Perspectives is a monthly column featuring guest posts from non-Nigerians who follow political and cultural happenings in Nigeria.
The columnist this month is Amy McKie.
Often times in our lives various events converge to cause us to question our knowledge and the knowledge readily available to us. After a bad relationship I wanted to ensure that I didn’t harbour any resentment or negative stereotypes of the country, and so I wanted to search out more information. For me, information always means books. This led me on a year-long project immersing myself in Nigerian literature in which I learned a lot, some of which I’d like to share here.
Nigerian literature is expanding in global popularity (thanks to writers in diaspora such as Okarafor, Adichie, and Cole and writers within Nigeria such as Dibia, Shoneyin, Uyim, and others) and into different genres (science fiction, mystery, fantasy, romance, historical fiction). A new and growing publishing eco-system (including publishers Farafina and Cassava Republic) is assembling itself around emerging literary talents. The key characteristic of this body of work is that it is growing and changing much faster than that of any other country, in my opinion.
Unlike with many countries around the world where the publishing industry is nonexistent, it is easy to source an almost unlimited amount of Nigerian literature in both print and digital. While much of this work has been self-published, the fact that publishing companies exist and are growing is a great sign. Nigerian literature (in diaspora) is frequently stocked and shelved at bookstores, and eBook distributors stock both traditional and self-published writers of Nigerian literature. The benefits are immense – more works of Nigerian literature are available, more works are read and more are being written.
While I’ve yet to visit the country myself, the best of these books transport me as a reader around the country, showing off the many facets of the country that the media will never show me. They highlight and celebrate the various cultures and peoples, sometimes peppering in local slang and food to give the books more flavor. The remarkable people writing these stories, who often come with science or business degrees, for example, also put a different flavor into their works than the traditional Arts graduate. These books are doing the country a huge service by showing that it isn’t all negative, as the media often reports, but that people live, laugh, love, cry, fight, and die just like anywhere else.
There are, of course, growing pains for Nigerian literature. It can often finds itself plagued by the same representation issues which inundate the media in North America, and sometimes it is easy to see the works aimed directly to a market of North American and European readers, as simple words and phrases are fully explained. This can make it difficult, as a reader who has never stepped foot in the country, to get a fully rounded picture of life. Rather than seeing the full range of expressions and lives instead this prescribed view that often seems chosen because it sells better gives a view that Nigeria itself is dominated by famine (outside of the rich, of course), war, and corruption.
We often see the rich overrepresented, as stories seem to be told more often from their point of view. This is an issue that plagues our cultural offerings in Canada and the United States as well, and I think does a huge disservice to a large portion of the population. By cutting such a large percentage out of the cultural offerings the literature is, as above, giving a distorted view. It implies that only the rich have stories worth telling, and only the rich truly live. When reading Nigerian literature especially, and knowing the gap between the rich and the poor and the high levels of poverty, it reinforces the stereotypes often seen in North American media that Nigeria is a country of corruption.
We also see in this literature the disregard that characters can show for those whom they see as beneath them or undeserving. As a woman, too, I am sometimes frustrated by the ways sexual violence can play such a large role in the works and how it is sometimes even legitimized (though this is an issue in literature the world over). Discussions online about the topic of representations and of what stories sell can be lively, entertaining, and educating.
There’s also the issue of quality. The large numbers of Nigerian works streaming into print and digital channels make it more difficult to catch individual errors. Some of the eBooks on the market are peppered with grammar and spelling mistakes that can frustrate the average English reader. In my mind the single biggest challenge facing the growing collection of works is how to ensure high quality for these works, which will be a challenge both in terms of pricing and in terms of availability of services.
Despite the growing pains shown, as more publishers and editing services become available throughout the country I expect only better and better things from this collection of work. The high level of quality of most of the books, and the fantastic stories contained therein, usually make up for the occasional read which contains frustrating amounts of grammar or spelling errors, it just means that sometimes extra research is needed to select the best works. In my mind, there’s no better time to be reading Nigerian literature. It is wondrous landscape, imbued with the love of country each author seems to have, and growing faster than it can digest. Find a non-stereotypical work of Nigerian literature now, turn the page, and ascend the first sentence and the second and so on until you come face to face with yourself.