Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes on on why no one reads fiction in Nigeria
(Saturday February 19 2005, The Guardian)
I went home to Nigeria shortly after my novel Purple Hibiscus was shortlisted for the Orange prize. I was in the national news. There were commentaries in the newspapers on how I had represented my country well, how I had become a role model for young people, how I
had done Nigerians proud. Yet if my novel had been first published in Nigeria, none of this would have happened. I would have had to self-publish. I would not have had an editor or publicity or marketing. The newspapers would have taken scant notice, if at all, perhaps running a summary on a review page. I would not have been entered for the Orange prize and, most of all, I would expect only family and friends to buy the novel because we are a country of people who do
not regard and do not read literature.
Many Nigerians say the reason for this is obvious: the economy. We are too poor to read. Literature is, after all, a middle-class preserve and since our middle class is being economically eroded, reading has been put aside for the pursuit of basic survival. University lecturers, for example, who were firmly middle- class 40 years ago, now straddle the line between middle and working-class conditions. They are often owed arrears of salaries and the salaries themselves are so insufficient that many turn to force-selling pamphlets to their students. In addition, electricity is erratic all over the country, fuel prices - and food prices - keep rising, running
water is a luxury and the roads are full of pot-holes. Life is precarious and harsh; it is reasonable then to expect that reading would become an irrelevance.
Yet books sell well in Nigeria. In all the bookshops I have visited, the shelves are overwhelmingly stocked with Christian and business self-help books, God's
Plan for You, The Richest Man in Babylon. This suggests, then, that our economy has not prevented us from reading; it has only prevented us from reading literature. The real reason for this may not be the economy itself, however, but what we have turned to in response to the economy: a scarcity-driven brand of religion where pastors in sleek churches assure you
that God wants you to have that new Mercedes-Benz.
Islam, a stronger force in Nigeria than Christianity, has had its own scarcity-driven mutations, but
Christian religiosity exploded in the early 1990s, when Nigeria was passed from one dictator to the other, amid the trauma of an annulled democratic election. Things had never been so bad and, in the face of a brutal government and an effete civil society, Nigerians turned to a new brand of Christianity. It was vibrant; it was intensely focused on material progress, with pastors quoting scripture that portrayed wealth as a spiritual virtue; and it was loud. People were required to talk up God all the time. Government officials were required to be publicly holy, as if this would assuage their corruption. So my former state governor, who did not pay teachers' salaries, held public prayer meetings every week. Fraudsters gave interviews where they
attributed their wealth to God. Our remarkably unpopular president said he was chosen by God.
Religion has become our answer to a failed economy; "My God is a rich God" and "Only God can save Nigeria" are popular expressions.
Christian and business self-help books sell, then, because they sustain the status quo: the former affirm that God wants you to make money while the latter teach you how to go about it. They are disquieting in their obviousness and seem informed by a rudimentary
utilitarianism: what practical and immediate
benefit will I get from this book? Even the fiction
and poetry used as textbooks are approached in the
same way: students read them alongside pamphlets such
as Sample Questions and Answers and they are only a
means of making up the required subjects for O-levels.
There is no room for real literature and perhaps this
is why there seems to be no room for subtlety in
Nigerian public life. Because we are not literary, we
are too literal. Because our religiosity is
individualistic, we have neglected social
And we have lost a sense of nuance, from the brashly self-aggrandising public letters our president writes to his detractors to the way a university student told me: "The title of your book is confusing. A book with that title should be about a flower."
Of course religion cannot be the only reason we do not read literature; there are other reasons as complex as our society. But religion is central. If our economy were to improve dramatically, our focus on scarcity would reduce, and so would our participation in the
God-give-me-money religion of desperation. The monopoly of religious and business books would be broken and publishers would take on fiction. At present, they are willing to publish and re-publish only literature used as textbooks since the market exists by necessity. General fiction has to fall back on vanity publishing - as I would have had to for Purple Hibiscus - because it constitutes a high-risk venture. Foreign-published books don't fare much better. In Bookworm, a highbrow Lagos bookshop, there were novels by Moses Isegawa, Ian McEwan, Arundhati Roy. The owner was about to have a give-away sale when I visited. "Nobody buys them," she said. The fiction titles that sell to her upwardly mobile clientele are those by John Grisham; even the elite does not read serious literature. She did hope to sell a fair amount of the Nigerian edition of Purple Hibiscus, just published by Farafina in Lagos. My publisher, Muhtar Bakare, a former banker, an idealist, a believer in literature, is selling each copy for 500 naira in a
country where glossy monthly magazines cost 1,000 naira. It is his gamble on reviving literature. We are not a nation of people who do not care for literature, he thinks, but one of enervated literary enthusiasts waiting to be jolted into reading again. Until our economy improves, his approach will be to make literature so affordable that the middle-class will
buy it in addition to books like The Jesus Path to Making Millions .
The other day, at the Nigerian Television Authority studio where I did an interview, a woman in her early 20s came up to me and said, "Oh, you're Chimamanda. I really liked your book but I didn't like the ending. I have never finished a novel before. Now I want to read
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