As part of his tour of the UK to promote his novel, Foreign Gods, Inc., journalist, academic and writer Okey Ndibe paid a visit to the University of Sussex earlier this week. As well as being interviewed by locally-based African literature blogger Bookshy, Ndibe also took part in a panel discussion in which he talked about the circulation of texts, ideas and politics in Nigeria, alongside journalist and doctoral researcher Uche Igwe, Africa in Words’ Kate Haines, and me. As often in discussion of Nigerian politics, much of the conversation revolved around the question of ‘how do you solve a problem like Nigeria’? But also, we asked, what is the role of literature and its internal circulations within Nigeria?
Okey Ndibe, himself a wonderful storyteller both on paper and when speaking, explored the role of literature and the writer in confronting problems within Nigeria. One of the tasks of Nigerian writers, he suggested, has been to recuperate ‘our stories’ from centuries of derogation. But at the same time,
‘the writer’s obligation is not to show a good picture; it is to show a true one’
Ndibe talked about some of the new ways the nation could be imagined, such as through an ‘ethnicity of values’ rather than ethnicity based on accidents of birth.
Uche Igwe also explored ‘the trouble with Nigeria’, focusing on the ‘politics of the national cake’. Igwe examined what happens when everyone, reasonably enough, thinks they should be able to get their share of the ‘national cake’, but that cake is not distributed equitably. The result is that people have to take it for themselves, not always fairly (and as Okey Ndibe added, ‘nobody talks about baking the national cake – it’s all about eating the national cake’) Igwe borrowed a metaphor from Daniel Jordan Smith’s book A Culture of Corruption to suggest that corruption is like driving in a traffic jam; everyone else around you is driving badly so you do as well just in order to make any progress, even though you know it would be better for everyone if everyone drove properly.
Turning to the question of circulations and mobility, Kate Haines’ talk explored how we can place literary texts within ‘networks of exchange’ rather than simply recognising the author as the sole creator of a literary text. Haines discussed a case study based on the marketing of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels to show how the circulation of texts, people and ideas within Nigeria, particularly through the work of publishers Farafina, has been central to Adichie’s writing career. Despite Adichie’s high profile overseas, she continues to need a domestic audience in Nigeria in order to be taken seriously there. Not only the books themselves circulate within Nigeria, but Adichie’s profile has also been built through events, launches and the publication of news stories across Nigeria. Haines’ detailed research shows how texts such as Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus travel and are constructed in particular spaces in Nigeria as well as overseas; we need to understand the history of those internal circulations.
My own talk similarly explored ideas about mobility within Nigeria by thinking about how Afropolitanism – much debated over the last few years – could be reinvigorated by focusing on internal or domestic travel as well the transnational mobility and cosmopolitanism of Africans. Contemporary Nigerian travel writers such as Pelu Awofeso and Folarin Kolawole of NaijaTreks try to create Nigerians defined by their cosmopolitanism – even if the writers themselves don’t necessarily call it that – in the sense of creating Nigerians who are knowledgeable about Nigerians from other parts of the country. If Afropolitanism has been criticised for focusing on elite experiences of transnational cosmopolitanism, is there not a place for exploring the cosmopolitanism of mobility on a smaller scale, even through travel to the town next door?
One of the strands running through our discussion was a slightly different take on the eternal question of the political responsibility of the writer. Okey Ndibe argued that it is crucial to write the truth about Nigeria, however unpalatable, and even if it means sometimes being criticised for being pessimistic. But is there also a political role for more optimistic representations of Nigeria? As Ndibe said,
‘literature is always pertinent to the way a people’s image is determined’
and the image of Nigeria has become an important subject for many writers. One of the ways Ndibe characterised Nigeria was as a nation that had been ‘conceived in hope but lost to hopelessness’. Can travel writing, for instance, which often seeks to re-represent Nigeria as an enjoyable or beautiful place, play a small role in helping re-establish the ‘hope’ that has been lost, even if more explicitly political action is then required to bring about change? Or is representing a more optimistic vision of Nigeria abrogating responsibility to ‘truth’, which is better served by showing ugliness rather than beauty?
Africa in Words was delighted to host Okey Ndibe on 3rd November, in conjunction with the University of Sussex, as part of his UK tour. We also co-hosted Okey Ndibe at the University of Birmingham on 27th October, where he was a guest of the ‘Knowing Each Other‘ project which explores religious tolerance in Nigeria.