Literary Lagos

by E.C. Osondu

One of Nigeria’s pioneer female writers once remarked, tongue firmly in cheek, that if you threw a pebble into a crowd at the University of Ibadan—Nigeria’s oldest university—in the early 90’s it was likely to fall on a poet. I will stretch that witticism a little bit and say that if you threw a pebble into a crowd in the city of Lagos, Nigeria’s former capital in southwestern Nigeria, it would most likely have hit not one but two writers.

When I moved from Lagos to Syracuse University in the early 2000’s to attend grad school for creative writing, I did experience a bit of a weather shock and some culture shock but not any serious workshop shock because, while there were no formal creative writing workshops in Lagos, we had quite a lively literary community. The city is home to many writers, both published and mostly unpublished. Writers under the aegis of the Association of Nigerian Authors met every first Saturday of the month in Lagos to share our writings; critiques, often not too subtle, were offered. There would usually be announcements of new fellowship opportunities for writers and new contests would also be announced at these meetings. The lucky few among us who had won fellowship opportunities abroad returned with new books and stories of how they were feted and treated like royalty during their sojourns abroad. Because we are writers and we lived in Lagos—a city that loves to party—these events were also a kind of social gathering. Sometimes the chairperson of the association—at one point a poet and banker, and at some other point an entrepreneur and playwright served as chairperson—would provide a sumptuous well-catered meal and of course the ever reliable cartons of alcohol, which has kept the spirit of the true writer alive for generations, was consumed in copious quantities. As we ate and drank we discussed books and the writing life. At the end of the party we would usually share rides back to our various places of abode in this sprawling mega-city of Lagos. We were dreamers, we were hungry for fame if not fortune, we fed on hope, that frail and fragile thing.

In Nigeria and Lagos today, not much has changed. Chances are your proverbial thrown pebble would still fall on a writer, and might even touch another slightly on its way there. A few things have changed, however. With the arrival of the internet a whole new world has opened up for Nigerian writers. Many young poets and fiction writers are now better able to send out their works to foreign literary journals. They are able to share the news of their acceptances through Twitter and on Facebook. Many are also able to win fellowship opportunities abroad. Quite a few like me have also decided to pursue their passion by enrolling in M.F.A. Creative Writing programs in the United States. I often look back with a tinge of regret at all the stories I have left behind in Nigeria. I often tell people here in the U.S. that there are enough stories from one molue bus ride in Lagos to fill the pages of a hefty novel. Some would argue, though, that we live in a globalized world and that geographical boundaries are an artificial construct.

Another thing that has changed is that there is now a more visible involvement by foreign cultural organizations like the British Council, The French Cultural Centre, and a few others in connection writers/artistes with their counterparts in foreign countries for exchanges and co-operation. This has actually involved more than writers and includes dance troupes and playwrights and so on….

One must also add the emergence of Nollywood, the Nigerian movie industry that emerged in the early 2000’s and has since become one of the largest movie industries in the world. Quite a few writers, including the late playwright Ebereonwu, have extended a hand of fellowship to Nollywood and have produced scripts for Nollywood movies. It is hoped that, with the entrance of creative writers into Nollywood, the story-lines will move away from the obsession with juju and fetishisms and begin to engage with the reality of day-to-day existence in contemporary Nigeria.

A major development that has clearly impacted the literary scene is the emergence of two publishing companies—Farafina Kachifo Publishers, founded by the former banker Muhtar Bakare, and Cassava Republic, founded by Jeremy Weate and Bibi Bakare. They have recently been joined by Parressia Publishers. These publishers initially published titles that have won plaudits abroad but they have since gone on to nurture and publish home-grown talent and to wean Nigerians just a little from the consumption of American self-help titles like Think And Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. These American positive-thinking and grow-rich books seem to have found a captive audience among Nigerians by tapping into our can-do spirit.

Some have said that we are presently experiencing the boom years of Nigerian/African writing on the global stage. I would argue that, with the literary ferment going on back home in Nigeria, the world ain’t seen nothing yet—or, to borrow Chinua Achebe’s profoundly philosophical phrasing, It is morning yet on creation day.

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ec photo 2E.C. Osondu is a Nigerian writer. He is a winner of the Caine Prize and a Pushcart Prize. His first published short story—A Letter From Home—was first published in AGNI. His short story Jimmy Carter’s Eyes also published in AGNI was shortlisted for the Caine Prize. He is the author of the story collection Voice of America and the novel This House is Not For Sale. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

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