Guest Blog Post by Bolaji Olatunde – Dear contemporary African reader: Contemporary African writers owe you an apology for not being white enough
This is a response, for the most part, to a thought-provoking essay titled Dear Contemporary African Writer, We Read; We Don’t Just Read You, written by Chisom Nlebedum.
In his essay, Nlebedum bemoans the fact that many young African readers know little or nothing about many other contemporary African writers, and adds that this should not “be misconstrued ‘as another “Africans do not read episode’, for this is already a ludicrous cliché.” Africans may read, but fiction has no place on their list of priorities, especially African fiction.
We must first establish that there are different categories of young Africans—Nlebedum seems to refer to the under “under twenty” category, and seems to have a bias for fiction writers in his criticism. I am Nigerian, and I live and work in Nigeria. I class myself way above the “under twenty” category. Apart from being an aspiring writer myself, I have a daytime job which places me in an environment where I have for colleagues at least forty well-educated Africans of about the same demography as mine, some older, some younger. I can tell you without fear of contradiction that reading fiction has no place in their lives. “Are you preparing for yet another professional exam? You never tire to do exam?” colleagues say to me when I’m seen reading a novel before the beginning, or after the end of the business day—among many Nigerians, one is expected to read only when one is preparing for exams. When a few of them stumble on fiction novels on my person at any given time, all I get are unbelieving looks, mixed with the looks of pity one would give a drug addict well down on the path to perdition.
Nlebedum remarks in his essay that he teaches “kids in Lekki, some of whom have devoured all the series of The Diary of The Wimpy Kid, Harry Porter, The Hunger Games, Percy Jackson’s series but who are strangers to the names and works of Chimamanda Adichie, Seffi Attah, Chika Unigwe, Igoni Barret, Helon Habila, Tope Folarin. This may surprise many keen watchers of the African/Nigerian literary scene who consider these names to be the leading lights of contemporary African literature, but it does not surprise me. I was privileged to attend a secondary school with children whose parents dwelt in Lekki-type places; they shared in that widespread Nigerian mindset that all things local are inferior. As a youth in Nigeria in the late 1980s and 1990s, I clearly recall disparaging remarks made by classmates and friends about the African literature we were made to study in school at the time. “The works of Achebe and Soyinka,” one of my pals from a well-heeled home snorted one time. They wanted to read the exotic works of Sidney Sheldon, the thrillers of Fredrick Forsythe, the books by Enid Blyton and James Hadley Chase. The novels about African themes like Things Fall Apart, The Lion and The Jewel and A Grain of Wheat were a bore—we knew all they were talking about; they were too familiar, they were too local. They grudgingly accepted thrillers under the popular Pacesetters imprint, but they were quick to state that they were not as good as the Nick Carter thrillers from America. When I was in the university, I remember criticizing a classmate of mine about his always reading thick western “bestsellers.” His response stays clearly with me to this day: “You want me to go and be reading Things Fall Apart?” We wanted to read stuff written by white folks, the real owners of the English language—some parents gave that mindset the adequate boost by flooding their homes with only such foreign books; my colleagues do the same for their children now. I was spared of this fate, because I had a relatively healthy mix at home. Sometime in 2015, in the company of friends, I was in the sitting room of a Nigerian friend, who resides in Lekki, whose two-year old son found himself instinctively jigging to a television advert for some product or the other, and the theme song was filled with heavy African drum percussion. His embarrassed father turned to us, his visitors, and said jokingly, “I’ve failed as a parent.” Behind this humorous declaration is an undeniable truth—the young African of today has been taught to hate his own heritage and culture, or make it second place to western culture, either consciously, or on a subliminal level.
In the light of this, one is forced to draw the conclusion that the best fate that can befall a contemporary African writer before he or she may find favour with the young African audience, the Lekki-type demography, is to become white, like Furo Wariboko in Igoni Barrett’s Blackass. Only then, will the Lekki-type demography find you worthy of their respect, and their children’s reading time. The overwhelming role of pigmentocracy in our national lives does not just apply to Africa/Nigeria’s economic sphere where expatriates are accorded greater wages and regard than their local counterparts with even better qualifications, it also extends to our cultural makeup. This is why a young Nigerian will read with glee the Harry Porter books, with due encouragement from the Lekki-type parent, who will do all in their power to discourage their child from reading a book about Harry Porter’s African wizard counterpart, written by a contemporary African writer. Everyone knows that a white teenage wizard is much better than an African wizard, the type that the Lekki-type parent takes their children to see the evangelical pastor cast and bind every weekend. Harry Porter is white, like Jesus, and is guaranteed a place in Heaven. The African wizard, that black being, is Satan’s sure companion in Hell in the afterlife.
I do not attempt to discourage the African reader’s interaction with literature from outside the continent. I owe a lot of knowledge to such interaction. For instance, it was in my reading of African American literature I first came to the knowledge of the racist history of the use of the word “boy” to describe black adult males, and of course, its related use in colonial Africa by the European colonialists who regarded the African male, irrespective of age, as one who could never grow out of a child-like state of mind. The post-colonial education Nigerians receive does not eliminate such in-built, unwitting self-hatred. It’s not uncommon to find African intellectuals and civil servants refer to their colleagues and subordinates as “boy” or “my boy,” which is unexpected from folks who should know better. If foreign literature will redress this, we should encourage it, but not to the detriment of our local content.
Nlebedum raises the question: “Who really are the people reading you, dear contemporary African writer?” The question is thrown up by the unavailability of the print editions of the works of these young African writers in bookshops. I would posit that a few devotees, such as myself, and I am sure there are a good number around the continent and in the diaspora, go all out to hunt for these new works. I’m not fond of e-readers, so I do as much as I can to get a hold of the print edition of books. I can sympathise a bit with his dilemma—I recall roaming many bookshops in Abuja before I got a copy of Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun in 2010. However, in due course, I identified a few “watering holes”—bookshops—where I spend a great deal of time selecting works by African writers and you can be sure to always discover a new exciting work—it’s not often a cheap hobby. Some of the books can be rather expensive.
The major reason why many of these books are not available in print is that publishing houses in Nigeria are just as practical as businesses anywhere in the world should be—why risk mass producing products that few will buy? It is a matter of simple economics—no demand, no supply, or little demand, little supply. Many readers won’t buy those books, not because they aren’t good, but because they dwell on themes that are too familiar, and they aren’t written by white people, about exotic places that the buyer may never visit, or intends to migrate to and leave, forever, this place called Africa. The Afropolitan writers and their works find better favour with African publishers and the Lekki-type demography for a good reason—they have left the godforsaken continent and gone on to live, study and work in those exotic white places. But, oh well, you can take the African out of Africa, but the African can never write anything as good as Harry Porter, or The Hunger Games.
These contemporary African writers’ works are available on every kind of e-reader you can mention, but they won’t be bought or read by the the Lekki-type parent, who can supply their children with e-readers of various forms, but will not contaminate their children with local African perspectives; it will not help the children prepare well for their insulated journeys to Harvard and Oxford.
Nlebedum states that a new direction of writing by African writers is necessary, works that show that “Africa has evolved, and is now an Africa where we seek equality between the man and the woman; an Africa where the minority and there rights should be protected; an Africa where electorates have discovered the pettiness of their politicians; an Africa that will stand and stands in judgment against those who take sides with the powerful against the powerless.” I must express surprise that as a teacher of literature, Nlebedum is not aware that African writers, the “old school” and the contemporary ones, have been writing about these themes for decades. Recent examples from contemporary African writers are Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday, Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Oil Cemetery by May Ifeoma Nwoye, Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi, The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician by Tendai Huchu—the list goes on and on. These books ARE available in Lagos—the question is, how dedicated is a prospective reader to the task of finding them? There are tonnes of African novels which explore these themes. As a teacher himself, Nlebedum is not entirely blameless if his students are unaware of contemporary African writers, just as are many African literary scholars who think the only writers worthy of note are those of the 1960s and the contemporary ones canonized by the West, and they are made to sit in judgment every now and then at the NLNG literary prize. Contemporary African writers, he prescribes, should jettison “tales of witches and wizards, of evil powers in high places” but I am very sure that many of Nlebedum’s students, and maybe himself, would give stamps of approval to the works of Stephen King. After all, white horror, is better, more decent, than black/African horror.
Nlebedum complains “of books hurriedly written and printed by hungry writers who are grossly uninformed and are yet to come to terms with the rules of the English grammar.” The aspiring African writers who produce these books have to wage different battles on several fronts. The first front is the traditional publisher who will only publish writers and their works which have been blessed by the West. Not long ago, a popular Nigerian imprint asked for submissions from writers. Months later, the publisher complained that the submissions were filled with grammatical errors, and they all submissions were rejected. If Amos Tutola’s publisher had been so “grammatically-correct”, the magic of his stories would have been lost, forever. “Grammatical errors in a manuscript? No, can’t publish,” says the African publisher. The African writer must not have knowledge that is beyond his or her ken; the western writer knows it all and must be emulated. One would think that editors were invented for a particular reason, or perhaps editing is just too much work.
Writers have to make ends meet too. Having our manuscripts rejected by the continent’s traditional publishers means we have to seek funds to self-publish—anyone burdened with an unpublished manuscript for any length of time can probably identify with this. Waiting around for a gate keeper whose decisions are driven by the West won’t help to put food on the table. Yes, it is important to ensure quality is produced, but a writer doubling as the editor, the publisher and distributor of his or her work may not be a good idea. I often relate my own experience when, filled with excitement and zest, I took the manuscript of my first novel to the expansive, air-conditioned offices of a major Ibadan-based publisher. I was told, by the chief editor, without opening a page of the manuscript and with a sympathetic smile on his face that I would have to bear the entire cost of publication of the novel. However, if I would be willing to write a textbook on accounting—the source of my daily bread—for use by either secondary schools or universities, they would publish that one gratis, without delay. My excitement waned considerably immediately after that meeting.
I often watch with fascination, and inner pride, my younger relatives, become so enamoured of music produced by homegrown, home-based young Nigerian musicians. They pay attention to the gossip, the fashion trends among these music stars, word about which musician is sleeping with whom. The last time we had this level of explosion in that cultural scene was in the 1980s, when we wanted to know why Mike Okri was still hopping in and out of taxis despite having monster hits, when we bought and read Prime People and Vintage People, and wanted to know Charlie Boy’s latest scandal. Then the 1990s rolled in, and American style hip-hop took over. Folks who had no idea what Tupac and Biggie Smalls were talking about became fans of the genre because our music stars stopped producing major stuff, and when they did, the recordings were of poor quality. I believe African literature will experience the same phase in due course. In the 1980s, things that the Achebes, the Soyinkas, the J.P. Clarks did made the front pages of newspapers—they had rock star personas. The closest to that today is Chimamanda Adichie. The real or perceived present poor state of the country’s educational system may cause one to doubt that we’ll soon have fiction writers of such statures dominating pop culture headlines. You don’t need much education to get into the groove of contemporary Nigerian Afrobeats, but you need it to read through a novel. As a stakeholder though, one must be optimistic that the time of African literature to explode like the pop music scene will arrive soon.