Amidst Nigeria’s persistent political failures, literature, as much as music, remains one of the few remaining sources of national pride . . .
By Chimezie Chika
Death, Literature, or the Age of Anxiety
What is it about the criticism of literature, and allusions to death, justified and unjustified? The purveyors of such dark, foreboding warnings are perhaps unaware of how such declarations pose a histrionic aversion to progress. At its core, it is almost like saying that music or trade – activities which are synchronous to human existence, as old as the first human desire for self-expression and survival, activities which will only die with the final extinction of humanity – is dying. Verdicts around literature tend to give vent to the general zeitgeist. Usually, it comes out of the torrid anxiety and discontent that marks the most impressive periods in literary history. This is why T.S. Eliot would write at the height of modernism that there is nothing new in literature, and that every literary work is part of a long line of suppressed influences.
There is always a feeling at the height of literature’s most robust moment—at the peak of its most enduring and monumental achievements—that it has reached its final apogee and the only direction is downwards. There is the conscious view that literature’s existence is tied to a number of social and economic factors. This last view forms part of the argument in Oris Aigbokhaevbolo’s essay, “The Death of Nigerian Literature.” Much of what we learn from Aigbokhaevbolo is that the Nigerian writer in Nigeria today is starting from a place of great disadvantage, deprived of structures that are easily obtainable in the West. In a poignant instance of parallelism, he writes: “Nobody knows what happens when success happens to a Nigerian writer. He might acquire space in a story published by a UK/US journal.”
(Read also: Are Creative Writing MFAs the New Reality for Contemporary African Writing?)
This observation is a testament to how in the light of a scant literary landscape, young Nigerian writers find themselves scrounging for bits and pieces from the table of the West. Aigbokhaevbolo’s essay is a vigorous indictment of the whole gamut of the Nigerian literary setup, from the poor writers, to the declining readership, cash-strapped publishing houses, few prizes—in short, he delivers the death knell: Nigerian literature is dead, or near the point of it. The most interesting point in the essay is where he accuses the MFA-affiliated Nigerian writers who have managed to escape the doldrums of the home turf of being unproductive. “The average Nigeria-based writer is wont to complain about a lack of electricity, heavy city traffic, the need to earn a living doing something else, and the worry of tomorrow’s meal; the MFA-track Nigerian writer’s reasons for reticence are so far so obscure.” Again Aigbokhaevbolo hits the grim gavel: “What is clear is a fascinating paradox: the search for a better life has resulted in both the depletion of Nigerian writers and Nigerian writing.” While I agree with the bare reality of many of his points, Aigbokhaevbolo perhaps leans too heavily on the failures at the expense of the few successes we have celebrated.
Speculations around the death or failure of literature or any of its long-suffering genres have persisted since the end of the 19th century (widely regarded as the golden age of the novel) and the introduction of television, though earlier examples of this pessimism exist. Writers and critics wailed that the end was near: literature cannot compete with the vicarious visual experience that television offers. That its predicted eventual rigour mortis proved premature did not end the surfeit of foreboding prophecies (nor will it ever end). Ultimately in the 1960s, it came to that numbing declaration by French critic and philosopher, Roland Barthes, in his work The Death of the Author, where he critiques the reliance on authorial biography as basis for criticism of literary works. The author, he declares, is no longer important; the idea of authorial intention is dead to literature.
Critical judgement on the perceived imminent death of literature as a form has continued to surface every now and again. The most basic touchstone in the different iterations of a literary Armageddon is the gradual dwindling of the reading public. The strand of the debate that persistently points out that poetry is in the stranglehold of death often heaps all its grievances on the loss of readers of poetry. There are views where the very justification for the existence of poetry is questioned. An important 1991 essay in The Atlantic admits that while poetry bestows a certain level of prestige on poets, it is an unreliable means of earning a living, which is why many poets have retreated quietly into the relative financial security of academia. This situation has not changed in the last few decades.
Not too long ago, a young Nigerian poet, Ernest O. Ogunyemi, published an essay titled, “Is Contemporary ‘Nigerian Poetry’ Nigerian?,” in which he argues, in spectacular fashion, against the lack of originality in modern Nigerian poetry, a trend in which contemporary Nigerian poets, in trying to escape the lack of opportunities at home, have been forced into an imitation of American poetry. While his arguments are well-noted, Ogunyemi’s concern for what he calls “the blatant Americanisation” of Nigerian poetry relies somewhat ambiguously on his ability to privilege and disparage the works of many contemporary Nigerian poets by turns. However good-intentioned his efforts were, Ogunyemi seemed to have set out to irk many of his contemporaries and forebears in the genre. Against the backdrop of a Nigerian literary space in which many of our young writers are either leaving the country for career-setting MFAs in American universities or incorporating the styles of contemporary American poetry in other to get accepted by the glut of extremely selective American magazines, Ogunyemi’s worries are not out of place. But he goes beyond this to dismiss many of the poetry that retains an essentially Nigerian idiom and aesthetic so that, in the end, it is not clear whether his purpose at the beginning was achieved.
Journalist and essayist, Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera, published his own essay, echoing what now seems to be a commonplace observation. He starts by blaming young Nigerian writers for being unreceptive to criticism. It appears that Chukwudera believes that robust criticism can improve Nigerian literature, yet the rest of his argument seems to find purchase, not in this thesis, but in a tabulation of all the familiar problems of contemporary Nigerian literature. One interesting strand of Chukwudera’s argument follows as it were the problem of determining the existence of Nigeria literature, an important starting point before diagnosing its problems. He concludes that “Nigerian literature is simply constituted by the result of the colonial experience and how we interact with it.”
What then would be the correct yardstick to determine the death of a national literature? Would it be its inability to shake off its colonial influences? At any rate, such a declaration, if it takes itself seriously, would have to determine the core pillars and structures that aided the creation of the literature. It is only in the light of that, in the event that these pillars have completely crumbled, that the death sentence can be given. For decades now, the idea of Nigerian literature has stood, pushed and peddled with rigour within academia and in literary circles, by a rote acknowledgement of its importance in the body of world literature.
(Read also: Where are the African Nonfiction Prizes?)
The Standing of Nigerian Literature
In truth, many discourses around Nigerian literature often begin from a place of ambiguity, partly due to the legacy of our multilingual heritage. Many of the questions usually pop up: What is really ‘Nigerian Literature’? Should the literature be based on the English language, or should we lump up everything produced by a Nigerian irrespective of the language that they have used in writing the literary work? The mix of language and nationalities in the modern world has created a dilemma of literary categorisation. How do we classify literature written by an English writer in Spanish? English or Spanish literature? Perhaps this conundrum explains why acclaimed journalist, literary critic and editor, Adewale Maja-Pierce, insists that any conversation around the perceived death of Nigerian literature will have to start with the question of language. Such conversations are “intriguing,” he said.
The troubling question then extends to whether the diaspora writings of Nigerians or half-Nigerians in locations around the world can be called Nigerian literature. Say, could the work of a German writer born to Nigerian parents in Dresden be called Nigerian literature? Could another writer, nearly like the first, living without citizenship privileges in Italy but writing in English about events that are peculiar to Italy be called a Nigerian writer? Literature can be categorised on the basis of language or nationality, but such categorisations creates its own problems. No categorisation would adequately cover the multifarious manifestations of the literature of a country, yet I would proceed on a strictly national basis to define Nigerian literature as literature produced by a person born to a Nigerian parent or parents. The literature could be mostly about experiences peculiar to or concerning Nigeria or Nigerians, no matter how tenuous the link. It should be written in English or any of the indigenous Nigerian languages. Where the writer resides does not matter; what matters is their heritage and their literary production.
On this basis, modern Nigerian literature began to gain real visibility in the 1940s and early 1950s through the writings of Cyprian Ekwensi and Amos Tutuola. The first true international acclaim for Nigerian literature came in 1958 when Chinua Achebe published his novel, Things Fall Apart, to worldwide acclaim. Achebe’s early success, near the point of Nigeria’s independence, was pivotal for what became known as Nigerian literature. Some of the most important first generation Nigerian writers coming into their own in the sixties and seventies—including Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Flora Nwapa, JP Clark, and others—would become very famous, publishing important books and winning important awards. Soyinka became the first African to win a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. The generation that trailed them from the late 1970s, including dramatist Femi Osofisan, poet Niyi Osundare, novelist Ben Okri, would become icons of Nigerian literature.
In the early 2000s many of the most respected Nigerian writers today came into maturity. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, perhaps the most famous living Nigerian writer at the moment, published her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, in 2003. Helon Habila had published his first novel, Waiting for an Angel, the previous year. These writers and others after them—including the likes of Teju Cole, Chinelo Okparanta, Chigozie Obioma, Nnedi Okoroafor, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Elnathan John, to list not too many — have brought great respect for Nigerian literature. The tradition of Nigerian literature, its existence, has been set in granite by the work of its past and present writers. Nigeria identity is what it is today partly because of the acclaim our writers continue to receive all over the world. Amidst Nigeria’s persistent political failures, literature, as much as music, remains one of the few remaining sources of national pride. As long as the standing of Nigerian literature—the great writers behind it, old and new—remains formidable in the eyes of the literary world, it will continue to exist and command respect.
Is Nigerian Literature Dying?
Again, this question. The conclusion here is that it is not, though I will acknowledge that the metaphor of death such as Aigbokhaevbolo used in his essay is not so much about the complete annihilation of our literature, as it is a deep concern for its remediable failings. One reason behind many of these predictions can be found in the all-encompassing capitalism of the modern world; but literature goes beyond the mere sales of books. If we begin to measure the influence of literature on a basis that highlights its ability to gratify human craving for story and beauty, then we will find that literature is the living truth of human existence. This is not to say that Nigerian literature, as it appears today, is without blemish. The issue itself cannot be found in the literary works themselves but in the infrastructure that supports them. If we are being honest, we do not have the strong structures that have propped many Western literatures.
I have written about the lack of prizes and their poor administrations, the lack of writing residencies and grants, the lack of funded writing workshops, the lack of funding for magazines, and other important literary initiatives. Our government does not have the position of a national poet laureate, and our universities do not have endowed positions for writer-in-residence. These are some of the structures that will make our literature an even better specimen than it currently is. There is the larger political question of a countrywide economic prosperity which will create a capable middle class which will in turn increase the purchasing power of readers. A robust reading public—along with the structures already mentioned—will make it possible for a Nigerian author to earn a living in Nigeria. In a world where all these structures exist, there will be a reduction in the exodus into the Diaspora.
(Read also: Are African Literary Magazines Moving in the Right Direction?)
For Nigerian critic, Ikhide Ikheloa, literature cannot die because of its very dynamic nature. According to him, Nigerian literature has moved with the changing times into Internet spaces more accessible to the sensibilities of the burgeoning generation of young Nigerians in the 21st century. Nigerian literature, he says, should no longer be judged with old inflexible paradigms set in the hard concrete of ivory towers. At the same time, Ikheloa thinks that the real death of Nigerian literature is its merciless categorisation by academic critics both within and without the shores of Nigeria. “What the West calls ‘Nigerian writing’ may be alive and well to the West,” he tells me in a direct message on Twitter, “but it is dead to Nigerians, especially young Nigerians who increasingly turn to social media for free, accessible narrative that is organic to them. They can hardly afford books, but they love the space that social media gives them to tell their stories. Nigerian literature breathes free on the Internet.”
Perhaps our social media interactions—exchanging words and ideas on a platform that has replaced letter writing—is a confirmation of Ikheloa’s thesis over the years: namely, that literature has reinvented itself in social media, no longer in the traditional form of the book. Of course I am not unaware of the larger, even more vehemently contested argument that this opens concerning the death of the book. “You could argue that many of today’s mainstream poets are songwriters and rappers, whose lyrics are analysed for meanings the way scholars used to pore over T.S. Eliot. There’s even poetry to be found in the compressed, fragmented language of texting, Twitter and other messaging platforms of the digital age,” wrote Brandon Griggs in an article on the CNN website.
The charge of death on Nigerian literature is a premature one, without any demonstrable evidence of the final crumbling of Nigerian literature and writing. Death is a term too heavy to lie upon the architectural dysfunctions of a literature that is making a name for itself all over the world; while literary structures in Nigeria are inadequate, Nigerian writing itself is riding a good wave at the moment. The problems associated with Nigerian literature are emblematic of the perpetual problems of the Nigerian state: an oppressive home turf and a nurturing Diaspora. It is a paradox that is all too familiar to the modern Nigerian writer. Essayist and writer, Carl Terver, offers a nuanced view of the problem, noting that the “self-consciousness” of Nigerian literature as an “organism” is dying.
Intrigued, I asked him to explain further. “I said as an organism, not the literature. I cannot possibly imagine the literature itself as not being self-conscious,” he said. “There appears to be a lack of centripetal force holding the organism together anymore, and one of the main reasons for this is the lack of serious engagement with it by the Nigerian literary community. It seems nobody knows exactly what is happening to the literature. People hardly discuss about it—this is the truth, even in random conversations. The big names are not talking about it; they seem to have retired. You and I are lazy to talk about it, struggling to overcome the philistinism surrounding us.” Terver points that what we have now is a passing phase in Nigerian literature. The challenge, he says, remains if the current “renaissance we are witnessing can turn things around.”
In the illuminating way Terver explained it, one cannot fault his view of the dwindling self-consciousness around Nigerian literature. What can be pointed out is that it is more a question of the de-utilisation of whatever platforms are open to Nigerian writers and critics. It is a problem that is ultimately solvable. The question we must begin to ask at this point is what must be done to remedy those crucial aspects of our literature that have failed. To confront Nigerian literature in the 21st century is to confront a problem that has transformed into a drama of existence. The impetuous generalisations of the social media-fixated generation have not helped matters. No problem can be solved, especially one as intellectual and practical as Nigerian literature, through empty banters of self-flagellation and the smug soporific postures of the self-satisfied. Perhaps if we start with honest critical dialogue (as we are having now with these essays), we will begin to arouse the self-consciousness that will keep our literature alive.
Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in, amongst other places, The Question Marker, The Shallow Tales Review, The Lagos Review, Isele Magazine, Brittle Paper, Afrocritik and Aerodrome. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1.