Don’t Project your Reading Choices on Me

Don’t Project your Reading Choices on Me

There are theories that suggest, and not without good reason, that African literature in its earliest stages (of recognition) was mostly “protest writing” with a tinge of history. Suggestions of this nature derive their validity from the fact that most of the books published by African authors at the time were at the very least, reactions to the socio-political reality that pervaded the continent at the time. Between the 1940s and the 1960s, it was rare to stumble on texts that did not attempt to address the subject of colonialism. Peter Abrahams’ “Mine Boy” dwelt on South Africa’s pre-apartheid days, Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and “Arrow of God” were centred on narratives that focused on British incursion into Eastern Nigeria, and “West African Verse” (a poetry anthology edited by Donatus Nwoga) comprised poems from all corners of the continent that were largely cries for freedom and calls for unity in the struggle to rid the continent of (direct) European subjugation.

As a result, art enthusiasts would usually have to resort to “imported literature” (for want of a better word), if they were going to read anything that was significantly different. This was not difficult to achieve, as schools had to rely on foreign texts to navigate the early post-independence academic curriculum which still bore significant influence from the British Empire. There was room for massive infiltration of foreign novels, and Nigerians grew to read about (and even fall in love with) fictional characters such as Oliver Twist, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, David Copperfield, Long John Silver (from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”) and Allan Quartermain (from H. Rider-Haggard’s “King Solomon’s Mines”).

Of course, indigenous authors pulled their creative weight (the African Writers’ Series treated us to T. M. Aluko’s “One Man, One Machete” and Cyprian Ekwensi’s “Burning Grass”), but a huge chunk of what found its way to bookshelves across the country was from outside. There’s a reason why Chimamanda Adichie, in her 2008 Ted Talk “The Dangers of a Single Story”, made reference to being surrounded by books that talked about snow in her childhood years.

There’s a reason why Chimamanda Adichie, in her 2008 Ted Talk “The Dangers of a Single Story”, made reference to being surrounded by books that talked about snow in her childhood years.

Literary tastes changed as the decades slowly rolled by, and new themes were being addressed too: Buchi Emecheta questioned gender politics with “The Joys of Motherhood” and “Second Class Citizen”, and Elechi Amadi’s “Sunset in Biafra” chronicled the horrors of the Nigeria civil war. But the African Writers’ Series would ultimately phase out, and even when the educational sector witnessed some indigenisation, there was still significant Western influx: for every “The Gods Are Not To Blame” there was a “Doctor Faustus”, and Gabriel Okara’s poetry compilations sat side by side with Shakespeare’s plays in libraries.

The reading culture in Nigeria saw a massive decline between the mid-1980s and the late 1990s, a state of affairs which may not be unconnected with the vice grip of successive military administrations, but the turn of the century ushered in a resurgence of sorts. There has been a massive shift from the “poverty porn” that dominated African books, and new stories are being told: Igoni Barrett has made us see white men moving around with black backsides, Lola Shoneyin got us peering into the scheming minds of co-wives in polygamous marriages, and Ms. Adichie had us rooting for a libertine woman while swooning over natural hair. The poems have changed too, with rhyming on political discourse making way for more personal and confessional verses, an Osundare for an Oriogun, so to speak.

There has been a massive shift from the “poverty porn” that dominated African books, and new stories are being told: Igoni Barrett has made us see white men moving around with black backsides…

Nigerians consume books on a more regular basis lately, but what traditional literary purists may have failed to catch up on, however, is the diversity of genres and the intellectual processing thereof. There are more self-help as well as creative non-fictional books now, and they cannot be mentally received in the same way as fiction would. A body of work like “How to Hang from A Chandelier in a Red Negligee” cannot be viewed from the same telescope as Elnathan John’s “Born on a Tuesday”. There is also a slowly increasing demand for personal stories that are relatable and remind people that they are not alone, which is why Jim Ovia’s “Africa: Rise and Shine”, Naijasinglegirl’s “29, Single & Nigerian”, Ese Walter’s “Naked” and Toke Makinwa’s “On Becoming” have resonated with the working class age demographic. While there are certain standards of readability to live up, books of this nature should not always be perused with the aim of landing on a creative masterpiece.

Even with Fiction, there is so much sub-categorisation with today’s writing that it would be intellectually dishonest to regard every fictional work with the same prism. There are narratives rooted in ontology, like Chigozie Obioma’s “An Orchestra of Minorities” which recreates the cultural posers laid out by Amadi’s “The Concubine” and Ben Okri’s “The Famished Road”. There are also books with an autobiographical flavour to them, such as Akwaeki Emezi’s “Freshwater”. On the pacier end of the literary spectrum, Toni Kan’s “Carnivorous City” and Leye Adenle’s “Easy Motion Tourist” as well as Oyinkan Braithwaite’s “My Sister The Serial Killer” (and to a lesser extent, Ayodele Olofintuade’s “Lakiriboto Chronicles”) assuredly point to a renaissance in Nigerian crime fiction.

Even with Fiction, there is so much sub-categorisation with today’s writing that it would be intellectually dishonest to regard every fictional work with the same prism.

If there were any doubts as to the ability of speculative fiction to thrive in these parts, Nnedi Okoroafor and Tomi Adeyemi’s works have put those doubts to bed, with T.J. Benson’s “We Won’t Fade Into Darkness” and Lesley Nneka Arimah’s “What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky” also providing more fodder for the Afro-futurism discussion. Romance Fiction has a whole market with itself too, with the Ufere publishing outfit granting Nigerians access to authors like Kiru Taye (“Keeping Secrets”, “Bound To Fate”) and Amaka Azie (“Thorns and Roses”, “Love at First Sound”, “The Governor’s Wife”). When it comes to retelling past events from a fictional perspective, Tunde Leye puts out a strong foot with his historical novel “Afonja: The Rise”.

Appreciating well-woven art is by no means a negative thing, and it is only right to drool over excellent penmanship, but what leaves a sour taste is the tendency of some literary enthusiasts to sneer at the craft of certain writers because their creative output does not fit into their definition of “riveting prose” and “deep art”. It is pertinent to note that certain sub-genres of Fiction need to have their narratives scribbled in a manner that is easily digestible, and there are also considerations as to the size of the work for the purpose of maintaining the interest of readers. Genre-specific books have their nuances, and there is verbiage that exists because the books in question are written for a particular target audience.

but what leaves a sour taste is the tendency of some literary enthusiasts to sneer at the craft of certain writers because their creative output does not fit into their definition of “riveting prose” and “deep art…

It would be unfair, then, to pan Ms. Okoroafor’s Sunny franchise simply because it is written in a way that accommodates kids, or to grab Ms. Braithwaite by the hair simply because the writing style in her debut novel is “basically chick-lit and too laid back for a crime thriller”. Doing that would be repeating the mistakes of previous decades, where Ekwensi’s art was derisively classified as “Onitsha Market Literature”, and authors like S. M. O. Aka, Nkem Nwankwo and Anezi Okoro hardly got any credit from literary elitists even though (and probably because) “Cheer Up, Brother”, “Tales Out of School” and “One Week, One Trouble” were well received in secondary schools and couldn’t pass for “highbrow writing”.

Farida Adamu, researcher and data analyst, feels that a number of key players in Nigeria’s modern literary community are placing too much premium on certain kinds of books.
“I think we need to be more expansive when it comes to content”, she says. “I saw a post somewhere on Facebook where a lady claimed that ‘high-end poetry’ is no longer being appreciated because people now do spoken word performances and reel out verses in short bites. She was implying that poetry has to be rendered in a particular way to be deemed ‘true art’.

“Again, I think that writers live in a world that is significantly isolated from reality. Many of us prefer to imagine rather than dive headlong into social issues, and while literary fiction is important as a genre, it’s not all there is. The average person would rather buy a self-help publication on ‘how to live in Nigeria on fifty thousand naira a month’ than something about two people who met on a beach, fell in love and began to count stars in the sky while lying on grass”, Farida adds.

On his part, William Moore, spoken word performer and novelist, believes that readers and even publishers need to expand their horizon. In his words, “as it appears, the local literary economy is not enough to support books, and it’s unclear whether this is as a result of lack of interest or recurrent abysmal marketing failure. However, there seems to be a clear preference for African literature that ‘can be exported and is likely to win prizes’, hence the proliferation of books with certain themes. Personally, I believe any compelling story can be exported, no matter what it seeks to address. You see this in the rise of Afro-fantasy in the West, and I hope publishers catch up on this. Besides, I think we should stop listening to people who gauge literature solely based on what fits into their thematic reality”.

Art is as dynamic as it is expansive, art evolves, and art reinvents itself now and then to suit modern tastes. Fans of mob movies cannot call out producers of chick flicks for “making bad movies”, and comic book aficionados have no right, really, to say that telenovellas constitute sub-par art. It’s the same way metal rock heads shouldn’t really frown at the EDM genre, and it is why lovers of 1990s hip hop have to stop slating trap music: the respective art forms speak to different groups of people, consumers’ desires vary, and to knock one because of the other reeks of poor intellectual range. Reminisce on your James Hardley Chase classics all you want, but don’t speak condescendingly to those who immersed themselves in the Mills and Boons series.

Art is as dynamic as it is expansive, art evolves, and art reinvents itself now and then to suit modern tastes.

Sure enough, bad writing should not be rewarded with any sort of patronage, but no book should be viewed without taking into consideration the themes it seeks to address, as well as the family it belongs and whom it seeks to speak to. The market is large enough for all kinds of fruit, so it is imperative for people to restrain themselves from projecting and imposing their tastes on others, because tongues differ.

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Jerry Chiemeke

Jerry Chiemeke

Jerry Chiemeke is an editor, culture critic and lawyer. His works have appeared in Agbowo, The Question Marker, Kalahari Review, Thoughtful Dog Magazine, Inlandia Journal and The Guardian among others. Jerry lives a secluded live in Lagos, Nigeria. He's the winner of the 2017 Ken Saro Wiwa Prize for Reviews.
Jerry Chiemeke

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