Brittle Paper‘s Deputy Editor Otosirieze Obi-Young has joined the client list of David Godwin Associates (DGA), the same agency representing Booker Prize winners Arundhati Roy and Aravind Adiga, and that represented another winner in Kiran Desai, as well as Aminatta Forna. We are still reeling from sharing in the joy of this amazing milestone. This is a well-deserved break for someone who has spent the last few years working behind the scenes to support other people’s writing careers and, in essence, serving the needs of the literary community.
Obi-Young joined Brittle Paper in 2016. In the span of two years, he has helped position Brittle Paper as a leading literary platform. As a blogger, he documents the daily life of the global African literary community within the digital/social media space. As a literary culture critic, he offers insightful responses to burning issues, like his piece on literature, music and the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, and on Half of a Yellow Sun‘s tenth anniversary, and on Americanah. His critique of mainstream assumptions about literature about queerness in Nigeria has since become required reading. Through his work as an editor, he creates the space for other writers to share their work. As part of his Art Naija Series, he has curated two remarkable collections of works by Nigeria-based artists and writers: Enter Naija: The Book of Places and Work Naija: The Book of Vocations; as well as provided a definitive introduction to Selves: An Afro Anthology of Creative Nonfiction.
Yet, in the midst of all these commitments, Obi-Young never ceased to nurture dreams of becoming a fiction writer. In 2015, he began looking for an agent. In 2016, at the age of 22, he completed a short story collection titled You Sing of a Longing. David Godwin’s offer to represent Obi-Young came after he read the collection, which he loved. He then asked to see the first chapter of Obi-Young’s novel-in-progress.
In accepting DGA’s offer to represent him, Obi-Young joins a remarkable cohort of genius writers represented by the literary agency founded over 20 years ago by David and Heather Godwin. David Godwin is himself an industry powerhouse. His influence in the global literary community is nothing short of legendary. He has had a hand in a number of decade-defining books. While an editor at Jonathan Cape, he published Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, which then won the Booker Prize in 1991. He represents Arundhati Roy, whom he signed after reading the manuscript of her debut novel, The God of Small Things, which afterwards won the Booker Prize in 1997. He represents Aravind Adiga, whose debut novel, The White Tiger, also won the Booker Prize in 2008. He has represented Kiran Desai, whose second novel, The Inheritance of Loss, received the Booker Prize in 2006. His client list also includes Jim Crace, Booker-shortlisted author of Harvest; Miles Morland, founder of the Miles Morland Foundation, whose memoir Cobra in the Bath was a Sunday Times No 5 bestseller in the UK; and acclaimed Indian novelist Vikram Seth. Some of the African writers on DGA’s roster include Windham Campbell Prize-winning novelist Aminatta Forna; Monica Arac de Nyeko, who won the Caine Prize in 2008; and Nii Ayikwei Parkes, who chaired the Caine Prize judging panel last year.
During the conversations I had with Obi-Young in the days leading up to his signing the dotted lines, I did all I could to hide the emotions welling up in my heart. It is a rare thing to see a star in the making, to witness the painful struggles but also to experience the pure joy of the first big break. This milestone is particularly meaningful, in part, because there is nothing typical about Obi-Young’s journey to this point. In fact, this should be a lesson to aspiring writers. Obi-Young graduated from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) and teaches English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu. He has spent the last few years writing and diligently sending his work out to agents and publishers. Three of the nine stories in the collection got into top literary journals. “A Tenderer Blessing” was published in Transition in 2015 and was republished by us last year. “Mulumba” was published in The Threepenny Review in 2016. The title story, “You Sing of a Longing,” was shortlisted for the inaugural Gerald Kraak Award in 2016 and praised by the judges thus:
“A thoroughly modern epic but with bones as old as time. This is a story of love and betrayal and madness and music that is all the more beautiful for its plainspoken poignancy. Yet there is prose in here that steals your breath away.”
Meanwhile, literary agents didn’t seem to be as excited about his work. For three years, rejections poured in, but Obi-Young was not deterred. He began drafting the manuscript of his novel, all the while building a reputation as a writer and critic within the African literary community. When the opportunity to work with DGA came along, he had all his ducks in a row—a short story collection and a novel manuscript in the works.
The significance of a young writer living in an African city securing a deal with one of the most prestigious literary agencies, and being represented by the agent himself is not lost on us. That is why Obi-Young’s story is inspiring in a way that many literary successes we’ve encountered in the past few years are not. His story defies the mythology of the West as a kind of magical location without which African writers cannot find success. If I had a dime for each time an aspiring writer has asked me on Twitter whether they needed to move to the US to draw the attention of publishers and agents, I’d be rich by now. Obi-Young’s story breaks from the narrative underlying this anxiety that African writers are doomed to obscurity unless they left the continent. His story should remind us of Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, the author of I Do Not Come To You By Chance, who found an agent and went on to achieve considerable literary success without the back-door orchestration of industry heavy weights. Like Nwaubani, Obi-Young’s story shows that it is possible to gain recognition on the basis of a reputation built from within the continent. Opportunities can come to writers based on the continent.
There is so much to celebrate in the fact that a UNN-trained writer who has never been to the US or the UK and, thus, is excluded from the high-profile circuits of celebrity mentors and the patronage of well-funded fellowships can make it this far.
Congrats to Obi-Young! I simply can’t wait to see what the future holds and witness the ways in which you will continue to inspire the Brittle Paper community.