Not long ago, I asked Toni Kan in an interview whether he’d noticed what I reasoned to be an unprecedented rise in the number of young people writing in Nigeria today, and he said he thought young people have always been writing – that they only recently became visible because of the internet. Of course, this makes perfect sense. Scholars of oral literature have a similar argument – literature has always been part of the African experience, because long before modern writing, our fore-parents enjoyed literature through songs, folktales, riddles, and dance. But perhaps I asked the wrong question? Thinking about it now, I feel it’s probably more useful to consider what we may call the trajectory of Nigerian writing in light of this development. Is there, now, a pattern (or patterns) emerging out of the entire body of literature – issues and forms that are likely going to define Nigerian writing in the coming years?
As part of a course I recently did, I was required to read a number of essays by Achebe, Soyinka and Ngugi, and it was fascinating to recall just how momentous the language debate of the 1960s and 70s really was. No doubt, many young writers today would be surprised not only at the suggestion that African writers should write in their native languages, but that such a debate even took place in the first place. And yet the question remains significant to this day, not least because it compels us to sometimes pause and ask: what makes this our literature? But even that early, Achebe, in his essay, “The African Writer and the English Language” describes African literature as a “generation of new born infants… each… already set on its own separate journey.” Of course, he is thinking about the emergence of distinct literatures of the individual nations of Africa. How much of this kind of distinctness, one might wonder, has been achieved on the Nigerian scene, with the rise of this army of young talented writers?
I won’t pretend that the terms “young writers” and “new generation” make absolute sense. Categorizations are almost always problematic. Many students of literature might recall having a hard time trying to figure out how many “generations” there have been since Achebe and Soyinka – or even Tutuola. In fact, some critics sometimes go as far back as Azikiwe and Osadebey (who, it’s to be hoped, never seriously considered themselves writers). But my concern here has really little to do with the actual ages of these writers – though most of them are really in their twenties and thirties. In effect, I am talking about the hundreds of young Nigerian writers whose works we read every day – in online journals, and on blogs and websites, but also in books. They are a growing number of committed writers, remarkably disciplined, unrelenting in their pursuit of excellence. They are the generation who have seized every bit of space, every flicker of opportunity, on the planet, defying time and tradition, speaking freely and boldly, sparing no subject, man or god.
No doubt, 2017 brought enormous recognition to a number of these writers. Romeo Oriogun won the Brunel International African Poetry Prize; while Rasaq Malik Gbolahan, Saddiq Dzukogi and Kechi Nomu were shortlisted for the same prize. Novelist Jowhor Ile was awarded the £15 000 Etisalat Prize for Literature. Akwaeke Emezi won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa, an award for which Kelechi Njoku was also shortlisted. Arinze Ifeakandu was on the shortlist of the Caine Prize – as were Leslie Nneka Arimah and Chikodili Emelumadu. Also, Munachim Amah won the Writivism Short Story Prize. But Arimah is among a number of young diaspora writers whose achievements this year also drew international attention to Nigerian literature. For her debut collection, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, she won the $50 000 Kirkus Prize for Fiction. Also, Ayobami Adebayo’s acclaimed debut, Stay with Me, was on the shortlist of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Many might agree that one of the features of early Nigerian literature which rarely appears in much of the newer writing is engagement with what might be called traditional wisdom. If the motivation for this theme at the time was the need to prove that Africa had culture before its contact with the West, then writers today must think that the West already knows this. Yet there are young writers like Rasaq Malik Gbolahan who continuously find new and ingenious ways of interpreting today’s realities with insights from tradition. Gbolahan’s poetry is the meeting point of the old and the new: “The first rule of death…” – begins his poem, “Of Dying”, a fine depiction of the truth that we die in stages, or that we do not die at all, since death itself is a lesson in living – “Is to watch how people die.” In “Atupa” Wale Owoade finds a connection between innocence and the flickering light of the oil lamp: “I saw your light / naked / proud and erect / shining past the moonlights.” In “Omo Iya,” Oyin Oludipe invokes the power and the spirit of the talking drum: “He calls me this, with coarse / Drum syllables, fine-mannered / Stillness, like primal incandescence / Of night.”
There are many whose strength is in the sheer clarity of their language, in their ability to confront serious, sometimes morbid, issues with the artistic precision of simple prose. In Adeola Opeyemi’s “Being a Man”, mourning, viewed through the eyes of a young narrator, offers moments of laughter and reflection: “How great it would be to have people pity me, pamper me, the boy who had lost someone.” In Eric Atie’s “Homes and Holes” the anguish of a sick and unloved wife is laid open, bit by bit, the tone both painful and soothing: “The doctor says I’ve got a hole in my heart. I tell him I’m aware. I tell him that it is you who dug it in there.” Again, this kind of narrative power is deployed by Caleb Somtochukwu Okereke in his thoughtful but provocative exploration of abuse and trauma in “Coming Home to Myself”: “And mine is a life of knitting truths, of spinning threads of memory into desired fabric, blowing air across it to scatter loose threads and being comfortable with this result, of choosing what is to be truth and what is to be imagined, of surviving.” For others like Isaac Newton Akah, humour is essential. In his story, “The Landlord’s Wife” his narrator is unhappy that his landlord is taking extreme measures to prevent him from making advances to his wife: “My landlord had padlocked the door before leaving… See landlords are mean ass creatures, but my landlord is plain evil. How could he sit down and hatch this much devilry against a loving tenant?”
Perhaps it is the genre of queer writing that received the most significant attention this year – not least because of the Brunel Prize won by Romeo Oriogun. Yet it seems to me a pity that many readers continue to approach Oriogun’s work only through the lens of sexuality, ignoring the sheer genius that lies at the heart of his imagination. His poetry shimmers with unbridled honesty and bluntness that is at once startling and refreshing. His poem “You Think You Are Fucked,” for instance, captures – and imposes order on – the rambling thoughts of a troubled soul: “Long distance sex is a house on fire / And I go into it again / I‘m always loving people who will accept a part of me / That’s how fucked up I taste / What is the truth of love? / Everybody burns.” Again, it is this kind of sincerity that we find in much of the queer writing that flourished this year. In Arinze Ifeakandu’s Caine-Prize-nominated story, “God’s Children Are Broken Little Things” the narrator shows the internal turmoil that is the attempt to conform to societal expectation: “On your way home, you called Rachel and told her you loved her so much, did she know that? She giggled over the phone, and you told yourself again that Dave had almost put you in trouble, Jesus!” In Munachim Amah’s “Stolen Pieces,” the turmoil becomes even more complicated, as the narrator struggles to understand his ever-changing sexuality, and that of the other characters with whom he has romantic relationships; in the end he is unsure whether he is male or female: “I had become a tiny, little bird, moving and perching, looking for some safe place where I could at least rest and find something to eat.” Another poet who writes in this genre is Chibuihe Obi. Obi is bold, compelling, often cheeky; but his purpose is always to draw our attention to that which makes us all human: “I’ll begin by teaching my body the language of grief…” – he writes, in the poem “Bodies,” – “…how to make and unmake images of my nudity, and the spot on my laps where I’ve cut your first name like an epitaph on a tombstone.”
Are there, then, any identifiable patterns? Clearly, to attempt to identify commonalities shared by these writers in terms of thematic concerns would be an impossible task. But there is much to be admired in the way in which many of them pay attention to the language and sounds of the “street” – the syntax of everyday communication. Walter Ude’s series, “Eze Goes to School”, is a great example: “Look at you too. Nwa oma, like you – see how they are starving you boys to death, did we parents tell these people that we sent our children here to be starved, eh?” For others like MystiqueSyn Osuchukwu, the representation is altogether undiluted: “My vow lasts for the whole of six seconds. Big geh that enters under the kolo of men-on-suit to hustle for bus, is that one big geh? Tueh!” But there is also, among them, an increasing awareness of the self as part of a global community. Works of writers such as Onyeka Nwelue often push the boundaries – literally and figuratively – as they examine the ways in which cultures interact beyond national borders. In Nwelue’s new novel, The Beginning of Everything Colourful, language also participates in the travel: “Mi train departs on the ninth of Diciembre by 11:13am from Lille to Paris. You will see a copy of the ticket. It will convince you that I am saying the truth. I’m getting old now. And soy mexicano.”
This kind of cosmopolitanism (already a common theme in diaspora literature) is expected to gain more prominence in the coming years as we imagine and interpret our place in an ever-changing global community. I expect that sexuality and identity will continue to form a huge part of the literature – including lesbianism, bisexuality, and the transgender experience. I also see greater experimentation with language and form, in ways that defy convention and categorization. Curiously (but happily) laments about government failure have been largely absent in much of today’s literature – and there is little indication that this will change significantly in the coming years. Indeed, what this generation of writers has created is truly a place of safety, uncorrupted by the strife and hate that pervade much of our national space; a place of truth and healing which will ultimately serve as the nation’s anchor out of despair.