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Things Come Together: A Journey through Literary Lagos

[clock] 11-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Spring 1940

November/December 2006

It was late at night, and Toni Kan and I were pissing into a stream next to the expressway in Lagos, Nigeria. Cars raced past, to and from the city. Most would make it to where they were going. A few would not. They would break down, or crash, or get stopped by the police or worse, the Area Boys: local thugs who ruled parts of this city of 16 million by force and by fear.

Behind us there were rows and rows of apartments. By now the windows were dark. The doors were all locked and bolted tight. People inside were sleeping, or watching the news, which was mostly about kidnappings lately, but which on a given night might be about the rebels in the delta, the clashes in the north, or the plane crash that would happen in a few days.

Further on, there were more apartments and more houses. They stretched on for miles, some poorer, some richer, some shantytowns, some mansions. They merged and joined and made up the patchwork of humanity known as Lagos, which may be the biggest city in Africa.

“You can never have writer’s block in Lagos,” Toni Kan tells me, “Saying you haven’t got material to work with, it would be a lie. There is a novel behind every shuttered window.”

Lagos Crowds
The streets of Lagos, Nigeria. Copyright Vincent Le Moign.

There is more than that. In Lagos, there is a story on every corner, a novella standing in every doorway. The wind blows poems across the city like the bits of trash cover it. Lagos is a huge Dickensian space full of heartbreak and humor and millions of souls putting themselves up against the hard edge of the world. The city is pulsing with stories that flow through its streets.

Lately, a new generation of writers like Toni Kan, Helon Habila, Uzodinma Iweala, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and others have been putting these stories out into the world, and putting Nigeria back on the literary map. Once, this place was the epicenter of African letters, producing giants like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Ben Okri.

But during the bad years, the dark years, the years of Abacha and the dictators before him, the Nigerian writer started to become one of Africa’s most endangered species.

Today, they are back, putting out books, scooping up prizes, and best of all, dipping into the river that runs through here, pulling out story after story full of struggle and laughter and humanity.

And there is something else, something besides time, that separates this new generation from the old. They are young and savvy. They are globalized and digitized. They have one foot in Hollywood and another in Nollywood.

Toni Kan and I got back in the car and our talk turned again to books. We were discussing Dave Eggers, and over the weeks I was in Nigeria, our talk ranged from everyone from Ben Okri to Edwidge Danticat to Vikram Seth to Dan Brown to David Mitchell. It seemed like there was almost no one he hadn’t read, and couldn’t discuss with ease.

Ahead of us, a police checkpoint appeared in our lights. An officer waved us over and Toni rolled down his window. He told them his name, and the officer waved us along. Toni Kan never had to pay, he said. They knew who he was, or dimly recognized him as someone important. He worked in a bank—no, writing couldn’t pay the bills. But he still wrote, and his name still hung in the air as the editor, the journalist, and the poet.

I had met up with Toni earlier that night, at the Jazz Hole, a small bookshop on Awolowo Road, crammed in between the fast food restaurants and cyber cafes, set back from the road that pulsed with screaming motorcycles.

Inside the bookstore, electric fans were roaring. There was no air conditioning, and the thick coastal air seemed to be seeping in from outside. Book covers curled in the heat. People were filing in, and there was some low excited chatter. The room got hotter and hotter.

We were waiting for Sefi Atta, a tall, graceful American-based Nigerian writer who had been flown in from the US, and who was one of a recent crop of rising Nigerian literary stars, whose work has been appearing in the US and the UK after the long Nigerian drought.

Things had changed in the interim, and these new writers have new things to write about. They don’t care about political independence or national struggle as much as personal independence and individual struggle. They have a new world to put into words, a post ideological, post-terror, post-cyber world of urban struggle and shifting identity. Theirs is a world with an elusive sense of self out there, somewhere, just beyond their grasp.

Toni Kan had assured me that all Lagos’ literati would be at the reading, and that was how it seemed. There were women and men from all over the city. There were journalists, poets, novelist, students, scholars and readers packed into the small bookshop.

Sefi Atta arrived. She was an elegant woman, and a distant in-law of Wole Soyinka. She was escorted by a thin man with a shaved head and young eyes, who I mistook for a college student. His name was Muhtar, and I later learned he was a businessman turned publisher who had just started a new magazine and a book imprint called Farafina.

Muhtar had bought the Nigerian rights to Atta’s Everything Good Will Come, and had convinced Nigerian corporate sponsors to fly her over from America for a promotional tour across West Africa. This seemed like a good sign of life in the arts. In the past, sponsorship of this kind was always a government project aimed at producing trophies for the nation. Now things are different. This is private money. This is personal art.

Sefi Atta took the stand. The room went quiet and she began to read from her novel, which Toni Kan called in a review, “a silent love song to Lagos.” As Atta read on, I looked around and saw Toni at the back of the room. He was a big, broad-shouldered man who cut a swath through any room. He always seemed loud and imposing at first, but really was the poet underneath.

At the front of the room, Sefi Atta finished her reading, then endured a brutal question and answer session. One woman wanted to know what had happened to a character. Another wanted to know why she chose a particular ending. One man was angry and accused her of promoting western values like feminism. Then other women stood up and defended her. It was long and intense, and the people had actually read the book. It had meant something.

When the reading was finished, Toni came over and introduced me to some of the other writers who’d come, like Chux Ohai, one of the top literary journalists in the country, and Chiedu Ezeanah, who had barely survived being shot during the chaotic last days of Abacha. Later he and I were talking about witchcraft and magic and fantastic things in the Nigerian papers. “You talk about magical realism,” he said. “We have magical realism here every day.”

Dictatorship is as bad for publishing as it is for just about everything. General Sani Abacha looted the national treasury, stifled the economy, and made life and hope spiral downward. For years, Nigeria’s poets and journalists thought more about survival than about producing great works. Those who could get out, did. Others laid low. A few, like the executed writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, were not so lucky.

Abacha died suddenly, mysteriously, in 1998. Some say he was killed. Others that he had a Viagra-induced heart attack. Whatever the cause, no one mourned. Instead, they drove through the streets and blared their horns all day long.

Dictatorship may not be good for publishing, but it does give writers good material, and it wasn’t long after Abacha died that these works started coming out. In 2000, a young writer named Helon Habila, a college friend of Toni Kan, took his collection of short stories set under Abacha, and sequestered himself away to polish them into smooth stones. When they were finished, he published the collection himself, and sent a copy into the Caine Prize in African Writing.

Habila’s book about life under the junta won him first prize. Ever since, we have been hearing more and more new Nigerian voices.

At the Jazzhole, people started to trickle out into the street. A bunch of us piled in Toni’s car and headed over to the French Cultural Center, which had live music, open tables, and cheap beer.

The drinks came, and we were talking politely, until someone dropped a bombshell, saying that 2Face Idibia, Nigeria’s biggest hip hop star, was all marketing, no talent.

The comment went off like hand grenade, and the reverberations kept up for the whole night. “No, 2Face has talent!” “Yes, 2Face has some talent, but better marketing!” “Celine Dion said herself: Talent is not enough!” “Who said talent wasn’t important?” “No one said talent wasn’t important! But talent alone is useless!” “Who said 2Face didn’t have talent?!” “2Face has more talent than Celine Dion!”

“It’s always like this,” said Jahman Aniklapo, the arts editor at one of the big papers in Lagos, who was sitting next to me. He pointed to all the other tables around us, filled with people drinking and talking. “All these people will be discussing something similar,” he said. “Once I was at a table, and someone said, ‘Soyinka is a crap writer,’ and it started just like this.”

As the discussion raged, I turned to Chike Ofile, a poet and corporate branding consultant. I asked him where he thought Nigerian literature was now, and where it was going, compared to where it had been.

“The first generation,” he told me over the din, “dealt with the white man, with colonialism, with independence. The second generation dealt with ideology. Now, our generation is dealing with the anger of unfulfillment.”

When he said this, I knew it. This was the piece I’d been looking for. This was why these new writers had begun to resonate across the gulfs that separate Nigeria from America. That anger is something we know well, the feeling that something promised us but never received. And that anger, that grasping, is a major force driving the new arts movement in Nigeria. As in Kenya, where hip hop artists blazed a trail and left a cloud of energy that is spilling over into Nigeria’s theater, literature, and film.

Everyone in Nigeria senses this momentum. Some see it as slight, but many see it as tectonic. Chiedu Ezeanah told me we were witnessing a very serious revival. Nduka Otiono, general secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors, said Nigerian writing is without a doubt on its way up. Writer Omowumni Segun says she has seen many new young writers doing great work, but that most remained undiscovered because there were so few outlets, so few publishers.

“We are undergoing a fermentation period in Nigerian literature,” Jossy Idam, an editor at The Sun newspaper, told me confidently. “The real Nigerian novel is going to emerge. I don’t know where it’s going to come from or who is going to do it. But it will come. We are at the beginning. The world hasn’t seen anything yet.”

I asked Odia Ofeimun, one of the grandfathers of Nigerian literature about this too one day, as we sat at his house in Lagos. Over the roar of his generator, the old man swore up and down that there wasn’t any kind of revival or renaissance or anything underway. But then, as I was on my way out of his house, he stopped me and held up his finger.

“The next five years,” he said in a mark-my-words tone, “will be very exciting for Nigerian literature. All these poets who have been winning awards and getting prizes will be coming to maturity.”

Even he, it seemed, could sense something in the air.

At the French Cultural Center, the talk eventually died down at our table. The beers and the suya were finished; the argument about talent versus marketing was not, and probably never would be.

Toni Kan and I said goodbye to the others, got up and went to his car, then drove out into the city. Finally I asked him where he thought Nigerian literature was.

“Things are happening,” he said, “This is our time now.”


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