2 February 2013

Nigeria's Online Literature

One of the biggest problems that has faced the production of literature in Nigeria is a lack of formal book distribution structures. With the scarcity of formal publishers, many authors have turned to self-publication. This enables more voices to be heard--indeed Helon Habila won the 2000 Caine Prize for African Writing with a story from his self-published collection Prison Stories. However, until recently most self-published authors of English language books have not had access to marketing networks that can spread their books beyond their local area. Elnathan John satirizes self-promoting writers in "How to Be a Nigerian Writer:"

"If you have a car, carry a few hundred copies in the trunk at all times. Be your own marketer. Steer conversation toward your book and tell them you have written this really cool book. [...] If you don't have a car, have a big bag that can carry at least 10 copies. Do not be ashamed to carry your books to public gatherings. Book by book, God blessing your hustle, you may end up selling off the 1,000 copies your printer produced, and maybe even go for a reprint."

Even formal book publishers don't seem to have much organized distribution in Nigeria. Part of the reason Chinua Achebe's memoir There was a Country caused so much controversy was because so many people first reacted to excerpts published in newspapers without having read the entire book, which was not available from a Nigerian publisher. Eventually, when the book was pirated, it was sold on the streets of Lagos. While I am not normally a fan of piracy, in this case, I agree with the pirates. Surely an author with Chinua Achebe's clout and visibility could have arranged for a Nigerian publisher to publish the book simultaneously with his Western publisher! Recently, after I wrote about Labo Yari's novel Climate of Corruption, currently published by ABU Press, a reader Abdul Hassan wrote me: "After I finished reading your article, I went to more than 30 book shops, asking for the works of Labo Yari. Some of the book shops owners said they did not know anything about Climate of Corruption. [...] My English teacher [...] told me I cannot get it here in Jos." Although I suggested to Abdul a shop in Jos where he might find the novel, it turns out that they didn't have it either.

While distribution remains a problem for formal publishers, the internet has opened opportunities for younger Nigerian writers to reach far more readers than their predecessors, who were limited to print publishing. When I first started blogging in 2005, before the rise of social media like Facebook and Twitter, I became a part of a close-knit Nigerian blogging community. Some of the bloggers I followed then, Teju Cole, Abidemi Sanusi, Molara Wood, Tolu Ogunlesi and others, have formalized their online achievements to successful careers in literary writing and journalism. There is a flourishing African literary community online, with Nigerian-run websites like Chuma Nwokolo's African Writing Online, Richard Ali's Sentinel Nigeria, Emmanuel Iduma's Saraba Magazine, Myne Whitman's Naija Stories, and others. Nigerian newspapers online and other sites like Nigerians Talk, Y-Naija, Pamela Stitch, and others are making Nigerian news and opinion available all over the world.

Although many of the bloggers I once followed blog less frequently these days, I have come across other excellent blogs like Ainehi Edoro's "Brittle Paper," Chikodili Emelumadu's "How To love Igbo things," Chinelo Onwualu's "Dark Matters," Elnathan John's "The Dark Corner," Myne Whitman's "Romance Meets Life," Sumaila Umaisha's "Everythin Literature" and others. Blogger and critic Ikhide Ikheloa suggests that traditional books are giving way to new online genres and new forms of literacy. He writes: "The most popular African books that are being read voraciously today are Twitter and Facebook. A vast vibrant readership of African youths, perhaps equivalent to the population of a good size African country is on social media, transfixed by the drama, heartbreak, poetry, prose" of these social media.

One new genre is the literary use of Twitter pioneered by Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole. Inspired by 19th century French journalist Félix Fénéon's collections of fait divers, he has created what he calls "small fates," condensing news stories from Nigerian newspapers into a short ironic stories that he posts on twitter. He has also experimented with stories from New York newspapers of one hundred years ago. Last time I checked his twitter account had 78,303 followers.

While most writers don't use social media sites like Twitter and Facebook in quite as intentional a way as Teju Cole, social media has enabled a flourishing contemporary community of popular literary criticism. Besides @tejucole, some of the more active Nigerian literary tweeters are @elnathan, @ikhide, @lolashoneyin, @molarawood, @onyekanwelue, @toluogunlesi, and others.

And while Ikheloa believes that online writing is replacing traditional publishing, the publicity authors raise online helps with their offline sales. Myne Whitman recounts how the amount of attention her blog received encouraged her to self publish her romance novels. Because of her online following, she sold far more books than many authors who are traditionally published. In an interview with AfricanBookClub.com, she reveals that, "For several weeks during summer of 2011, my first book, A Heart to Mend, stayed at #1 on the AmazonUK Kindle store for romantic suspense. To date, over 20,000 copies have been downloaded. [...] My second book, A Love Rekindled, was at the top of the bestseller list for one of the major bookstores in Lagos between August and September." Online tools can help traditional publishers too. Recently Nigerian publishers like Farafina and Parresia have made their books published in Nigeria available for online purchase within Nigeria and available as ebooks abroad.

While much of this literary production online is in English, the internet has also given Nigerian language authors the opportunity to reach a larger public. The website Indigenous Tweets (http://indigenoustweets.com/blogs) catalogues and lists blogs and twitter users in many global languages, as well the number of posts and what percentage of them are in the language. The Nigerian languages represented include three Igbo language blogs, 9 Yoruba blogs, and 38 Hausa language blogs. Although, this list is incomplete, it gives an idea of the activity happening in Nigerian languages online. In addition to Nigeria-based Hausa newspapers with content online, such as Aminiya, Leadership Hausa, Gaskiya ta fi kwabo and others, well known Hausa authors like Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino, Ibrahim Sheme, and others maintain blogs. The most up-to-date Hausa blog I've seen is Dandalin Bashir Ahmad. There are also dozens of Hausa Facebook groups. The one I visit often is Dandalin Marubuta, where Hausa authors post anecdotes, articles, and excerpts of stories and engage in vibrant discussions about Hausa literature.

In addition to the large Yoruba Wikipedia project, there are also vibrant Yoruba-language blogs, such as the prolific Alákọ wé and news sites like Ibùdó èdè Yorùbá and Aláròyé, and Facebook groups like Agogo Ayọ and Ìtàn Àròsọ Yoòbá . A few notable sites dedicated to Igbo culture are Igbo Focus, The Igbo Network, Uwandiigbo yahoo groups and Igbo Kwenu online radio, although many of these sites are largely in English.

If you are interested in adding your own voice to representing Nigerian online, here are some suggestions from readers of last week's column. One reader, sent me links to make Wikipedia more user-friendly. For those who want to become a Wikipedia contributor or editor, this link explains the code used when writing entries: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Cheatsheet

For those university lecturers interested in giving assignments on Wikipedia, there is an Education Portal: https://outreach.wikimedia.org/wiki/Education_Portal/Get_involved. Professor Muhammed Tawfiq Ladan of the Ahmadu Bello University Law Department wrote encouraging me to look at the online presence of other disciplines outside the arts. He has an excellent blog where he has made many of his law publications available. He also pointed out the work of Professor N.J. Udombana and Nigerian Universities Online.

While I focus on arts, literature, and culture in this blog, Professor Ladan is quite right. There are an outstanding number of Nigerian resources available online. I hope this series of articles will help raise awareness about what is available and encourage readers to share their own stories and expertise with the world.

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