Writings of the general word's body

Monday, September 24, 2007

New Read

I once wrote a despairing piece titled 'Do Nigerians Read?' In an extract from Teju Cole's forthcoming book, Every Day is for the Thief, the author gives what may pass for an answer...

"Of course, Nigerians read. There are the readers of newspapers, such as the gentleman next to me. Magazines of various kinds are popular, as are religious books. But to see an adult reading a challenging work of literary fiction on Lagos public transportation: that’s a sight rare as hen’s teeth. The Nigerian literacy rate is low, estimated at fifty-seven percent. But, worse, actual literary habits are inculcated in very few of the so-called literate. I meet only a small number of readers, and those few read tabloids, romance novels by Mills and Boon, or tracts that promise “victorious living” according to certain spiritual principles. It is a hostile environment for the life of the mind. Once we pass the fly-over at Ojota, the rush-hour congestion eases. The speed we are gathering on the road means the journey is surprisingly cool. The breeze through the open window is constant. The man next to me folds away his newspaper and begins to nod. Everyone else stares into space. The reader, of whom I can see only scarf and shoulders, reads."


Emmanuel Sigauke said...

Good information, especially since as writers we often picture readers who will give us the reward for our work. There is so much writing talent in Africa, but the readership seems to be going down every year.There was once a time when Western critics (I think Charles Larson was one such) claimed that African writers like Chinua Achebe were short-distance runners, meaning they were not producing long novels like Melville's Moby Dick, but even though that was not a problem, African writers are now writing long novels. Can we argue now that African readers are short-distance runners? The argument is not as simple as this, and I am always careful to look at the root of the problem, thinking of ways of cultivating a culture of reading, even where it seems impossible to do so, for instance in present day Zimbabwe, where people's concerns are for the matters of the stomach and not what nourishes the mind.

I appreciate this article.

Wordsbody said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Emmanuel. My question had been triggered at the time by a call for books readers enjoyed during the year. Call made in a national newspaper and online and yet only pitiful trickles came in. The number of respondents was pretty dismal. Depressing. Second year of that exercise, and absolutely no improvement. Third year, and I gave up on the Readers' call altogether.

This matter of people being concerned only for matters of stomach, is true of Nigeria also.

Plus many publishers have been in the mindset, for too long, that they will only publish textbooks with guaranteed sales yields (economic situation), rather than fiction/poetry.

But then, look around and you'll see how people devour books by 'bestselling' Pastors advising how to acquire a wife/husband, make millions (it's no longer acceptable to just be a Christian with a simple life, which I always thought was the Bible's teaching!), and defeat the devil into the bargain. Which also says something about the state of our societies these days and the desperate cling to religion as the only hope.

But things are changing in Nigeria. Slowly. With the bloom in new Nigerian literature, young people are seeing that perhaps there is nothing wrong with being a writer, or reading them. There's been that rising awareness in the last couple of years, though we still have a long way to go.