Over the years, since I got close to this Nigerian ‘industry’ which is responsible for the “management” of literature, I came to observe its several layers—beginning with an idea in a literary-inclined mind and ending in form of a book (physical or otherwise) in the hands of a consumer or reader. The topic above, presents us with the task of identifying the state of this ‘industry’ as well as the involvement of the Nigerian youths in its management, which seems to be lacking.
Let me admit to making many assumptions in my opening paragraph, regarding the meaning of a number of terms appearing in the topic, even when I know that definitions of them might vary from one reader to another. With this in mind, I must proceed in discussing the topic by taking as much time and space as possible, to give my own meaning of terms that might be a subject of diverse definitions, such as ‘literature’, ‘Nigerian literature’, ‘youth’, and the industry’, among others.
Whenever the need to define a literary term arises, I am known to look in the direction of Chris Baldick’s Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, and I shall do just that for an idea of what the term ‘literature’ could mean. Accordingly, it means: “A body of written works related by subject-matter (e.g., the literature of computing), by language or place of origin (e.g. Russian literature), or by prevailing cultural standards of merit. In this sense, literature is taken to include oral, dramatic, and broadcast compositions that may not have been published in written form but which have been (or deserve to be) preserved.
Since the 19th century, the broader sense of literature as a totality of written or printed works has given way to more exclusive definitions, based on criteria of imaginative, creative, or artistic value, usually related to a work’s absence of factual or practical reference. Even More restrictive has been the academic concentration upon poetry, drama and fiction. Until the mid-20th century, many kinds of non-fictional writing – philosophy, history, biography, criticism, topography, science and politics – were counted as literature; implicit in this broader usage is a definition of literature as that body of works which – for whatever reason – deserves to be preserved as part of the current reproduction of meanings within a given culture (unlike yesterday’s newspaper, which belongs in the disposable category of ephemera)…”
Is this definition helpful or confusing? I think it only helps in setting before us a paved path of fresh problem: which of these definitions should we adopt for the purpose of discussing this topic, and for what reason? I must say that my purpose here is not to argue on which of those definitions of ‘literature’ is the correct one, and which others are not – for time and space would not permit nor forgive such a distraction. It is however most expedient, for the purpose of simple identification of what is meant by “Nigerian Literature”, that I simply adopt the more restrictive definition of the term, which is said to come from the academic circle; and that is, ‘literature’ means poetry, drama and fiction.
What then is meant by Nigerian literature? Is it only the poetry, drama and fiction that are conceived and produced by Nigerians? If so, does it include Nigerian writers of poetry, drama and fiction who have emigrated to foreign countries and are living permanently there? If so, does it exclude those Nigerian writers of poetry, drama and fiction who have emigrated to foreign countries and are living permanently there, but do not write any such poetry, drama and fiction on anything about Nigeria? Where is the place for the writers of poetry, drama and fiction that are only born of Nigerian parents (or one Nigerian parent), whether or not such a writer has Nigerian contents in his or her poetry, drama or fiction?
The above, were the type of problems that Andrew Sanders faced when he sat down to write The Short History of English Literature. In his Introduction to the Second Edition, Sanders observed the rightful place of English literary icons, starting from Geoffrey Chaucer, but was forced to include non-English writers in this classification for one reason or the other. “This present history has attempted to look at the range of English literature from the Anglo-Saxon period to the present day,” Sanders writes. “Its definitions of what is ‘English’ and what is ‘literature’ have remained, as far as is feasible, open. It will inevitably offend certain readers by what it has included and what it has excluded.”
It is therefore, not my deliberate effort to offend anybody that I am also daring to include and exclude in my list of Nigerian poets, dramatists and fiction writers those that I think should be excluded or included. Accordingly, I cannot, for example, in all clear conscience, include the poetry, drama and fiction of foreign born ‘Nigerians’ as Nigerian literature; I cannot also include the poetry, drama and fiction of Nigerian born producers of poetry, drama and fiction that do not contain the remotest connection to anything that is Nigerian. My definition of Nigerian literature therefore, includes only the poetry, drama and fiction that are written by Nigerians about Nigeria and Nigerian cultures, whether set in Nigeria or foreign soils. I derive my precedence from Sanders who writes in the Introduction to his The Short Oxford History of English Literature as follows: “The History also included certain English writers who wrote in Latin and others whose origins were not English, let alone British or Irish, whose work seems to have been primarily intended to associate with a British market and with an English literary tradition.” Finally, my classification of Nigerian Literature must include those non-Nigerian writers of poetry, drama and fiction who have taken Nigerian citizenship, even as I exclude the Nigerians who have renounced their Nigerian citizenship.
Once again, my authority for this is Sanders: “Conrad and T. S. Eliot, who are included, took British citizenship in mid-career and accepted that their writing was ‘English’ in the narrow sense of the term. On the other hand, Henry James, who is excluded, took British citizenship only at the close of his life and when his writing career was effectively over. Both Auden and Isherwood, who became citizens of the United States in 1940s, have been included simply because it seems impossible to separate their most distinctive work from the British context in which it was written. The situations of Conrad, Eliot, James, Auden, and Isherwood are in certain ways exemplary of what has happened to English literature in the twentieth century. It is both English and it is not. It is both British and it is not. What really matters is that English literature, rather than being confined to an insular Poets’ Corner, now belongs in and to a wider world.”
Now we have a clear picture of what we’re dealing with: the poetry, drama and fiction written by those writers that are Nigerian citizens, whether by birth or naturalisation, which are written about Nigerian culture and primarily with Nigerian audience at heart. I think we are in the best position to consider the ‘state’ in which Nigerian literature is at the moment; are we in a good state among literatures of other nations?
For a start, Nigerian population is estimated at over 206 million in mid-2019, according to UN data. This is by far bigger than the estimated population of Egypt (about 97 million, in 2018), South Africa (about 59 million, in mid 2019). It is on record that Nigeria, with all its population size, has only produced one Nobel laureate, in the person of Wole Soyinka (1983), while South Africa has produced Nadine Gordimer (1993) and J. M. Coetzee (2003). Egypt, with less than half the population of Nigeria has Naguib Mahfouz (1988)! We are not faring any better in international literary competitions either, struggling for positions with smaller African nations in Commonwealth Prizes, Caine Prize, etc, where we are supposed to dominate. It is true that we have about one of the highest paying prizes in literature, the Nigerian Prize in Literature, which is administered by Nigerian Liquified Natural Gas Limited. It is a sad commentary to the state of Nigerian literature that in the short history of this all-Nigerian literary competition, the organisers had to decline awarding the Prize a few times because the standards of the poetry, drama and fiction entered by Nigerians for those years were found to be below expectations!
By merely looking into these broad mirrors alone, I can confidently say that the state of Nigerian Literature is not what a patriotic citizen should be proud of at all; it is in a pathetic state of ruin that the Nigerian governments at all three levels ought to declare a state of emergency on, in order to rescue the situation and restore our rightful place as a leading nation on the African continent. And why wouldn’t there be such an effort? The reason, in my opinion, is that neither the Nigerian Governments nor the individual Nigerian citizens have realised that Nigeria Literature – our poetry, our drama and our fiction – if raised to the acceptable level, is an industry on its own that could, in addition to boosting our standing in the comity of nations, truly and honestly contribute to the efforts at diversifying the Nigerian economy, as a non-oil resource of huge potential.
The question is: how can we achieve this raised level for Nigerian Literature, from an idea in the mind to an industry? For a start, the poetry, drama and fiction that remain only an idea in the head haven’t started the journey. And we have millions of potential poets, dramatists and novelists – as we do have millions of gifted wizards in several fields, of Nigeria descent – whose potentials have been snuffed at their embryonic stage by the very condition of existence that is Nigerian: no motivation, no guidance, no resources, no tools to sharpen off, no feathers to assemble the wings with which to fly! A few others have managed to make it beyond this stage, and they have a book of poetry or drama or fiction to show for it, even though at a very high and sacrificial cost to them. This class of Nigerians have physical (or other types of) poetry, drama or fiction books to their names, or they are listed in the list of contributors to anthologies of such literatures, published in Nigeria or abroad.
However, stopping there – which quite a sizeable number of these writers have done, is never good enough for the industry; there is need to get the products out to the consumers. The failure by many Nigerian poets, playwrights and novelists to achieve this – for reasons beyond their understanding, or power to surmount, does contribute to the sad state of the literature/book industry in Nigeria. And yet, for the discerning, the hampering obstacles are well known and can be lumped into one thing: poor packaging of the poetry, drama or fiction products that have made it out of the minds or imaginations of the writer into a book.
Poetry, drama or fiction must have the right appeal in order to attract readership, which alone is the guaranteed source of income for the writer. There shall be no appeal except for a book that has been adequately packaged: an industrial process that starts with the presentation on paper by an author and/or his/her editor of the poetry, drama or fiction meant for the book market. Only the right packaging could generate the interest in a reader.
Beyond the interest in the substance however, a book of poetry, drama or fiction should present enticing covers: the title, colours and images should be just right. Then, in order that such books might complete the journey into the stream of the industry, it must not end up in the store of its printer, or the briefcase of its author, or even the boot of his car – in the case of a writer of some means; such a book must step out there in the public space and showcase itself where potential readers might, at seeing it, develop interest in parting with the right consideration for a copy.
From my personal experience, the Nigerian poetry, drama or fiction that fails always fails in one way or the other step towards showing up on the bookshelf; lacking the necessary packaging to boost their appeal on the readers, because the writer’s imagination, or the editor, or the printer or the publisher, has failed. These four pillars of the Nigerian book are squarely responsible for the failed state of Nigerian literature. But, why do they fail?
Every literary genre has its particular aspects that distinguish it from the other genres: poetry, drama and fiction present themselves in different fashions from each other and you can always tell if you have picked up a book of poetry, drama or fiction, even before reading. Therefore, it takes a level of reading older works in those genres for a new writer to have an idea on the aspect of the genre that he wishes to write in. Sadly, many new Nigerian writers either do not have the opportunity to read such older books, due to their poor economic circumstances, or they are too deluded into thinking that writing comes naturally to a writer, without the trouble of reading any book at all. Beyond this level of acquiring the tools for properly assembling one’s imaginative works on the paper, in form of manuscript, there is the problem of editing what has been put down on paper. I know of many new writers who cannot afford any kind of editor, not to mention the best – assuming they exist in the Nigerian literary industry.
However, a sizeable number of new writers assume that they know it all, and that they do not need any editor for their works. What about the more critical stage of publishing, where the writer who could not afford an editor should get a few good ones anyway, hired by the publisher to edit the manuscript of an accepted work? I think this is the level in the industry where the most blame must be heaped, because the Nigerian publisher, who has been long identified as a glorified printer, is only interested in taking the writer’s money for editing, typesetting, graphic design and printing, without taking the slightest step in the direction of executing any of these tasks. The number of potentially good books that the Nigerian publisher has destroyed for the Nigerian reader, resulting in near total lack of confidence in Nigerian literature by the Nigerian reader and literary judge can fill the giant valley of the Nigerian book industry.
It is at this point that I think we should try to examine the issue of involvement of the Nigerian youth in the management of the Nigerian literary industry: are the Nigerian youths not part of this rot already, or they, not being involved in the industry all along, are quite innocent and ought to be given a chance to show what they could contribute towards curing the bad situation?
According to the Second National Youth Policy Document for the Federal Republic of Nigeria 2009, “In line with the conditions and realities on ground especially historical and contemporary socio-economic and political conditions, and for the purpose of execution of the current National Youth Policy, the youth shall comprise of all young males and females aged 18 – 35 years, who are citizens of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.” By this definition of the Nigerian youth, therefore, I can confidently say that about 80% of new Nigeria literature today, in its raw imaginative state on paper, is being produced by the youths, particularly in the poetry genre.
I have visited many Chapters of Association of Nigerian Authors across Nigeria, in the court of the second half of 2019, and observed a huge volume of poetry being rendered by the Nigerian youth. Participation in this level of the literary industry is open to all comers. I have also observed some sort of editing processes taking place among the same youths in Chapter meetings. It is at the publishing level that the involvement of the youth becomes restricted, largely because publishing is capital intensive, else one requires a level of confidence among one’s fellow writers before one is trusted with manuscripts and the funds to edit, typeset, design and print books. The question therefore is: if the Nigerian youth isn’t distinguishing himself at the levels of producing the imaginative works that are worthy of serious consideration, what is the guarantee that he can make any difference when it comes to publishing literatures, which is a more difficult task in the industry?
It is my considered opinion that Nigerian literature is not in the state that it ought to be, given the enormous Nigerian population; we need to do more. We need to develop a conscious policy towards enhancing the results achieved by our books out there in the market across the world. How do we do so if the Nigerian youths cannot afford to read the books that could help them produce better-packaged manuscripts for consideration by publishers of literary books, journals and magazines? But that isn’t enough: in addition to the books to read and hone their writing skills, there is need for constant writing workshops and trainings, in order to sharpen those skills that might be acquired.
Here, I am aware that a few Nigerian youths have started running literary events where young writers are registered for workshops. But these are too few and ill equipped to make any impact; they are not even drops in the vast ocean at all. The training needed should be a holistic one, where writing skills are learnt together with editing skills and those in book technology, which could enable the Nigerian youths get themselves involved in the actual production of the physical or virtual book, ready for the reader to part with the right consideration and take a copy away.
It is with this consideration in mind that the Association of Nigerian Authors of today is being restructured in its focus and outlook, towards contributing this direly needed intervention to the Nigerian nation, by training and retraining its young members and getting them set to compete for honours in the global stage and fetch the garlands that could show the rest of the world that the Nigerian literature, nay, the Nigerian cultural industry, has woken up from its long slumber and is now ready to help diversify the Nigerian economy.
Ahmed Maiwada is an Abuja-based lawyer, writer and current President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). He has authored four poetry volumes – Saint of a Woman, Fossils, Eye Rhymes and We’re Fish.