The chaos of Nigeria's largest city of Lagos gets boiled down to prose as a narrator notes “how unpretty” its sprawl looks, with “its unplanned houses sprouting like weeds.” Another author describes the madness of the commute, how six roads meet and “there is no traffic light.”
These vivid descriptions come from Nigeria's new generation of authors, whose novels and short stories are gaining the international acclaim once reserved for postcolonial literary heavyweights such as Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe who earned the West African nation a reputation as a hub of classic African writing.
While Nigeria serves as a muse, many of these new authors must live abroad or tap into Western networks to earn a living from their writing. The international attention helps them secure a reputation in Nigeria and allows their books to be published here too.
“Unfortunately, no matter how well the book is written, writers who come into prominence, come into prominence because they are recognized by the West,” says Nigerian author Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani.
After independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria became one of the continent's top suppliers of literary talent. Soyinka was honored with a Nobel Prize for Literature for his plays, essays and books. Achebe received acclaim for his novel “Things Fall Apart” and other writings examining the failures of post-independence politics.
The new generation of Nigerian writers, while examining politics, appear more focused on the feeling of daily life in Nigeria, a multiethnic and religious nation of more than 160 million people where electricity remains scarce and there is a widening gap between rich and poor.
Those new voices include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose book “Half of a Yellow Sun” focused on the breakaway Republic of Biafra and the nation's 1960s civil war that saw 1 million people killed. Another book, a collection of short stories titled “The Thing Around Your Neck,” recounts the experiences of Nigerian characters living at home and abroad.
Like Adichie, who lives part-time in the U.S., most of these Nigerian fiction writers live in Western countries for much of the year, returning home to Nigeria frequently where they also research and observe. Their publishers and most of their readers are also in the West, where industry experts say African writing has in the last decade gained new interest from major publishers. Meanwhile, fiction publishing at home struggles to find its feet.
For many years, self-publishing was the only hope for Nigerian writers to realize their dreams within a country where a long military era had imposed a publishing lull. More than a decade since Nigeria returned to civilian rule, only a handful of local publishers will brave the difficult environment to champion fiction writing.
Poor distribution networks and high printing and shipping costs are some of the setbacks bogging down the local publishing industry, forcing most book lovers to search for novels in the thinly stocked second hand bookstands on the edge of busy markets. When booksellers do sell new books, they tend to prefer religious, educational and self-help books to fiction titles considered slow-selling.
Even writers living in Nigeria need the Western seal of approval to make good sales, said writer Nwaubani.
The Nigeria-based author had to get a foreign literary agent before she could publish her satirical novel on Nigerian email scammers titled “I Do Not Come to You By Chance.” She said her novel gained the most attention after it was reviewed by the Washington Post and then won the London-based Commonwealth Prize. The book has also been translated and sells more in German, a language she doesn't speak, than it sells in English in Nigeria, she said.
“My book is only available in five Nigerian cities and only a handful of bookshops in those cities,” Nwaubani said. “In Umuahia, the town where I come from and where my book is set, there isn't any place where my book is sold.”
Some critics, however, have questioned the reliance on Western recognition and audiences, and the indirect influence it may have on Nigerian literature, saying the authors are often edited to suit Western tastes.
“There is nothing wrong with having a publisher that's not here (Nigeria)… because we are aware of the fact that there are limitations to what's happening in Nigeria,” said Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole. “But then what's incumbent on us is to try to support the work that's happening here.”
Cole recently traveled to Lagos for research on a new book about the African megacity. His first published book was set in Nigeria and his second one, set in New York, was listed among The New York Times' 100 most influential books for 2011.
Western publishing also overlooks a vast body of non-English writing in a country where more than 150 languages are spoken. Hausa-language literature that is self-published, for instance, has thrived in Nigeria's north, but is unheard of by non-Hausa speakers, said scholar Carmen McCain teaching at Bayero University in Kano.
But the oversights of Western publishing perhaps offer a window of opportunity for local publishers.
Chinelo Onwualu, the editor at Cassave Republic, a small Abuja-based fiction publishing house, is hopeful for Nigeria's future in publishing.
“It's really tough publishing in Nigeria right now, but once somebody discovers that golden formula to make it work in our environment, some very exciting things are going to take place,” she said.