An English Rant or Incomplete Thoughts on Nigerian Writing

For the Nigerian novel, there are grounds still for technical innovation, shifting points of view, altering the conventional linearity of chronology and suchlike. But too little has been done with language, with prose, in the contemporary Nigerian novel.

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Achebe, Adichie, and Adebayo represent the only developed path in Nigerian prose

Much of our literary writing, fiction or nonfiction, comes with a supplicatory voice. Give me this, ye gods, the tone pleads. But what gods are these prayers directed at? Isn’t the author of a piece of writing its god?

It is strange how, say, the breakneck, I-no-send-anybody approach to language in the south-south hasn’t been quite adopted and widespread in the Nigerian novel.

To my mind, there must be a way of combining a respect for the English sentence with the peculiarity of our lingo. Eghosa Imasuen’s Fine Boys is perhaps the one novel that has come close, but some other novels, rather than tap into the readily available reserves of regular Nigerian pidgin, have adopted a somewhat stilted iteration.

Our books with a first-person narrator are sluggish non-models in terms of voice. It is as though a narrator with a name must be humble, young or English illiterate — preferably all three. The unwritten rule is that there can be no such thing as a boisterous narrator. How dare you be a clever, overwhelmingly brilliant narrator? Our popular novelists seem to stand on the other extreme of the pronouncement by Martin Amis on children’s books: “I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write.”

At the time, many disapproved of that comment but, on some level, it’s understandable. If Amis chooses to relay a story through a child, the inevitable question will be this: What kind of child narrator can plausibly possess the prose powers of Amis? This refusal by a novelist to tamp his powers might be indicative of a large ego and shows him to have a limited imagination, but perhaps it is the kind of spirit the Nigerian novel can use to create prose narratives with brio and not use half-somnolent folks fronting many a story.

Back in the eighties, Amis’s much-praised novel, Money, famously failed to win the 1984 Booker, even if critics thought of it as funny, fast, and literary. Amis’s first-person narrator, John Self, is crazy, brilliant and allowed the space to be irreverent on any subject catching his consumerist eye. Of course, many Amis narrators speak like Amis writes, which is a thing with such committed prose stylists as Amis. Another such writer with immense verbal powers is the 2016 Booker winner, Paul Beatty, who when asked about the development of the blistering narrator’s voice in The Sellout said, “I mean, it’s me, of course, I’m writing the book…” (Amis has been called Britain’s most American author.)

Perhaps the Nigerian supplicant posture when we come to the novel is an unfortunate inheritance from British colonialism? Achebe did promise his contemporaries and successors will do “unheard things” to the English language, but we have let him down. Nigerian novels might have the rigour of research; but where is the vigour of voice?

Chigozie Obioma who has quoted that Achebe line approvingly has gone his peculiar way, and has repeatedly justified his prose in essay after essay. But of course, Obioma speaks of a single route, one he has trod quite well. Nigeria’s prose, however, needs more routes, new prose, new voices. Verisimilitude — via narratorial ventriloquism — is a great ability, and the new Nigerian novels employing the first-person point of view, from Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus (which is told by a girl still in school) to Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday (told by an uneducated boy), different as they all are, have worked in this mode for some time. Barring a few books, what is lacking is a distinctive authorial voice or a particularly memorable narrating voice reaching the reader through fine prose — and the undeniable inventiveness of Nigerian speech. Surely, a single country can stand to have both prosaic narrators and lively ones?

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Perhaps some of what this lively prose will look like can be found online, where the freedom of social media has wedded frivolity to seriousness, English literacy to pidgin invention. The quality of this online prose has its supporters, the former NEXT critic Ikhide Ikheloa being its most prominent advocate. There is, however, the opposite argument, a much more valid one, about how much laziness Facebook-prose cultivates, how much Twitter is for quips, not literature. Instant posting, retweeting and likes constitute a self-limiting publishing system.

To be sure, there is something to learn and enjoy from all of those posts but to be literary, some structure in the form of editing, which it currently lacks and plausibly will never get, is required. It would be quite surprising — and defeating of the immediacy of the medium — to learn of a social media editor who goes through posts and then sends back to Facebook users for posting. (Twitter is a different matter, in how it is good for readership but unhelpful for writing. Twitter is a sub-literary platform or at best staccato-literary. Jonathan Franzen only mildly overstated the case when he said, “As someone who enjoys a long sentence, I am against Twitter.”)

The lack of editors also plagues much of the blogs and websites purporting to be e-institutions dedicated to literary talent. Work that needs rejection, or at least heavy care, gets published to the gratification of the “writer”. Mostly what the Nigerian online space possesses — both in terms of journalistic and literary content — is a troupe of uploaders, not editors.

The Nigerian editor hasn’t reached her position because of a longstanding relationship with words, sentences, and ideas. She has because she is industrious, able to upload stuff and find suitable pictures in good time. She may be able to tell good from bad writing but she will settle for the very bad if it arrives on time and especially if it’s free. She will decline to make such writing better because she isn’t quite sure how to go about it.

There are exceptions as anyone is likely to point out. But for every story like Pemi Aguda’s Caterer, Caterer, which does use Nigerian phrasing deftly, there are ten unfit ones. And perhaps the mastering of shorter narratives might be enough to propel today’s writer to something larger. Among some of the fine things to come from Nigerian writers in recent times is the account published in Granta by Pwaangulongi Daoud, of a gay club in Kaduna. The scene comes alive not necessarily via attention-grabbing sentences but through a highly motile writing style.

Unfortunately, the writer was persecuted for writing that piece and had to relocate to the US. Good for him; bad for the culture.

Along with considering how that piece would be received by his countrymen, the first-time reader may have also thought: would any Nigerian publication be able to give that story the care it deserved? Would Africa’s Future Has No Space for Stupid Black Men get the editor it deserves in Nigeria? It would take a surfeit of confidence to answer to that in the affirmative. In any case, misery loves company. So, it is useful to point of that the dearth of quality editing online is not limited to Nigeria.

“The poorly structured literacy spaces may be a quicksand for the younger writer who never transcends its lustre,” wrote Gloria Mwaniga in the Kenyan publication Daily Nation, “because there is no growth in moving from one poor online magazine to another low-quality space, where there are neither credible editors nor a critical reading mass because the magazine is never able to invite or survive the kind of scrutiny needed for their next level of growth.”

Oddly what could be in terms of prose possibility in Nigeria might have come through poetry — the poetry of the late Esiaba Irobi, for instance. (It is telling that Paul Beatty was a poet before publishing novels.) Irobi’s work possesses a style that if applied to the Nigerian novel, just may have birthed something new to this country’s prose, something energetic, funny, readable and irreverent. His work seems to hold capacity for eternal verve. And while there may indeed be books that have engaging prose published by smaller nondescript publishing houses, they probably are ruined by careless editing. In any case, these incomplete thoughts refer to our more “prestigious” novels.

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One name that comes up between both Amis and Beatty is Saul Bellow. Now dead, the Nobel laureate Bellow reaped the rewards of his genius while alive — he is the only writer to win the US National Book Award three times — and may be doing so even in death. What made him special? Well, his work, to quote Andrew O’Hagan, dealt in the “uplands of style and in the lowlands of urban speech.” (The Telegraph Magazine once said Bellow is “a philosopher but a joker too, fretting about souls as much as shoe-laces.”)

Once, Bellow queried, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” Ralph Wiley supplied the answer later: “Tolstoy Is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.” Wiley’s response is connected to Teju Cole’s claim of all in the world that interests him in an essay on James Baldwin. “Bach, so profoundly human, is my heritage,” Cole wrote. “I am not an interloper when I look at a Rembrandt portrait. I care for them more than some white people do, just as some white people care more for aspects of African art than I do. I can oppose white supremacy and still rejoice in Gothic architecture.”

Both the Cole and Wiley response to Baldwin and Bellow lead to a dictum worth imbibing: the Nigerian prose writer must look in and out. This should probably be something not worth pointing out this late in the game but it is necessary — if only because many persons, especially over social media, seem to believe that a writer can be nourished by the sole consumption of Nigerian literature (and they mostly mean works written since 2003, the year of Purple Hibiscus, or perhaps two years before, when the Caine Prize first went to a Nigerian writer.)

Frankly, this is nonsense. It harks back to Baldwin’s worry about heritage and his own feeling of alienation as he contemplates great art. This disavowal of foreign writing is done on behalf of a political stance of championing local product in this post-colonial age. But as far as English is the main tool of the popular Nigerian novel, an artist seeking quality must claim it all — especially the best — in the manner of Cole.

It may come to be that at some point in the future Nigerian prose in terms of quality in many routes will be enough, but as it stands there’s no greater example of a misguided patriotism for a Nigerian writer of prose than to believe a nationalist reading will help to develop her writing.

The budding writer who wants to read only Nigerian prose as it is currently written is headed for stunted growth. She must read wide and encourage the same so that her patriotism will be rewarded in a few generations — in that, writers arriving later will have enough of a literary feast to gorge on locally, and reading stuff from elsewhere will be to access prose of a varied quality and not to seek prose of the quality variety. As it stands, the only prose path well developed in Nigeria is that with Achebe and Adichie. It is possible to add Ayobami Adebayo to this line.

The ambitious writer who has read most of our recent well-promoted novels knows all of this instinctively. For everyone else, this incomplete musing can be shortened: Read Nigeria. Read Africa. Read America. Read Japanese. Read Everything. Learn from the best.

Permit a nutritionist analogy: Eating carbohydrates may satisfy you, but a balanced diet will keep you in health.

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