where, as the Afrobeats musician Naira Marley refers to it, ‘vawulence’ is the main currency of exchange.
The appetite for Nigerian stories in the global literary marketplace shows no signs of abating. But to look at the market would be to believe that these writers and books are just individual stories by individual writers. In my view Nigerian literature is in dialogue with itself, with its own fraught past, in a concerted effort to understand the nation from which it originates. Nigeria is a nation of deep, seemingly irresolvable contradictions; and its writers appear to be enamoured of the same impossible task: write to discover the truth of who we are as a nation.