In the lecture halls of many Western universities, as well as on their bookshelves in well-stocked libraries, it is not hard to find books authored by Nigerians. These are the books Western professors want you to read if you are ever going to be thought knowledgeable in African literature. These are the classics or the most exemplary works of fiction and semi-fiction, we are told.
The question is neither often posed nor answered. How are many of these books in ‘classic’ African literature authored by Nigerians? Yes, there are a few books from other distinguished Africans such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o from Kenya and Nii Ayikwei Armah of Ghana.
But whoever’s got what, Nigeria can call on a few more of their own with a lot more ‘big books’.
In going about understanding how Nigeria has successfully produced some of Africa’s best-known literati, we need to understand what is meant by ‘classic literature’.
Writing for ThoughtCo.com, Esther Lombardi – a freelance journalist – notes that what we can call ‘classic’ can be hotly contested topic. There are, however, some characteristics we are to look out for.
The work must have artistic quality, presumably judged as having high intellectual quality by experts and critics. Second, it must have stood the test of time. This is something that is the work of publishers and distributors.
Lombardi continues that a classic must transcend generations (so, the test of time). It must also make connections by which Lombardi means it must be informed by the ‘history of ideas’.
But one characteristic that stands out, especially in relation to Nigerian authorship, is that a classic must have the theme of universality. A classic book must be like a party to which everyone is invited. On that score, above anything and anyone else, the Nigerians tower above the rest of Africa.
Take Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It is a book about a man’s life journey as he tries to find himself in a world that is rapidly changing according to the whims of foreigners.
The foreigners tell this man that his ways and those of his fathers are wrong and misguided. He is asked, sometimes quite explicitly to abandon his traditional identity and be subsumed into the great big fluffy goodness that the foreigners’ ways are.
Things Fall Apart is a book on a clash of cultures. It is a book that measures what happens when change demands to be taken seriously.
With the life of his protagonist and self-harming hero Okonkwo, Achebe compels the reader to face the moral questions of colonial imperialism, Christendom’s role in that adventure as well as the fate of the people who were subjugated. The themes are global and timeless.
In fairness to the competition, Achebe is called the father of modern African literature for a reason. You do not get to be called the father of anything unless you are a watershed. I once came by a listicle titled: “10 Best African writers (Who are not Chinua Achebe)“.
But many Nigerian authors since Achebe have actually not departed much from ticking the boxes on producing classics. And the receipts are there.
Wole Soyinka, who is younger than Achebe, is the first black African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Buchi Emecheta’s magnum opus The Joys of Motherhood was a trendsetter in 20th-century feminist literature. It put her on the path to an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2005.
Then comes Teju Cole, the acclaimed author and art historian born to Nigerian parents in New York. His 2011 book Open City was selected by the New York Times as one of the best for that year.
And now, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, legitimately Africa’s most famous feminist author at the moment is about to have her worldwide bestseller Americanah, made into a Hollywood movie. Can a book have more ‘universal appeal’ than that?
Interestingly, the African country with the most African Nobel laureates in literature is South Africa (Nardine Gordimer and John Coetzee, both white).
So why do Western critics and experts love the Nigerians? Well, one would need a Westen critic and expert to answer that. I am, however, not willing to rule out that Nigerian authors after the likes of Achebe and Soyinka have inherited the privilege of the benefit of doubt. And they have used quite well.
If you are Adichie or someone younger of Nigerian descent, there is a wonderful heritage and you will be buoyed by that. The future is most likely going to get better.
Indeed, all of this is a win for Africa. With Nigerian authors staying true to telling African stories with global themes, more and more are invited to learn the African perspective on things.