Telling all our Stories

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

Growing up in Nigeria, I viewed the world around me through books  most of which were regulated, for good or for bad, by the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. I was immensely entertained and educated by the vast majority of the books I read. In addition to the traditional fare, there was always self-publishing or publishing on the side. I remember the enthusiastic authors of that indigenous genre of works fondly known as Onitsha Market Literature. As teenagers, many of us honed our love letter writing skills with their hilarious pamphlets. I cherish my copy of the venerable Ogali A. Ogali’s Veronica My Daughter And Other Onitsha Plays And Stories. Enjoy my ode to that genre of entertainment here. The late great Professor Emmanuel Obiechina did ground-breaking work on Onitsha Market Literature, google him. I have a treat for you; the University of Kansas has a rich collection complete with their pdf texts here. It is not great literature but it is an important and hugely entertaining marker of a certain period.

The Internet continues the tradition of sharing all our stories despite the loud protests of the traditional gatekeepers of literature who seem threatened by the democratization of creative expression on the Internet. I have tremendous respect for books, but I am also fascinated by all the literary activity currently taking place digitally. There are many individuals leading this charge; the Nigerian writer who goes by the name Myne Whitman is easily one of the most important forces quietly shaping the trajectory of Nigerian stories on the Internet. She has a lot of energy and enthusiasm, she is passionate about the literature of the people who live within that geographic space called Nigeria, AND she has an extremely large following. As I said, she is also a writer. Her writing is not what you would call “serious literature”, she has written two books, A Heart to Mend and A Love Rekindled, both of them self-published.

I am still reading Whitman’s works and taking copious notes. One day I will have something to say about the works of folks like her, Kiru Taye, Ugo Chime, and Olapeju Ogunbiade, Nigerians who  plumb the depths of our sexuality and sensuality using the digital space. To read Ogunbiade’s contributions, go to Facebook and “like” her “Let’s Talk About it” community. Ugo Chime plies her literary trade here on Daily Times, Nigeria. Why do I mention these names in the same breath as literature? Well, because, we may not agree with these writers, but their contributions should be taken as seriously as that of those who seek to define our stories through books. Africa is a complex elephant and I worry that she is being described only by a set of observers. We are the sum of our lived lives. What folks like Myne Whitman are doing is insisting that all stories must be told and heard.

Myne Whitman has earned my respect on one level; as founder and proprietor of the literary site naijastories, she has helped to mentor and give rich voice to a large tier of writers that no one sees or seems to care about. She does not discriminate as far as I can determine, anyone with a muse gets published. It is a very busy site, it could be better organized, for one thing.  There are many enthusiastic writers there and sometimes the eyes glaze over. It would be great to set aside a space on the site that showcases works that have been peer-reviewed and judged worthy of accolades.  On that website there are ample opportunities for peers to review and provide feedback on one’s work. There are many sites like this on the web and on social media, and aspiring writers should sign on and join their peers in the arduous task of becoming a better writer.

Why am I saying all of this? I consider myself to be first and foremost a consumer of literature. I am very passionate about African literature and I do believe sincerely that these are exciting times to be alive if you love the stories of Africa. You can overdose on them for free on the Internet and writers like Myne Whitman make it possible. In my review of African writing, I have complained ad nauseam that Africa is being viewed from a very narrow perspective – through the books of a tiny band of writers who have unfettered access to Western publishers and arts patrons. It is time to stop complaining and start introducing them to the works of those who are hidden in plain sight – beginning with Myne Whitman and Naijastories. In terms of other digital resources I shared some thoughts here. I would like to hear from you: What are your favorite sites where writers hang out? By the way, this summer, I had a long rambling real-time chat with some members of the Naijastories community  that touched on a lot of my long-held views about literature, etc. It is a rough transcript but I like it a lot because I actually did not hold back much.