A couple of years ago, I wrote about Nigerian authors, admitting it was only in recent years I’d started to read output from this country, despite having lived there for six years during my youth. But, following a mixed reception given at my book club to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s masterful work Americanah, I wondered if the work of Nigerian authors may have limited, rather than widespread appeal.
Except that, pretty much ever since I’ve had that thought, the world has been proving me wrong – or at least those who hand out literary awards …
2019 Booker Award
Girl, Woman, Other, Bernadine Evaristo – co-winner
An Orchestra of Minorities, Chigozie Obioma – shortlisted for the second time
My Sister, The Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite – longlisted with her first published work
2019 Women’s prize for Fiction
My Sister, The Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite – shortlisted
Ordinary People, Diana Evans – shortlisted
Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi – longlisted
There are (many) other examples, but I don’t want to turn this into one long list …
This recent breakthrough onto the world stage follows a discernible pattern evident in African awards. 2019’s Caine Prize for African Writing (an award celebrating the diversity of the African short-story writing tradition) listed two Nigerian authors in it’s shortlist of five. Now in its 19th year, Nigeria has provided a quarter of its previous winners. Similarly, the 25-name shortlist for 2019’s Brittle Paper Awards (for African writing), contained a staggering 10 authors from Nigeria.
Of course Nigerian authors have been receiving awards for quite a while, most notably Wole Soyinka’s Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, Ben Okri’s Booker in 1991 for The Famished Road, and Chinua Achebe’s International Booker in 2007, but much of the early international success was achieved before the country’s independence from Britain in 1960. Years of military dictatorship followed, and when international publishing ambitions were stunted, many authors joined the rush of intellectuals deciding to leave the country, to build new lives and new families overseas. For those authors who stayed, the situation could be perilous – Wole Soyinka received a death sentence ‘in absentia’, while Ken Saro-Wiwa hung in 1995.
Nevertheless, the success achieved on the international stage by early pioneering Nigerian authors encouraged the literary ambitions of the new generation of Nigerian authors we see now. In 2015, the British Council reported the “incredibly vibrant literary scene in Nigeria itself”. Indeed, the last 15 years has seen a significant rise in the number of publishing houses in Nigeria, meaning authors don’t have to go overseas to seek publication – which had been the norm previously. Nigerian authors themselves are growing in confidence, no longer feeling they need to translate their use of Nigerian English – as one author said recently “there’s no need to italicise or explain, they can Google it!” I also cannot deny how tremendously pleased I am to see increasing numbers of women in this group.
Last but not least, the first Ake Arts & Book Festival had it’s inauguration in 2013, and has since gone from strength to strength in celebrating Nigeria’s cultural & literary identity.
Some among this new generation of authors chose to remain in Nigeria, some have made their homes elsewhere, there’s also a number who count both Nigeria and another country as their home. But there’s no doubting they’re now regular faces on international prize lists, receiving both admiration and acclaim. I’m hoping this rise in the success of Nigerian authors on the world stage will see increasing numbers of readers being introduced to this rich literary vein.
© Debra Carey, 2020