The History of Nigerian Literature

Nigeria is a mesmerising place to write about thanks to its rich historical and cultural tapestry, and the country has produced some outstanding authors of fiction, drama, poetry, biography and autobiography. 

From the first writers who gained international acclaim such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Ben Okri, today Nigeria has over 50 notable literary artists enjoying some phenomenal success. Their books grace the shelves of bookshops the world over and many are respected international prize-winners, and the sheer volume of Nigerian literature published far exceeds that of any other African country.

Nigerians have in fact been creating poetry, stories and art for thousands of years. In ancient times when writing was unknown, oral story-telling was used among the various ethnic groups, and much of the complex history, cultural and religious systems, and moral lessons were passed on down the generations by word of mouth. Outside influences arrived in the region as early as the 8th century when Arabs and Islam arrived in Africa, and by the 14th century written and spoken Arabic was in existence in what is now Northern Nigeria. The first book to be written by an indigenous author is thought to be an account of a former Igbo slave, entitled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. It was first published in 1789 and is one of the earliest known examples of published writing by an African author to be widely read in England, rapidly going through several editions. It was also the first influential slave autobiography, and fuelled the growing anti-slavery movement in Britain at the time.

In the 19th century missionaries accelerated western education in their promotion of the Christian religion, and in response some native black Muslims met the threat of Christianity by writing protests in poetry. In the 20th century, the creativeness of Nigerians blossomed and novels were first published around 1930. These early stories were centred upon fantastic, magical characters and were mostly based on folk tales and the mythical and spiritual heritage of the various ethnic groups. Perhaps the most famous of these was Amos Tutuola’s fantastic magical Yoruba tale, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, which was published in 1952, written in English and distributed in Europe. The book is often considered the seminal work of modern African literature and received accolades from author Dylan Thomas as well as other Western intellectual figures of the time.

A major shift in literary style from fantasy to realism first resulted from the founding of the University College of Ibadan (Nigeria’s first university) in 1948, when scholars began producing books about everyday life in Nigeria. Authors were further inspired by writing competitions organised by the colonial government, and the first novel-writing competition in independent Nigeria was sponsored in 1963 by the Ministry of Education. Additionally, Heinemann Educational Books, founded in 1962, published a series of textbooks in London for African universities for the teaching of literature, and then branched out to publishing novels in the Heinemann African Writers Series. These included renowned Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, first published in 1958 and re-published by Heinemann in 1962 (Achebe was also the West Africa editor for Heinemann until 1972).

After independence, and also influenced by the Nigerian Civil War (1967–1970), the 1960s were a period of great literary ferment, and stories reflected the country’s historical relationship with the colonial powers and dealt with what life was like in post-colonial Nigeria. Like Achebe’s Things Fall Apart – a fictional story about the Igbo people encountering missionaries in the early 20th century, which mirrored Nigeria’s real encounter with the colonists – the decade produced some highly critical and analytical literature. Stories were written by authors who had experienced the struggle for independence and were aware of the problems of building an independent nation where a lot of different ethnic groups had been yoked together by a self-seeking colonial power. Writers also began to deal with universal themes such as morality, religion, politics and justice. Other than Achebe, notable Nigerian writers of this era include Flora Nwapa, John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo (J. P. Clark), Christopher Okigbo and Buchi Emecheta.

The period from the 1970s to the mid-1990s took Nigerian literature into the realm of protest against successive military governments, and the writing also analysed social change in Nigeria since independence by attempting to characterise the new Nigerian identity. Authors and poets during this period include Kole Omotoso, Bode Sowande, Femi Osofisan and Niyi Osundare, as well as that stalwart critic of the regime, Wole Soyinka. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, the first African to do so (the next was Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz in 1988). Soyinka started writing in the late 1950s, but for decades – particularly from the Biafran War in the late 1960s to Sani Abacha’s tyrannical rule in the 1990s – he protested against Nigerian authoritarianism in plays, novels, poems and newspaper articles. His outspoken views earned him both a spell in prison and many years in exile.

Another famous Nigerian novelist and poet from this era is Ben Okri, who uses magical realism to comment on social change and political events in Nigeria, and was awarded the 1991 Booker Prize for Fiction for his novel The Famished Road (he was also awarded an OBE in the UK in 2001). Ken Saro-Wiwa was an author and playwright, environmental activist, and another outspoken critic of the Nigerian government, which he viewed as reluctant to enforce environmental regulations on the foreign petroleum companies operating in the Niger Delta; his activities resulted in him being executed during Abacha’s reign in 1995. Perhaps his most important book was A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary (written when he was imprisoned), which promotes the idealism that all ethnic groups in Nigeria must be allowed to shape their destiny and control their resources.

It was perhaps journalist Helon Habila who ushered in the new era of contemporary Nigerian writing when he won the 2001 Caine Prize for African Writing for his poetry and the 2003 Commonwealth Writers’ Best First Novel Prize for Waiting for an Angel. Subsequently many other young new authors writing about modern Nigeria arrived on the scene, including Chris Abani, Tolu Ogunlesi, Eghosa Imasuen, Uche Peter Umez, Uwem Akpan, Biyi Bandele, Dulue Mbachu and Toni Kan, to name but a few. Nigerian women in particular are today currently enjoying wide critical acclaim as the most successful female authors in Africa, and these include Helen Oyeyemi, Promise Okekwe, Sefi Atta and, most famously, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Born in Enugu in 1977, Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus, was shortlisted for the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction and was awarded the 2005 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, while her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, did win the Orange Prize in 2007. Today, Adichie has been credited with attracting a new generation of readers from across the globe to African literature and runs an annual writing workshop in Lagos, while Habila is a founding member and serves on the advisory board of the African Writers’ Trust.

These two influential writers, however, are far from the only prize-winners. After Habila won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2001, shortlisted nominees were Adichie in 2002; Chika Unigwe in 2004; Sefi Atta in 2006; and most recently, in July 2013, Topi Folarin, who won the coveted award with his short storyMiracle. Nigerian writers have also featured strongly in the Commonwealth Writers’ awards. After Adichie won the overall Best First Book (African region) prize in 2005 for Purple Hibiscus, Sade Adeniran won it forImagine This in 2008 (when Karen King-Aribisala also won Best Book for The Hangman’s Game); Uwem Akpan for Say You’re One of Them in 2009; and Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani for I Do Not Come To You By Chance in 2010.

Today, there are 50 or so Nigerian writers with impressive book deals in Europe and the US. While some are resident overseas rather than in Nigeria, and their stories increasingly are set in the globalised world, they do write tremendously creative stories with a uniquely Nigerian flavour. As Chinua Achebe said in a 1994 interview, “If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.”


Written by PH

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