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Nigeria’s publishing industry: Telling our own stories

Friday 6 February 2015

Nigeria is not lacking in literary talent, yet there still aren’t many Nigerian books freely available in the country, and they aren’t quite as easy to find as foreign books. However, all is far from lost: There is a movement that is breathing new life into Nigerian storytelling.

Ana Zoria

2015-02-05, Issue 712

THE STORIES THAT SHAPE US

The sole Nigerian to win a Nobel Prize was Wole Soyinka, a poet and playwright who received the award in 1986 for his significant contribution to literature. Nigeria does not lack literary talent, but still, books written by native authors and further still, published by Nigerian publishing houses, are incredibly rare. In fact, it’s more likely that outstanding authors are picked up by Western publishers before they achieve any success back home.

This was the case with a host of globally acclaimed authors including Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, as well as Wole Soyinka himself. According to Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri, ‘The best writing is not about the writer, the best writing is absolutely not about the writer, it’s about us, it’s about the reader.’ Why then do relatable and enjoyable stories need to be market-tested on a western audience before hitting bookshelves in their own homeland?

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

The scope of literature is limitless - styles and execution vary widely, meaning there are many levels on which a reader can relate to a story. For some the perfect genre could be fantasy or sci-fi - stories which allow them to escape into an alien environment, contrasting to the actual world around them.

But surely prose detailing even the most fantastical of worlds couldn’t ever compare to the enjoyment and passion gleaned from reading words written about the same city, even the very streets, where you grew up - where your first and most memorable experiences were created. When a protagonist wanders down a road you’ve walked many times, or frequents a favourite haunt, one feels a connection to the text and characters, akin to reminiscing with a long-lost friend

In an inspirational talk from the 2009 TED conference, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about how Nigerians (and ethnical minorities in general) struggle to reconcile their own lives with the lives of the foreigners they read about in books. Adichie recounted the awakening she experienced upon reading about the subtleties of her own culture in fiction. This discovery uprooted her entire view of the nature of literature and made her realise that within literature there can be more than just the story – there are also cultural and geographical nostalgias that let people connect with the piece on a different level.

In order to gain a more detailed understanding of the issue we spoke to a number of young Nigerians. Zuby, a 24 year old law student, stated that there was ‘more Western literature available for young people than Nigerians or, at least, we were more exposed to the Western books. I particularly remember reading Enid Blyton’s books.’ Leke, a 29 year old sound designer, went further and spoke of the homogeneity within the genres. ‘I would have liked to read more books from Nigeria but where my interests lay when I was living in Nigeria, there was not that type of book being written. In my early teens I wanted to read about spies and detectives and there were no books about that. I am still not sure if there are [Nigerian] books written for teenage boys with overactive imaginations.’ Finally, on the scarcity of home-grown literature, Zainab, 26, a GP stated, ‘I don’t really recall any Nigerian literature up until my late teens when I read Chimamanda’s books like Half Of A Yellow Sun, which I found a lot more captivating because I could relate to the story a lot more.’

(RE)PUBLISHING HOUSES

It’s not because Nigerian literary talent is rare, far from it. The problem seems to be largely endemic of the Nigerian publishing infrastructure - there are simply not enough indigenous publishers. Actually getting published is rarer still - when one finds a publisher they tend to be suspicious of taking on unknown authors, sceptical on account of an apparent vacuum of quality. This absence of supply has not served to decrease demand, quite the opposite; readers just find other sources of literature. This is highlighted by a comment on a post in a popular forum, created by a writer searching for a publishing outlet in Nigeria, it declares, ‘You want to know why there are no literary agents and authentic publishers in Nigeria? Check-out this and see the reason for yourself.’ Below the commenter pasted a link to site offering downloads of pirated novels. This is an increasing issue, accelerated by the popularity of the Internet.

In the 1980’s Nigeria’s fated economic downturn killed off any dreams of a booming self-sustaining publishing industry – the hesitantly built paper factories collapsed almost immediately. Far from being a creative famine this was a material shortage which still affects the Nigerian publishing world today. Today, in order to physically make books in Nigeria the paper and the pulp must be imported which drives up book prices and so places them out of reach of the majority of people.

Nigerian writer, critic and editor, Adewale Maja-Pearce, affirms this; ‘The problem is the affordability of books, and their availability […] Publishers just don’t have the infrastructure’. The lack of a viable infrastructure is as significant as the underlying economic factors. As the industry is mainly run by private companies with little or no regulation, virtually anyone is able to call themselves a ‘publisher’. So it is hardly surprising that ‘most Nigerian writers hanker to be published abroad’ according to Adewale. ‘Unfortunately, we have yet to develop a decent book-reviewing culture in the national papers. People just tend to puff each other’s books.’

The situation that results is one in which authors distrust publishers, fully aware that reviews are generally worthless and publishers distrust authors, fearing the quality of writing is too poor to sell.

NIGERIAN LITERATURE TODAY

The themes found in contemporary Nigerian literature are not too far removed from those of the literature of the last century. Isidore Diala, Professor of African literature at Imo State University in Nigeria, credits the fact that novels published today are dealing with the same themes as the classics - politics, contesting colonial myths and the struggle for independence – with their success. Sometimes a fantasy or comedy novel does get through, an example being I Do Not Come to You by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, but these often receive little press or lasting attention.

It seems likely that it is the fault of the local publishing industry that the Nigerian literary landscape is so uniform. A new writer with a book that does not fit the traditional mould is likely to fall at the first hurdle, as local publishing houses will simply refuse to give them a deal. The result is often the same should they approach a foreign publishing house, who tend to only publish literature they believe will appeal to Western readers, and unfortunately closed-mindedness means that Nigerian literature often does not appear to fit this bill.

Something referred to by Adichie in her TED Talk is the fact that there is often, if not always, a preconceived and wildly inaccurate perception of Africa in the West, and this is often reflected in Western culture. Africa is often seen as a place of natural beauty but tribal, violent and destitute society. The reality is that Africa is an diverse continent just like Europe, comprised of many countries and nations, each containing several disparate languages, cultures and ethnicities – this is not recognised. Consequently the books that are accepted by Western publishing houses are usually the ones that conform to this myopic view, as those that do not are illogically seen as inauthentic.

ONE AUTHOR’S STORY

Clearly there are many hurdles to overcome in the dream of being a published writer in Nigeria, and we spoke to an author to find out her experience of this. Ifeoma Okoye, award winning author of Behind the Clouds, says that at the time she started writing she ‘didn’t know of any solely indigenous publishers in Nigeria.’ The start of her literary career came when she won a writing competition held by Macmillan Publishers. As a result several of her books for children were published by Nigerian publishing house Tana Press. ‘Tana Press approached me personally and asked me to write some children’s book for them and I did.’

Like many others Ifeoma says she only started reading Nigerian literature well into her teens. Apart from the nature of the publishing industry, she suggests that this could be due to problems with Nigeria’s infrastructure. ‘There is, to my knowledge, no bookshop in the country that has a branch in all the state capitals and in other important towns. The postal services are slow and unreliable. Distribution of books by public transport is slow and costly.’ This, coupled with the fact that internet access is a luxury available to few, makes the low levels of book sales in the country becomes understandable.

Furthermore, Ifeoma believes that Nigerians generally do not have a large appetite for literature as recreation. ‘Most read only to pass examinations [and this means that] publishers here publish more textbooks or what I choose to call ‘compulsory reading’ than they publish books that we read for pleasure.’

Ifeoma actually chose to self-publish her most recent novel, The Fourth World, after finding that what both Western and Nigerian literary agents and publishing houses were offering did not meet her needs.

A BRIGHTER FUTURE

After what we have learnt, the future might not seem so bright for Nigerian literature. However, all is far from lost, as there is a movement that is breathing new life into Nigerian storytelling. Nollywood, as the Nigerian film industry has been dubbed, is creating popular films at a remarkable rate and in 2013 was ranked as the third most valuable cinema industry in the world, coming just behind the giants of India and the USA.

Nigerians are finding the authentic representation that has for so long been lacking in abundance in the films coming out of Nollywood. Books and the stories they tell, will hopefully always be an important part of culture, and should never be lost or given up, but perhaps in a country with an infrastructure like Nigeria’s, they are not the ideal medium through which stories can be told. Storytelling is an inherent part of human nature and society, and like humans themselves is capable of adapting and surviving. Stories will never die out, no matter what form they choose to take, be it passed down orally from one generation to the next, or written in books or shown on a television screen.

* Ana Zoria is an aspiring content producer based in London who focuses on topics such as feminism, social justice and urban lifestyle. Originally Russian, Ana grew up in Lithuania where her family was sent under the Soviet Government. After struggling to overcome certain biases her country of residence had against Russians, following the dissolution of the USSR, Ana decided to pursue her higher education and a career in the UK. She has a degree in Journalism from the University of Westminster and is currently a Press Officer at Monitise Group. Follow her on Twitter @ZoriaAna

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