Saturday, 6 February 2010

The State of Nigerian Literature: A Cursory Glance

By Odili Ujubuonu


A people without a literature is a people without life. Not life in the sense of existence but life in the sense of experiencing humanisitic sensibilities that trump everything else. Nigerians cannot be described as people lacking life. We have a vibrant lifestyle. One full of vim and verve. We express ourselves freely everywhere we are. We cry out tears when we should and sometimes laugh out tears when we shouldn’t. We live in words and we live in bright colours. Proverbs dance on our tongues and our world is poetry lived. This is the state of our life. If you look around us here in this hall we are not dressed in one drab colour for we are not a mono fashion country. Wherever we are colours follow us in styles that are as distinct as we are. This is the state of our life. How then do we translate this state of life into our literature and how do we get our literature back into our lives? How do we complete that cycle of beauty which literature and life when cojoined, confer on a people? We will attempt an answer to these, my brothers and sisters, in the next few pages.

Serious writing is going on. New and brilliant writers appear yearly on the scene. Old writers keep getting better. Scholars spend time studying the literary production of our people. Our numerous universities are studying our works. Literary readings, book presentations, reading promotions and book treks are taking different shapes now more than any other period in our life. In fact, we presently have more literary Awards than any other period in Nigerian history. Apart from these traditional means, we have advanced to the new media in promoting ourselves and our works. Many writers now host their own websites. Virtually all the young writers have blogs of their own and are active in social networks like, yahoogroups, facebook, twitter et al. In a nutshell, writers of previous generations never had it so good. We have every opportunity to become world class writers from the silent corners of our lairs. This is the state of Nigerian literature.

Then what is the problem? How can we have all these and say that our mute button is pressed down? Why are the loud speakers not working? Why are our books not popular in Nigerian living rooms, in public places and the general market. Why is it easier to buy our books in bookshops found in Victoria Island than we would in Ojuelegba or your local shop in Ejigbo? Why is it easier for hawkers to present to you pirated copies of the bible than they would The Last of the Strong Ones and or Under the Brown Rusted Roof?
The problem can be located in four major areas of our Book life. One is our kind of writing. Two is our kind of publishing, three is our kind of distribution and four is our kind of selves.

The very nature of our colonial experience foisted our post colonial literature on the stimuli of the colonial state, and lately on the pull of globalisation. We hardly write for our national audience. We write to sate the thirst of what Jeyifo calls the ‘deterritorialised audience.’ It does not matter if the subject of writing hardly interests our own nationals. Related to this is the fact that Literature for some of us must be ‘committed’. It should be the instrument of the vanguard of the proletariat. One that must be used as a means of correcting our ailing order. It must carry the pains and conditions of the society it exists in. It must in a nutshell, be an extension of our journalistic passion. Great ideas. Fantastic classroom dicta.

So who is our audience? Are they not the same people who experience what we experience, the same people who have read, one way or the other, the subject of our tale from newspapers? Our books gradually begin to sound like the political columns of our newspapers. What happens to the escapist function of the novel? What happens to the celebration of the beauty of language, life, light and love of poetry. What happens to humanity and what happens to the alternative, the greener other-sidedness of our life? Is political commitment the only engagement our senses experience? The answer is no. There is love, there is crime, there is human nature and there is the real colourful, and exciting life of Nigerians. There is even football, ugba and more.

But wait. I must confess that in recent times some new writers are exploring these paths and it counts heavily in favour of their success. Look at the works of Jude Dibia, Toni Kan, Akachi Adimora Ezeigbo, Kaine Agary and recently Ahmed Maiwada’s Musdoki. These writers have chosen to bring fresh tales that stir our sensibilities. The question is will these same writers not be accused of writing flesh and wine literature? Will they not be forced to go back to doing what we know how to do best - our kind of writing? But let us be truthful to ourselves. Is our kind of writing not a child of our kind of publishing?

The problem with publishing has been like a cliche in recent times. In different fora practitioners have identified the problem of our literature with the kind of publishing we inherited from our kind of history. What kind of publishing? What kind of history? A cynic may ask. It was part of the colonial agenda. The industry was set up to publish for colonial schools. It was never meant to serve the pleasure of the reading public. After all, they believed we could not read. They left entertainment publishing to the so-called Onitsha market literature. Those grand old pamphleteerers made their money. The publishing houses in Nigeria became mere cyclostyling agencies of the colonial publishing houses of Europe. They published books by British writers and in some merciful cases, adapted them by adding dots of Nigerian huts and names. When writers were published, their books were mainly for the use of schools. The publishing malaria then became kwashiokor when in early 1990s the Nigerian economy collapsed. The major houses either sold off and left or shifted their operations to greener pastures. What was left were houses who were willing to do for writers the same thing a Shomolu printer would do for anyone. Bring ya book, pay me money, I go publish am for you. That is the state of Nigerian literature. The consequence of this is a motley of badly edited and sometimes badly printed books.

In summary, no proper publishing structure exists to carry the weight of our literature. The few Nigerians who invested in publishing afterwards inherited nothing. They have to build new structures from the scratch. They do this with shoestring budgets. Here, I must mention the exceptional efforts of Kraftbooks, Farafina, Lantern and Cassava Republic. These houses with all their challenges have been able to keep the publishing industry alive. This lack of structure is more evident in the distribution network in Nigeria. 

I stand to be challenged if I declare in this forum that there is no book distribution network in Nigeria. What we have are a set of unco-ordinated bookshops, few wholesalers and Publishing houses who send reps about town with carload of books to bribe school teachers to force children to buy their books. Imagine a country of one hundred and fifty million people with half of the population assumed to be literate yet we cannot sell upto 150,000 copies of some of our best selling authors. This happens because of a disconnect between active writing and active buying of books. That is why I say the mute button is pressed down. That is the state of Nigerian literature.

Finally, writers are part of the problem. Our kind of selves. Yes! Our kind of selves. What have you done for Nigerian literature? What have I, Odili Ujubuonu, done? I will answer “nothing.” Some may be quick to exonerate themselves by saying that they have contributed by writing good stories and poems read by people and studied by scholars. Thanks . But that is not enough. We must begin what our founding fathers did. They did not wait for the government or publishing houses to recommend their books. They created a vibrant critical industry - reading, reviewing and criticising works of their peers. We are too self conscious. Too Self worshipping. I am good; the other is bad. I am an award winner; the other is just starting. My language is wonderful; the other writes trite. We have become the centre of our own world so much so that when critics tell us a bit of what we truly are, we become incensed. We like critics that tell us what we want to hear but condemn those that hit us as hard as we have abused the beautiful art of literature. That is also the state of Nigerian literature.

Can we get better than we are now? I think we can. One step towards this is calling to mind where we are and where we are heading. We must in the words of Chinua Achebe discover where the rain started beating us in order to know when and where to ask for an umbrella. Creating this forum for us to talk about our state is a progressive lever towards achieving this. For over five years now Nigeria LNG Limited has intervened. Writers have been drawn out of their quiet corners and placed at the centre of national attention through The Nigeria Prize for Literature. The prize has also stimulated interest in all the genres of literature thereby opening a dialogue box between Scholarship and writing. Sometimes, this relationship has been challenging and, most times, it has been exciting but, at all times, it has been engaging.

Finally, I believe that NLNG, by now, has recorded some successes sponsoring The Nigerian Prize for Literature. A greater joy, however, will be theirs and ours if we all, this evening, take more than a cursory glance at the state of Nigerian literature. It calls for pause and reflection.

Thank you my dear colleagues.

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