Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Nigeria has produced some of the world’s best authors—so why is its reading culture so poor?

A woman buys a book at a book store in Lagos, Nigeria.

Back in February, Nigeria’s Guaranty Trust Bank announced the launch of The Dusty Manuscript, a contest for Nigerian crime and romance fiction writers with finished but unpublished novels.
The top three authors from the contest will get a publishing contract with Kachifo, one of the country’s renowned publishing houses. Kachifo distributes some of the Nigeria’s best known authors, including Chimamanda Adichie, Jowhor Ile, and Eghosa Imasuen.

Over the last decade a number of literary prizes like these have helped support Nigeria’s literary fiction circles. They include the 9Mobile Prize for Literature, backed by the telecommunications company formerly known as Etisalat, the Nigeria Prize for Literature, sponsored by the NLNG gas company, and the Miles Morland grant, which supports authors working on a novel for a year.
While these prizes will help up and coming writers gain exposure as well as the chance to sell their work, it’s important to ask what kind of market their books will be entering.
The reality on the ground is that demand for literary fiction in Nigeria is low. Nigeria’s rich literary history includes some of the world’s most respected authors, such as Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, which has been translated to more than 50 languages; Wole Soyinka, Africa’s first’ Nobel laureate for literature, and Florence Nwapa, who is often referred to as the “mother” of modern African literature. In the current era, Nigeria boasts one of the world’s best known authors in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose literary success has been amplified by her commentary on everything from feminism to African politics.

Despite that rich history and the current growth and interest, the reality on the ground is that demand for literary fiction in Nigeria is low.

It’s unclear if it’s about people not wanting to read for leisure, or in fact not having access to fiction. Books have become increasingly expensive in the country as bookshops have shuttered, and with an adult literacy rate of 51%, it’s not surprising that some supporters of literature in the country are concerned about how novelists might fare once their books are published.

“Forget the number of books you see being sold in traffic and our global acclaim for excelling—Nigerians read only when they have to.” Wale Adetula, the founder of The Naked Convos, one of Nigeria’s popular youth-oriented blogs, is one of those people. He conducted an online poll surveying over a thousand users of his site on their reading habits, and found that many said they only read one book a year. These results inspired him to launch the TNC Stories app, which carries the disconcerting tagline, “Reading is dead.” This app allows contributors to create and share stories using text video, audio and music—Adetula’s attempt to keep Nigerians reading, albeit in non-conventional forms.

“The reading culture in Nigeria is poor,” Adetula says. “Forget the number of books you see being sold in traffic and our global acclaim for excelling—Nigerians read only when they have to.”

Adetula believes a culture of reading is not being written into Nigeria’s educational system. “Students see it as some sort of necessary evil. And it becomes harder when you have to deal with the many distractions and challenges that come with being an adult and living in a country like Nigeria.”
Indeed, most of the sales for Farafina Books, an imprint of Kachifo, and one of the country’s most popular publishing houses, come from religious or educational texts, not fiction, according to a senior editor there.

Okada Books, one of the sponsors of the Dusty Manuscript contest, also makes much of its money selling educational, self-help, and motivational titles, but is similarly trying to cultivate a love of reading amongst young Nigerians. The free reading app publishes ebooks written by Nigerian authors covering a host of genres, from memoir to comedy to thrillers. Customer support representative Karo Oforofuo says that authors from the diaspora have reached out to discuss potentially distributing their books to an African audience on the app.

Oforofuo believes Nigerian reading culture “is getting better by the day, given the computer age and advent of ebooks.” Nigeria has a limited number of bookshops, and printing books domestically is a difficult and expensive process. Ebooks are easier to distribute, as people only need the app to download as many books as they want, Oforofuo says.

In 2011, academics from Lagos State University released a paper titled “Poor Reading Habits Among Nigerians,” which cited the benefits of reading for self-improvement and mental and emotional health and hypothesized that Nigeria’s reading culture had suffered from widespread poverty, corruption, deprioritization, and a dearth of dedicated quiet reading spaces like libraries. “A reading nation is an informed nation,” the authors write. “Nigeria can not be regarded as a reading nation because the younger generation of Nigerians does not consider reading a leisure activity.”

The Nigerian literary canon will keep expanding and developing, thanks in part to the interest expressed by private institutions. But it won’t get far if it doesn’t spread to the offices of elected representatives, or if people don’t view reading as a enjoyable hobby. If new genres continue to be supported, books redistributed and reoriented as multimedia content, and the government takes an active role in the refurbishment of existing libraries and the redesign of the school curriculum, some things might change. For now, the players in the small, but growing industry keep fighting to keep reading alive.

Can Literary Imports Change Chinese Perceptions of Africa?

The continent’s best-loved texts are increasingly being translated into Chinese, but publishers are skeptical of their wider influence.

Image result for china

Western media frequently depicts China as a neocolonial power that seeks to import Africa’s natural resources at fire-sale prices, with precious little interest in the continent’s people or culture. At the same time, certain Chinese media outlets have recently come under the spotlight for their representations of Africans, while many black people in China complain that interactions are rife with racist stereotypes.

While economic considerations drive much cross-cultural exchange between China and Africa, the latter’s cultural exports have the potential to profoundly shape the ways Chinese people view the continent. The translation of African literature, for example, may give Chinese readers valuable insights into the sheer diversity of human culture and experience across the region.

Few avid Chinese readers of fiction can name an African author or novel, and those who do often cite “Things Fall Apart,” the highly acclaimed novel by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe that portrays the tragic encounter between the Igbo tribe and British colonialism. It was first published in Chinese in the 1960s and has been reprinted countless times since. While literary circles in Africa no longer worship at Achebe’s altar, China’s literary establishment continues to trumpet him as the reigning “father of African literature,” almost to the exclusion of emerging authors.

Since the founding of the modern Chinese state in 1949, there have been three waves of African literary imports. The first, which emerged in the 1980s, was ideologically driven. Empowered by Beijing’s policy of promoting solidarity with the Third World and newly independent nations, state-run imprints like the Foreign Literature Publishing House translated and published a substantial number of African works such as those by the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, the Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Senegalese poet (and former president) Léopold Sédar Senghor, and the Algerian writer Mouloud Mammeri. Anthologies of translated African folktales for children even appeared.

During the ’90s and 2000s, imported African literature was top-heavy with winners of globally recognized awards such as the Nobel Prize in Literature. Imports slowed and tended to focus less on the works of socialist-inspired thinkers in favor of high-profile Nobel laureates such as J. M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, both with South African roots, and Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz.
Sellers of African literature say that Chinese publishers have expressed interest in a number of other fictional works, but are quick to mention that perplexing attitudes by Chinese publishers hamper understanding.

Today, the popularity of a generation of young African writers is changing that picture again, although barriers to import remain. In particular, a Chinese translation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah” launched early this year, the fifth of her books to appear in Mandarin including last year’s “Purple Hibiscus” and the controversial “We Should All Be Feminists.” According to the online bilingual database African Writing in Chinese Translation, only two other black African writers have five or more of their works available in Chinese: the abovementioned Soyinka and Achebe.

Arguably, 2017 saw a sizable batch of translations launched in China — the database records eight new titles, four from the prestigious People’s Literature Publishing House. Prominent among them is “Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty,” a novel by renowned Francophone Congolese author Alain Mabanckou, who is now based in the U.S. and thus a so-called African diaspora writer. Two others are translations from Algerian writers who also write in French: Boualem Sansal’s dystopian novel “2084: The End of the World” and Kamel Daoud’s retelling of Albert Camus’ “The Stranger,” which is titled “The Meursault Investigation” and for which Daoud received death threats in the form of a fatwa.

Sellers of African literature say that Chinese publishers have expressed interest in a number of other fictional works, but are quick to mention that certain rather perplexing attitudes and practices by Chinese publishers hamper understanding and impact sales to the “China black box.”

“There seem to be far more hurdles in accessing the Chinese market than the already immense difficulties of an African publisher accessing the European, North American, and Arab markets,” says Richard Ali, chief operating officer of the Lagos-based publishing house Parrésia. He points out that currently, there are almost no platforms where African and Chinese publishing professionals can easily interact. Take the industry’s largest global event, for instance. “At the Frankfurt Book Fair, I didn’t encounter a single Chinese publisher, literary agent, or translation agent. So, how does the conversation start?”

Meanwhile, China-based publishers often seem to be on a single-minded quest for a blockbuster.
Says Pierre Astier, founder of the Paris-based literary agency Astier-Pécher whose stable includes several African Francophone authors: “I’ve been to China three times in four years to understand the market and meet people. We haven’t done much business with China up to now, though it is constantly developing. But I have not yet perceived a serious interest in African literature, except for very big names and best-sellers.”

This preference is affirmed by the Nanjing-based publisher Yilin Press, which has built its reputation on translated literature. Between 2011 and 2013, Yilin published three novels by Man Booker Prize winner Ben Okri, but has not ventured further into the market for African fiction. “We will continue to keep our eye on African authors,” says Danielle Yang of Yilin’s international cooperation department, “and if there are any winners of major awards, books that possess best-seller potential, we will consider buying the rights.”

Among African publishers, Black Tower Publishers is perhaps the most proactive in marketing its writers internationally. It opened a subsidiary in London in 2016 and, according to founder Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, is represented by the Intercontinental Literary Agency (ILA) in China. “ILA attended the Beijing Book Fair in August [2017] and had meetings with over 40 publishers,” Bakare-Yusuf notes, adding that Cassava Republic also met with Chinese publishers at the Sharjah International Book Fair in the UAE in 2015 and 2016.

“We do believe there is a market for our authors in China,” Bakare-Yusuf concludes. “We know that there are growing business links between China and the African continent, and we are keen to make works by African authors available in Chinese. We hope that when the Chinese audience is able to read and see the diverse representation of African humanity, it might allow them to recognize its complexity.”