By Oris Aigbokhaevbolo
For many months now, I have lamented my uniquely misspent youth. But in reading a Karl Ove Knausgaard essay in the Paris Review, it became clear to me that misspending youth was hardly particular to a book-loving Nigerian. Over in Norway, some two decades before me, Knausgaard was trawling through his own youth, talking to his fellows about other writers, pining for some sort of literary success, experiencing the envies of witnessing a once-companion turning out good and receiving acclaim, all of which I and my peers felt. All of which, frankly, my system is yet to get rid off, given the nonexistence of a work, in my name, as praised and purchased as My Struggle.
Success of that sort, I have come to learn, is not promised the Nigerian writer—at least not one not named Adichie. But for a time, it seemed as though the lives we were living could be mined and refined into literature. For that reason, the life felt valuable.
Just before we would leave all of that in the past, I asked my friend if he felt he would write a book. He was convinced he would.
“All of these suffering cannot be in vain,” he said.
These days, he works in consulting, writing copy. He tells me he receives high praise from his seniors on occasion. His manager is often astounded by the clarity of his prose. She might be unable to tell but she is getting wooed by the many sentences from non-business books he tried to imitate in his youth. Still, he knows that his sterling prose, written in service of a CEO, a COO, a GM, would hardly give him a promotion or raise. The game is different, he says; the game is networking not prose. I watch him shrug off this knowledge.
It has taken him this long to come to this place of sparkling business prose. But he has had internships: those misspent hours he and I spent talking not just Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie but Martin Amis, John Updike, David Remnick, James Baldwin. He never quite graduated into becoming a Knausgaard, but he could have. At least, I think he could have. For many writers, you get on with the business of literary production as soon as you can type; for others, time spent idling can be valuable. You can be Updike and receive an offer from the New Yorker as soon you as graduate from college. Or you can be Geoff Dyer, chilling on the dole.
Using two non-Nigerians as an example is pertinent. The models for literary life in Nigeria have never been quite clear. “When success happens to an English writer, he acquires a new typewriter,” Amis wrote decades ago. “When success happens to an American, he acquires a new life.” Nobody knows what happens when success happens to a Nigeria writer. He might acquire space in a story published by a UK/US journal. Beyond that, nobody knows.
In Lagos, it used to be that writers and other artists gathered at certain times and certain spots and shot the breeze; there were book readings; we had folk concerts; we had heated discussions by the unpublished sect about the merit or otherwise of published writers, the ones who had books, the ones who got into magazines, the ones whose pieces provided grist for the literary mill. I am not sure the mills remain but there certainly is no grist. In place of the literary mill, we have tech talks. I sometimes think of the situation as untenable, but I recognise my bias and catch myself.
As young people become bombarded by news of the heavy sums of money their peers receive from jobs in the technology industry, it has become the most attractive sector to anyone just leaving college or about to enter. Even with the knowledge that very few people who think highly about literature are really thinking about money, it must be said that there is significant difference—and distress—between getting offered no money and getting low money.
Years ago, I was offered 80,000 naira (about $170 today) to take up a writing job for a lifestyle website. I wanted 120,000 naira and was told I was not worth that much. But I was a stubborn kid: I insisted. The offer came to an agreed 100,000. Almost a decade later, earning that much as a writer in Nigeria would spur celebration in many quarters, as not long ago, there was a minor scandal when it was revealed that a blog was paying its top writer/editor a monthly fee of 10,000 naira. (To compare, the Nigerian minimum wage was recently increased to 30,000 naira.)
It is a harsh climate for anyone working in the literary space. Why do it when there are way better paying options? And if you do it because you don’t have a lot of materialism in your heart, then you do it for the readership. But even that isn’t quite assured. To be published in a local magazine is to be underpaid, underread, and unappreciated. Why do it?
Writing as a Nigerian has maybe always been dire but it is hard to see how much worse it could have been at any other point before now. Better education standards in the 1960s and 1970s meant some readership for literature. The military’s occupation of the 1980s and 1990s and its disdain of writers meant sympathy for the writer’s plight. The rise of the Caine Prize in the 2000s and its western media coverage meant some celebrity even for non-winning nominees. The first two have disappeared. The Caine Prize is no longer as popular. This has coincided with the rise of technology, gargantuan valuations, and rumours of salaries incomprehensible to Nigerian writers of all ages.
For those who don’t quite care about money, this decline can only be traced to the literary establishment online and offline. Not long ago, there was a Nigerian blog that served as the online drinking hole. We frequently complained about its more or less un-literary methods, but it gave the Nigerian and wider African writing community a centre. A couple years ago, it became involved in an issue concerning a prominent politician’s family and quickly fell from grace when its prominent editor departed.
I have come to think of that departure as an ending because the publication is yet to return to its former glory, although the new one started by the departing staff is on the ascendancy. There is hardly any other publication catering to a shrinking literary audience. And on the rare occasion when something writerly happens uninvolved with the US or the UK, it is almost certainly extracurricular. An elderly writer attacking writers for selling out to politicians; someone insulting that elderly writer for his attacks; someone attacking another writer’s politics via tweets. There is no time to write anything longer. The one decidedly good thing to happen involved the acquisition of a book for cinematic adaptation but the book was written and published back when it felt like Nigerian literature was on the brink of a massive renaissance.
Offline, Nigerian publishers, except for the newcomers Masobe, say they are battling with reader apathy and are clearly more interested in republishing books already successful in the west. There are several reasons why there can be no other Chimamanda from Nigeria. One of them is that the support has simply disappeared: there are no publishers to support young writers, the distribution system has never quite existed, and it is an ongoing debate whether Nigeria contains enough serious readers to support the ambitions or even the dietary requirements of writers. And without consumers, there is no market.
That isn’t entirely true. There is a market, but it is not of readers; it is of people who need to look good to the populace. Ergo, politicians, the wealthy, and “brands”. Writers have always been needed by those people, but the existence of publishers and readers meant there was another way. That is gone and young people can see the signs. It would be surprising to hear of a young person who is fighting with her parents because they want to be a writer in Nigeria. That fight is old news. Adichie’s success is so far removed from today’s situation that she might as well not just belong to a different generation but might be a different life-form. But even she had the benefit of two super-educated parents in a poor country and the gift of the US relatively early in life.
Until 2020, one could attend a book reading or just go for drinks at Freedom Park and see a bunch of writers talking in that way that made you want to be among, and upon realising that a part of the ticket was writing well enough—or getting published enough—you wanted to try. That, too, is gone. As more music and films are getting released and catapulting artists in those fields to stardom while lit chat decreases on the timeline, is there really any reason for a young person to want to take part in what doesn’t exist?
Unfortunately, the rot in the literary space is not confined to literature. Its effect is felt in film, on TV, and maybe even in Nigerian music. The quality of writing and thought in all those spaces has diminished. Arguably, it has never really been stellar in, say, Nollywood—but you could say same for production values. Now, with the improvement of cinematography, the still deplorable state of the country’s screenwriting is unmissable. Younger filmmakers grow into an industry with hardly anyone acquiring a literary sensibility and it shows. A lot of the popular movies from Nollywood are comedies catering to the basest of instincts; there are too few, if any, mainstream filmmakers invested in seriously analysing or presenting the way we live now to viewers. Nollywood has only Marvel; there are no Scorseses. When Netflix announced the acquisition of a novel and a play for adaptation a few years ago, the job of directing the project went to a filmmaker outside of Nigeria.
In the absence of successful models, it becomes impossible for young people to care. It may be clear to them that there is too little money to be made, no platform for support, and hardly any reader to be found.
And yet, upon some reflection, it perhaps works best for them to have come into this realisation this early. To know that your country would not support your dream is to be quickened into real Nigerian life where earning a living is not just the paramount thing; it is the only thing. Knausgaard had the luxury of idling, talking about the older masters who were doing their work of literature creating, getting into literary discussions with his peers, safe that if he was able to be good, his country would support him. And, as that story goes, Norway did come through for him when an editor asked to see his work. He was daydreaming, but those dreams were grounded in a vague concreteness. What excuse do young people have today to not understand the utter precariousness of facing a life of letters in Nigeria? Is there any use looking at the model supplied by my friend and me? Instead of discussing the merits of a sentence at Freedom Park, they could be building a career in tech, in consulting, in finance, using those hours my friend spent in my company or in company of a book to build a career in the shortest time possible.
Those who came to a realisation sometime after becoming mature adults took the next best option: they fled abroad, mostly to MFA programmes, escaping the uncertainty of pursuing their literary desire in their own country. Better an institution than destitution. There might be political questions and racial problems that come with a foreign land but no matter. As every Nigerian knows only non-Nigerians think that home is best. We’d eat racism with a side of fries if it means keeping the right to remain abroad. We all lamented Trump’s decision to restrict movement to the US from Nigeria. We all were relieved when Biden undid that decision.
So over the past few years, many of the writers of my generation you may have found at Freedom Park pre-pandemic have gotten into programmes in the US. When they appear online, it is with brightly lit backgrounds and a smile; the cramped earnestness that used to be on their faces whenever you caught them without a drink in hand in Lagos has been vanquished. I am happy for them—even if, inevitably, a preinstalled thought frequently arrives: Would you not be better over there yourself?
Perhaps the one thing that prevented that thought from tipping over into a cauldron of envy is a phenomenon none of them have been able to explain to me during our infrequent conversations: Until recently, why were they failing to produce essays and fiction? What has happened to the writer’s need to process experience into text?
This puts me in the strange position of sharing a sentiment with the unlikely figure of the late Larry McMurtry, who wondered why even as so many of his fellow Texan writers had become city-dwellers, the stories from his peers were about distinctly non-citified areas. “The vast majority of Texas writers have been urbanites for decades,” he wrote in a 1981 essay. “Many are veterans not only of the Texas cities, but of the cities of the East Coast, the West Coast, and Europe. Where has this experience gone? Where are the novels, stories, poems, and plays that ought to be using it?”
McMurtry, bless his soul, attributed the blame first to Texan readership: they want to read the same old things repeatedly. He then carpets his clan of writers for not ignoring the calls to repeat the same old stories about non-city Texas:
“Too many of them love repeating themselves—after all, it’s easier than thinking up something new to say…Easier to write about the homefolks, the old folks, cowboys, or the small town than to deal with the more immediate and frequently less simplistic experience of city life. What this amounts to is intellectual laziness. Most Texas writers only know one trick, and seem determined to keep from learning another. The result is a limited, shallow, self-repetitious literature which has so far failed completely to do justice to the complexities of life in the state.”
I do not think the issue at play with the Nigerian literary immigrant is intellectual laziness. There is nothing intellectual about the kind of silence described here—nor is there evidence of laziness. Still, there is something to be said for the collective failure of Nigerian writers to do justice to the complexity of both life as a Nigerian and life as a Nigerian writer. It’s certainly weird that given the rather dubious existence of significant national readership, the freedom one might expect that should give has not led to the production of stories that cater even exclusively to the writer’s own whims. After all, without someone to say don’t write this, the writer is free to engage in what some call intellectual masturbation if not in print then in some blog somewhere. The other option is for the literary immigrant to produce stories a western readership craves, which, to be sure, is the endgame whenever a massive trove of writing begins to emerge from Nigeria’s literary immigrants.
In the meantime, not much is getting written—although it must be said that Nigerian poets in MFA programmes are significantly more productive than their prose-inclined peers. And having not been engaged by such a programme, I have no idea if the issue at hand is related to coursework, teaching, or whatever else is required to receive a stipend. Which is its own problem: The average Nigeria-based writer is wont to complain about a lack of electricity, heavy city traffic, the need to earn a living doing something else, and the worry of tomorrow’s meal; the MFA-track Nigerian writer’s reasons for reticence are so far so obscure.
What is clear is a fascinating paradox: the search for a better life has resulted in both the depletion of Nigerian writers and Nigerian writing. A similar search for better conditions is ongoing with Nigerian doctors but there seems to be no loss of Nigerian doctors doctoring—and tutoring, as social media exchanges involving healthcare professionals see homebased medical workers receive tips from their emigrant colleagues, who seem quite happy to explain in detail the mandatory exams for accreditation and what mistakes to avoid in seeking employment abroad. A similar sharing of experience is afoot in the technology space. You do not need to belong to that space to have an idea of the meanings of stuff like API, fintech, python, UI/UX and so on. There are numerous blogs, books, and videos explaining how to navigate a tech career overseas.
Compared to this outpouring from the tech and medical scenes, the literary scene is tight-lipped. If, as is sometimes claimed, a writer is compelled to write about her experiences, then surely several answers to these questions should have been proffered in an essay somewhere: What have literary escapees faced outside of Nigeria? What was the process of leaving their homes like? What difficulties were faced upon arriving a foreign country?
Besides a handful of memoirs—Ucheoma Onwutuebe’s recent Catapult column is a notable one—these are hard questions to answer because too few writers have deployed their experiences in the “novels, stories, poems, and plays that ought to be using it” to quote McMurtry.
As it was once, so it is again: Any young Nigerian stubborn, foolish, and blind enough to insist on writing as a career must go it on her own, with neither a national guide nor an international map—so that you could say that to be a Nigerian writer today is to live a peculiar loneliness. But that’s not the whole truth. Nigerian writers are very much united—in spirit—because whether based outside of the country or inside of it, the Nigerian writer is not heavily involved in the production of literary writing anymore. To be a Nigerian writer these days is not to be a writer at all. To be a Nigerian writer is to be a teacher abroad, a tech employee, a “comms” consultant, a social media handler. Although a meeting was never held, we agree that there are more important things to do, to be, and, to become.
“Meanwhile, as the cities boom and the state changes, a great period is being wasted.” That’s McMurtry again—but change a few words and he could be discussing the state of Nigerian writing. E
Oris Aigbokhaevbolo has been published by the London Review of Books, Sight and Sound magazine, and the New York Review of Books. His debut collection of essays, from which this piece is taken, will appear in 2023.