Nigeria is a country fertile with writers, full of wonderful literary figures like Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Ben Okri. But then there was a quieter spell, a time of especially intense corruption and dictatorship, when Sani Abacha was in power, and the literary scene seemed to fade. But stories never fully disappear, and the need to tell them only grows stronger during repressive times. New writers have slowly emerged and now - both in Nigeria and overseas - Nigerian literature is vibrant, brilliant and on the rise.
These new authors - quite a few of them expatriates - are focusing more on personal politics and the quest for self-identity. The expats were born in Nigeria, and live and work abroad, but have an intense connection to their place of origin. The city of Lagos, rich in history and with a population of 21 million, the largest in Africa, inspires many of these writers.
Sefi Atta is one such writer. She says of Lagos: "[It is] the place I return to most. It is the beginning of memory for me and the seat of my imagination. It is also a storyteller's city. We have extremes and contradictions here, and most of all we have conflict."
"You can never have writer's block in Lagos," says Toni Kan, one of a new generation of Nigerian writers who finds inspiration in the city. "Saying you haven't got material to work with, it would be a lie. There is a novel behind every shuttered window."
Chris Abani was born in Nigeria though he fled to Britain after his criticism of the Nigerian government lead to multiple arrests. Like Setta, Abani now makes his home in the United States. A prolific writer, Abani has won critical and popular acclaim for his novel Graceland. Of the use of city landscapes in much of his work, Abani said: "...cities are the modern unconscious, right? If you look at old stories, the forest is always the place of the unconscious. That's where Red Riding Hood gets attacked, it's where Hansel and Gretel get eaten. The modern forest is the city, right? It's this urban, sprawling, huge landscape that is as terrifying as a medieval forest would have been."
Nigerian writer Teju Cole, is working on a non-fiction book about Lagos. Born in the United States to Nigerian parents, raised in Nigeria, and currently living in Brooklyn, he has published one novella and one novel, to great acclaim. Cole also manages a unique tweet project called "Small Fates," which is comprised of small, unusual, tweet-sized bites of Nigerian news. Of this project, Cole says: "I think what all of these have in common, whether they are funny or not, is the closed circle of the story. Each small fate is complete in itself. It needs neither elaboration nor sequel. The small fates, I feel, bring news of a Nigerian modernity, full of conflict, tragedies, and narrow escapes. Similar to the French papers' fait divers, they work in part because whatever that strange thing was, it didn't happen to us. They are the destiny that befell some other poor soul, which we experience from a grateful distance."
In the coffee table book, Lagos: A City at Work, news reporter, civil servant and writer Odia Ofeimun writes: "A city is like a poem. You enter into it, and you are into a world of concentrated time. Different ages are brought together. Different histories spanning a common geography. And so, you are in the City of God but have not left the City of Man." In 2012, Ofeimun launched The Lagos Review of Books and Society, a long-awaited journal of Nigerian literature, comparable to The Times Literary Supplement.
Lagos is certainly a city of stories, ancient and contemporary, real and magical, political and personal. It is a city tucked in the pockets of Nigerian writers around the world, offered back to the world by this diverse, talented group in their short stories, novels, poems and many other narrative forms.
Picture by jrobin08
This article is from the January 23, 2013 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.
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