Sunday, 5 February 2012

Breaking the literary glass ceiling

    The screen adaptation of Chimamanda's Half of a yellow sun is another
milestone for the author and the Nigerian literati. It laid rest to
whatever doubts there was about the creativity (and commercialism) of
Nigerian literature. Some pundits say it is a success for Nigerian
writing and writers. But is it? Is the true picture of Nigerian
literature embodied in the successes of Adichie, Nnedi okoroafor, Ben
okri et al? Such a hasty conclusion is unlikely if we consider the
numerous Nigerian writers still trapped underneath the literary glass
ceiling. The selected few who break through this hypothetical glass
have been reverred as demi-gods of Nigerian wordsmithery. What then is
a literary glass ceiling you may ask?
     The term 'glass-ceiling' refers to an invisible barrier that blocks
the promotion of a qualified individual in the work environment
because of the individual's gender, race or ethnicity. For the
purposes of this discourse, the operationalization of the term
'glass-ceiling' would include geographical location. As such, the term
literary glass ceiling would imply "an invisible barrier that blocks
the promotion of a qualified writer because of his geographical
     I had the opportunity to attend the 13th Lagos book and art festival held
at the freedom park, last year. At the event, i witnessed a panel
deliberation themed 'mapping the future', which had Onyeka Nwelue,
Chude jideonwo and Ayo Arigbabu, amongst the discussants. The panel
sought to discuss the changing landscape of publishing in the country
and how it affected the contemporary Nigerian writer. When the
Farifina agent (who was among the discussants) was asked why the
organisation published only well-known authors (to the detriment of
fresh ones), the lady proudly stated that there are hardly any 'good'
manuscripts from fresh authors (based in the country). In otherwords,
they (Farafina) preferred working with already established authors.
      A more vivid illustration of this untoward bias towards Nigerian
writers in Diaspora was encapsulated in  the January 28, 2012, Punch
Newspaper article titled "Nigerian authors look to the west to gain
fame". Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, a Nigerian author quoted in the
write-up re-echoed the suppressed fear of many nigerian writers
resident within the country when she stated"(unfortunately) no matter
how well the book is written, writers who come into prominence, come
into prominence because they are recognized by the west". She went
further to state how she had to engage the services of a foreign agent
for her latest novel.
     This has made self-publishing q viable option for writers frustrated
by the impediments of the literary glass ceiling placed on them by
local publishers. The days when flowetry of words, plots,
characterization, sentence structure, originality and ability to convey
ideas in an unambiguous manner; where parameters for judging literary
works are fast becoming relics of a lost age. It seems what it takes
to be a celebrated writer in the country is for one to be based abroad
(even if it Asia), get local publishers to accept your work, a review
from an unknown state publication, and a dubious award from your
cronies and you are guaranteed to be Naija's next hottest literary act.
99% of Nigeria's celebrated writers either reside abroad or have
foreign publishers who erstwhile endorsed them before our local
publishers with cap-in-hand desperately try to woo them. The voice of
the home-based writer has been doused in a cocoon of alienation
because he can't get quantum value for his creativity. He finds
himself in a cannibalistic society drenched in the blood of would-be
writers gobbled up by literary sharks. Many a writer who have not been
able ti break the literary glass ceiling have pocketed their pens,
choosing to focus their energies in other ventures. The few bold ones
that remain are treated as lepers, because in Nigeria writing is not a
career, but a hobby.
   While one can hardly fault writers for looking up to the west to
achieve and fulfill their aspirations, what future does such trend
hold for Nigerian literature vis-à-vis African literature? Books and
literature are a potent means of preserving and transferring culture,
knowledge, beliefs and values. Writers are custodians and transmitters
of history. When Alexander the Great invaded Egypt, he did not busy
himself with gold, precious stones and other numerous treasures which
the Nubians possessed. Rather he pillaged the libraries of Alexandria,
seeking for the secrets of Egyptian mysteries hidden in books. Africa
as a geographical and racial entity has never been able to recover
from that singular act. The history of the African has been distorted
and mis-represented because their are hardly any materials to refer
to. A society without knowledge of its history is like a tree without
roots. If we keep waitinng for the west to 'rubber-stamp' Nigerian
writers, are we not making ourselves susceptible to cultural
       Art like science is essential to civilization. It performs its own
unique functions which science as yet cannot perform. You can explain
the sunset according to uniform natural laws, but this leaves out its
radiance. The radiance of the sun cannot be conveyed by scientific
laws and theories. The artist's creativity can portray the radiance
vividly, either through painting, poetry, music and literature.
However, how the artist portrays this creativity is still subject to
environmental and social influences. How accurately and objectively
would a Nigerian writer in Diaspora portray such radiance without
succumbing to the caddis of westernization? This explains why some
writers come back to conduct research to have a grasp of the reality
back home. It also explains the coming to fore of writers such as
Chris Abani, who in his infamous Kalakuta republic has created a
misconception of the country.
Furthermore, over-reliance on western publishers creates an avenue
for cultural genocide. Literary works would be suited to western
tastes and ideologies, as in the case of Chris Abani previously cited.
What also happens to writers in indigenous languages? A writer's
feelings, emotions and experiences are better conveyed in his native
toungue than in alien languages. When you speak to a man, you get to
his head; but when you speak in his mother toungue, you get to his
heart. Are we going to allow the west dictate the way we tell our
     Breaking the literary glass ceiling entails believing in the
ingenuity of the home-based writers. A father, not a neighbour or
stranger has the responsibility of naming his child. What name is the
Nigerian society giving its resident writers? Any society without
enough faith in its indigenous knowledge system (arts, literature,
science and technology) can never make sustainable progress. If local
publishers chose to publish only established (diaspora) writers, then
they themselves are hindering their own progress. It is hightime local
publishers look within our shores to celebrate their own rather than
playing zombies to foreign publishers.

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