The new talent lighting up Nigeria’s bestseller lists


Soon after I began thinking about becoming a writer, in the early 2000s, I became interested in the publication dates of the books I was reading. Few of the books by Nigerian writers that I could get easily had been published within a decade of my first encounter with them.

There were occasional joyous discoveries, such as Breaking the Silence (1996), an anthology of short stories by Nigerian women edited by Toyin Adewale-Gabriel and Omowunmi Segun, but I didn’t read it until seven years after it was published.

This was a reflection of how years of military rule, which stretched from 1966 to 1999, with a period of civilian rule from 1979 to 1983, had impacted the publishing and distribution infrastructure in Nigeria.

The economic policies of those years led to the collapse of several industries, including publishing.


Meanwhile, the military jailed writers and journalists such as Akin Adesokan, Nnimmo Bassey, Kunle Ajibade and Chris Anyanwu. Several writers, including the country’s only Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, were driven into exile during this period.

In 1995, the writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the military government for his non-violent environmental protests.

The Nigerian author Wole Soyinka at Harvard University in 1997 with philosopher and activist Cornel West and historian and critic Henry Louis Gates Jr It was therefore momentous for me to walk into a supermarket a few years later and find Sefi Atta’s and Chimamanda Adichie’s debut novels on a shelf alongside the usual offerings of romance and thrillers from America. Both had recently been published in Nigeria by the Farafina imprint of Kachifo Books.

The publishing house had been established in 2004, in response to what it saw as the “need for a platform from which African stories could be told without any self-consciousness or external guidance”.

Farafina became one of the imprints that would change the composition of my bookshelves in the decade that followed. Over the past decade, novels by Nigerians have become fixtures on international bestseller and major prize lists. One foretaste of this seems to have been the dominance of Nigerian writers on the 2013 shortlist of the Caine Prize for African Writing. A couple of years later, Helon Habila and Teju Cole won the Windham Campbell Prize in the fiction category, while Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen was the only debut novel on the 2015 Man Booker Prize shortlist. In 2019, another debut by a Nigerian writer — Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer — made the longlist the same year that saw Obioma’s second novel on the shortlist and British-Nigerian Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other win the award.  Bernardine Evaristo, Booker winner in 2019 with ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ © AFP via Getty Images Fiction has dominated in terms of work that is getting critical, commercial or prize attention, but that might change in the next decade.
An indicator might be the fact that non-fiction books such as I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying, Bassey Ikpi’s essay-based memoir about living with mental illness, and Luvvie Ajayi’s humorous life manuals — such as I’m Judging You — have been bestsellers in recent times.

Last year, Emmanuel Iduma, author of I Am Still with You, a memoir about the aftermath of Nigeria’s civil war, became the first Nigerian to win a prize in Windham Campbell’s non-fiction category. This year, Nigerian-British Yomi Ṣode’s poetry collection Manorism was shortlisted for the TS Eliot and Rathbone Folio prizes.
Yet, even as Nigerian writing flourishes around the world, the country continues to struggle to build an infrastructure that supports writers and local publishing. Twenty-ten saw the launch of a national reading campaign tagged “Bring Back the Book”.

The then president, Goodluck Jonathan, was the face of the campaign, but there was no policy backing for improvement of literacy or publishing. In fact, a few years later, his administration would increase the tariff on imported books from zero to 62.5 per cent, a policy that saw local publishers, who often printed their books abroad, struggle to clear copies of books from the port authority. Even publishers who chose to print in Nigeria could not escape the impact on their trade, as the punitive tax affected printing material, much of which is imported.  Although Muhammadu Buhari’s administration, which took over from Jonathan in 2015, claimed to prioritise literacy, actual budgetary allocation to education has only dropped since the president began a second term in 2019. Low literacy levels and economic hardship continue to have an impact on how many books can be sold in Nigeria. Writers and publishers do their best to get books by Nigerians into the hands of those who can afford them within the country. Where there is any fostering of a literary culture, it is often pioneered and sustained by the energy of writers and art enthusiasts. For instance, the Committee for Relevant Art (Cora) has run the Lagos Book & Art Festival since 1999, when the first edition was held as a feast to celebrate Nigeria’s return to democratic governance.  Writers take to the stage at the Lagos Book & Art Festival in 2021 © Sally Hayden/SOPA Images/Sipa On the publishing front, newer houses such as Narrative Landscape, Ouida Books and Parrésia Books have emerged. Like Kachifo Books, the majority of their list is made up of Nigerians who have already been published elsewhere. Then there are titles that might be predictors of new possibilities in local publishing.

These include Nigerian-Ghanaian Bisi Adjapon’s The Teller of Secrets, first published in Nigeria as Of Women and Frogs before HarperCollins acquired world English-language rights, and Damilare Kuku’s Nearly All the Men in Lagos Are Mad, which was the bestselling book of 2022 at Rovingheights, one of the biggest bookstores in Nigeria.

Kuku’s 2021 book was published by Masobe Books, and its number-one status — ahead of titles that had the international media attention that can drive sales locally — is remarkable, as it is the only book in the top five of the fiction category to have been released first in Nigeria.

Whether this is indicative of a shift for publishing in Nigeria might be evident in the next decade.  Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s latest novel is ‘A Spell of Good Things’ (Canongate)

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