Black Looks - Including an African LGBTIQ+ Archive

Literature, Nigeria

Nigeria: A publisher and a writer

Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, who along with Jeremy Weate founded Cassava Republic Press, is interviewed on Nigerian and African literature. She is critical of the “degradation” of Nigeria’s education system and what she sees as the unwillingness of “wannabe” writers to engage with their peers so as to learn the craft of writing. Another problem is the general lack of interest in Nigerian and other African writers so whilst reading maybe on the increase, people are reading western popular fiction, religious and business books. In response to a question on the “way art programmes, especially theatre organisation are being run in the country?” I had to laugh – Bibi replied

I didn’t realise that there was such a thing as art programming in this essentially philistine society, where artists, creative and knowledge producers are so devalued. So if you say that there’s such a thing called art programming in his country than I’d like to know more about it. I can therefore not give you my perception since I don’t know of the existence of that which I am yet to perceive.

I completely agree. After my experience last October / November of various contemporary dance festivals held in Lagos, there seems to me to be a culture of fast tracking which results in mediocracy and worse. When this is pointed out everyone gets very defensive, but this is what happens when creativity and knowledge production are driven by financial gain and as Bibi says, devalued. In fact just about everything is devalued unless it turns out to be the pursuit of money. I found myself increasingly irritated by interviewer who implies that today’s writers are motivated to write for the sake of a winning a prize and that writers in the Diaspora are less able to write about Nigeria than say Chinua Achebe. This is insulting to writers and this Nigerian fixation with people spending time outside the country. I doubt there are many Nigerian writers who spend 365 days a year outside the country and as James Baldwin said -he was better able to write about the US when he had left and was living in France. Sometimes we are suffocated in our own spaces and cannot see the wood for the trees.

Speaking of Nigerian literature – The New Yorker published a short story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “BirdSong”. The story centers on the so hypocritical fixation with morality and the habitual disdain for others. The young woman who spends her nights wondering from church to church in search of a husband. The “Madam” who is arrogant and full of disdain for those she perceives as lesser beings ” A woman for whom things are done”. And the husband who is happy to take his pleasures where he can but ultimately for him to marriage is the purpose of the journey. The story is familiar so that we can hear the conversations, recognise the looks, sounds and smells but thats what makes it such a wonderful short story. And I love the way Chimamanda is increasingly engaging with feminism and challenging homophobia in her work – fiction, essays and interviews. She has a large following amongst young Nigerians so this is very important and heartening.

As an aside the comic image which accompanies the story reminds me of a documentary with Adichie in which she encounters a passing trader whilst sitting in a Lagos jam – I wonder if there is a connection. Was this the beginning of the story? It also reminds me of those incredible intimate but distant moments when you pass someone whilst driving.


  1. Myne Whitman

    That was indeed a lovely story by Chimamanda, very good use of evocative language.

    I think the fixation is real on writing for awards and prizes since it is assumed that it’s the only way for a writer to make some returns. The fact being that books rarely sell well if published in Nigeria. As for the discrimination against writers in diaspora, that is being lifted as the NLNG prize now allows entries from an international audience.

    On the issue of Wannabe writers that Bibi raised, I think the rise of the internet may have changed things a lot. The Naija Stories website is a thriving community of Nigerian writers who are happy to receive criticism from their peers and offer the same.

  2. Sokari

    Myne @ Thanks for passing by. Writing has never been an easy profession and probably at any given moment there are thousands if not millions of people out there hoping to get their work published. I dont think one can write a book specifically to win a prize. It just doesnt make sense to me. If the writing and choice of topic is good enough then a book will at least get shortlisted so if one sets out determined to write a quality book then maybe you could say they set out to win a prize but other than that I dont see how. I do agree with Bibi though that in order to write and write well one needs to read and read a great deal. That takes time and I wonder if some writers are prepared to take that time. Also writing a book may take years – again are people ready to make that sacrifice in order to achieve the results they hope for? Just looking at some of the great writers [not just in Nigeria] you can see there is a huge amount of time spent on research reading re-writing over and over. Personally I am quite critical – if a story does not grab me in the first few pages or lines if its a short story then sorry but you lost me. There is too much to read to waste time on something that is not engaging. A few days ago I started reading “Who Fears Death” by Nnedi Okorafor and I was hooked – thats the kind of book I want to spend my precious time reading.

    Its great that CA short story is engaging women – I look forward to her writing more from a feminist and anti-homophobic perspective – it was a fairly easy uncomplicated story but it has the potential to create change and thats very positive.

  3. Anonymous

    ouch. However, I would take Bakare-Yusuf’s word on the matter despite how ‘curt’ it is.

    I really worry about the fact that the country does not reward those who push to do things that aren’t financially motivated. In fact, not only does Nigeria not reward these people, they are punished. A nation where creativity for its very sake is discouraged will fail to imagine and remain i uninspired in darkness.