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.