Listen to me rant. Just listen. One wonders: What is being taught in Nigerian universities in the name of contemporary literature these days? One gets the unfortunate impression that many of the professors have only read Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Chimamanda Adichie. The greatest tragedy of modern literature is that those who are invested in the past, those who are welded to the book, hold strong sway over the trajectory of the world’s stories. These powerful keepers of the gate of stories insist on reading to a bored, disengaged world, one-dimensional pap, milled from a flat world. Imagine where the world would be today if mathematicians had insisted on feeding us faded truths from the slide rule. Computers would be relegated to third class status to be patronized by the mummified wealthy. And we would not be here today.
And I return again to Chinua Achebe who used the book, the Internet of the time to tell us wondrous stories of our lives. Today, he would tell you, the Internet is the new book, write your stories on it. And I say to you, each time you read a book that has no hot link to another world, you hold back the trajectory of our stories. Read. Click. Read. And click away, you have no choice. Welcome to the real world.
I would hate to censor criticism or any form of feedback with seeming offhand dismissal. There is a lot that is right with our literature. Many people are doing awesome work especially on the digital front. But let’s face it, they are stymied by a chronic lack of funding — and the reactionary machinations of the powerful keepers of the king’s literary gates. I go to all these well-funded conferences and initiatives and it is like being in the 20th century; books everywhere, no mention of the fact that the vast majority of African literature is digital.
We are ignoring the amazing work of brilliant young people because powerful old people don’t read digital content. I cringe when I see these youngsters try to conform by writing wretched books that no one reads. In terms of literature in general, African writing specifically, what happens on the ground, when you leave the digital space comes across as a shoddy, patronizing afterthought. Go to any land-based conference, all they talk about is books, books, books! Meanwhile we are perched on okadas, we are in matatus, reading our cell phones. That is the real problem. I was at a conference in London a while back, it was all about books, books, books, wretched books. We are distorting the history of our literature!
I would like to see in the halls of the conferences and gatherings, not just books but flat screen monitors and whatnot celebrating the world of Africa. Who reads books? I have attended conferences, book readings and the occasional workshop in Africa and they have been about books. It is frustrating because our writers are doing the bulk of their work on the Internet and on social media. I have attended conferences in the US and the UK, and I have had to endure the obscene fixations of ancient literature professors many of whom told me they knew nothing or little of social media or the works of youngsters. To be honest, the intellectual laziness was appalling. Our readers are being poorly served.
Whenever I visit homes in Nigeria, I do not see a single book in any household — apart from the bible or the Quran. Youngsters are not reading books. They don’t engage them plus they are expensive. I think they should be reading any and everything but then it is what it is. They are reading their cellphones nonstop and chuckling. Writers and publishers have failed to meet the readers where they are; it is a failure of leadership.
The most worrisome for me is that books are a wretched barometer today for measuring the trajectory and content of African literature. Why only books? Let’s encourage reading and inquisition, period! Don’t get me wrong; I was raised by books. I traveled the world in books as a little boy. It is impossible to diminish the awesome power of books especially in the 20th century. But look, Chinua Achebe took the medium at the time — the book — and mesmerized the world with his mind. We were lucky; the gatekeepers smiled on him. How are we being innovative in the 21st century? I dream of the day millions will read Adichie as well as Linda Ikeji on their cellphones.
Absolutely, we should advocate and agitate for funds for innovation in African literature. We should educate potential sponsors about the need for funding. I just am infuriated that the NLNG Prize has spent about $7 million since inception running a lottery ($100,000) for mostly obscure writers whose books have only been read by their two relatives, when local publishers have to struggle for funding to keep the publishing industry afloat. They have been impervious to suggestions, and that is the real tragedy, there are many institutions and individuals like the NLNG with deep pockets that could help us but pay lip service to a very serious matter.
I do not see a digital divide. I see a digital bridge and yes, the Internet is the publisher of choice for young African writers and the cellphone is the new book. In my village in Nigeria, virtually every person has a cellphone and they are constantly reading it. It engages them: How do we tap into that?
Contemporary African literature as taught in today’s classrooms is pathetically 20th century. The keepers of those gates overwhelmingly think of contemporary African literature as the three A’s: Achebe, Adichie, Abani. When pressed, they add Habila. It is pathetic, really. The bulk of our literature is on the Internet and ancient professors are still photocopying what Achebe wrote in 1958. This must stop. Rant over. Have you eaten?
“Dear Genevieve” is a writing-advice series. The weekly missive allows Ikhide Ikheloa, one of Africa’s foremost literary critic, to dish out prized advice on various aspects of writing. Stop by next Monday for the next email.
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About the Author:
Ikhide R. Ikheloa or Pa Ikhide is a social and literary critic who writes non-stop on various online media. He was a columnist with Next Newspaper and the Daily Times, Nigeria, where he held forth and offered unsolicited opinions on any and everything to do with literature and the world. He has been published in books, journals and online magazines and he predicts: ‘The book and the library are dying. Ideas live.” Find him on twitter @ikhide