Guest Blog Post by Bolaji Olatunde – Dear contemporary African reader: Contemporary African writers owe you an apology for not being white enough

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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.

On vanity, lunacy, and the writing life: The writer is us

Writing is vanity. Staring at those three words forces me to confront the detritus that the poor judgment that passes for my writing life has made of my existence. Why do we write? Dunno, I wake up and I write and write and write until I fall asleep. There is absolutely no reason why I should be writing, certainly not this beautiful dawn with the sun beginning to peek shyly out the sky’s curtains.

Why am I writing? I shouldn’t be writing. I should be taking a walk, mentally counting all my dollars (well, imaginary dollars since I currently have none) or engaging in wild luscious fulfilling sex (another impossibility since my lover since fled the house and will only return abused, used and physically broken from slaving in the salt mines of Babylon. I imagine any suggestion regarding amorous adventures would inspire her to call the police to come haul my black ass out of her existence. She still rues the day she fell in love with my words (her words, she did NOT fall in love with me, she says) instead of falling in love with the class dunce who is now a highly regarded hard working thieving multi-billionaire politician in Nigeria. My lover has a tee shirt she wears to bed every night that screeches in garish red, “ONLY A FOOL FALLS IN LOVE WITH A WRITER!! SMH” My lover is not a fool.

Writing is lunacy, the lunacy of vanity. Why do people write, why? Why do people even read these things? I write, but I mostly read. I have read a lot of stuff in my life, I mean serious headache inducing stuff and you go, this is madness. Take the great Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka. Now, that is how to be mad and vain. It is humanly impossible to shut him up, he is a mad man. All of his life, institutions, people, and now the Internet have conspired to try to gag him, you know stuff things in his mouth, tape it shut and hope he never utters a word again, ever. It never stops him, he keeps writing.

In 1969. General Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria’s dictator du jour got so tired of Soyinka’s nonsense, he jailed Soyinka and put him in solitary for several years just so the world would be freed from his cacophony. That Man took the toilet paper he was given in jail and wrote an entire book, The Man Died, on said toilet paper. Now, that is lunacy and vanity, your belief that the world is so enamored of your words of wisdom, it cannot wait for you to crawl out of prison to hear you.

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Well, you all know that Soyinka is famously obtuse er incomprehensible. Need any proof? Well, have you read his novel, The Interpreters? Did you understand it? I didn’t and I have read it several times. Take this sentence: Metal on glass jars my drink lobes; what in the hell does that even begin to mean? The Interpreters was required text in my youth and I know many class dunces who simply walked out of school and took up armed robbery rather than be forced to deconstruct such “nonsense” (their sage words).

My strong belief is that it takes a deft combination of genius lunacy and vanity to foist Soyinka’s literary madness on the people. And so when the military put Soyinka away in a dungeon millions distressed Nigerian school children flooded the streets in jubilation, chanting, “Our Tormentor is gone, The Lord is Good! All the time!” Have you read Soyinka’s poems? They are incomprehensible to mere mortals. In literature class, I used to pray to the Lord for our mean teacher not to call upon me to explain any line in Soyinka’s Abiku. These perplexing lines terrorized and terrified me:

I am the squirrel teeth, cracked
The riddle of the palm; remember
This, and dig me deeper still into
The god’s swollen foot.

That poem gives me painful flashbacks of my school days, I should sue Soyinka for allowing his vanity ruin the joy of my childhood. The man even wrote a poem about his greying hair, who does that? He sure did, read this and please explain to me what he just said:

 Hirsute hell chimney-spouts, black thunderthroes
confluence of coarse cloudfleeces – my head sir! – scourbrush
in bitumen, past fossil beyond fingers of light – until …!

Sudden sprung as corn stalk after rain, watered milk weak;
as lightning shrunk to ant’s antenna, shrivelled
off the febrile sight of crickets in the sun –

SMH. And his narcissism has been fueled and funded by a gleeful West; for this and other literary subversions, Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986, a decision that so infuriated Chinweizu another bad belle vain writer, he denounced it as “the undesirable honouring the unreadable.” Hehehehehehe! SMH. Some argued that this was a case of a miffed kettle (Chinweizu) calling the pot (Soyinka) black.

 To be clear; I am joking, I am not picking on Soyinka, I love The Man. I love the man; he is a genius and a global treasure. Besides, the man is famously thin-skinned and I don’t want to incur his wrath lest I be the source and inspiration for his next tome, who wants to die? Besides, he has singlehandedly saved my marriage. Enh? How?, you ask. Well, my lover adores him, simply because of his cute little poem, Telephone Conversation, that adorable tub of superciliousness. Whenever I am in trouble, reciting that poem loudly always gets me out of the dog house. Also, my lover thinks Soyinka is cute. Guess who is not coming to dinner at my house? Soyinka! SMH.

I am not picking on Soyinka, but please, take any writer, take your favorite writer and you will soon find that what drives him or her is a punishing insecurity, a raging emptiness, a yearning for something that manifests itself in the dysfunctions of vanity. The writer is us, what you see are your anxieties and insecurities glowering at you. Ask any critic who has ever as much as written a negative word about a writer’s work. In fact, google the term “literary critic” and you will come face to face with the vitriol of writers punishing critics for as much as suggesting that perhaps their latest work is only good for mulching the garden, shredded, that is.

I once suggested to a writer that his work needed, well, more work. I was visited with the opprobrium reserved for armed robbers. The poor soul called me a conceited ignoramus and berated me for not declaring his work, Pulitzer Prize winning material. I am still in therapy from the abuse. You should have seen this piece, typos everywhere, clichés running riot all over the place. Read all about it here, my feathers are still burning. I do understand, it is hard to stand by and watch your baby criticized, I would know, I have children and I have reserved the hottest part of hell for anyone that dares criticize my adorable kids. I must say it hurt me immensely to be called a conceited ignoramus. I am not conceited.