2021: A golden age for Nigeria’s women writers

Last month the Women’s Prize winner of all winners was announced as no other than Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for her novel Half of a Yellow Sun.  As Adichie takes her seat amongst the heavyweight literary names of her nation, such as Flora Nwapa (Never Again) Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart) and Ben Okri (The Famished Road), her victory paves the way for more female Nigerian writers to be recognised for their talents worldwide. Chimamanda’s win and a bookseller obsession with a title from Abi Daré last year suggests that the women of Nigeria’s vibrant literary scene, will be overlooked no more.
The success of The Girl with the Louding Voice (published March 2020) was no coincidence, many of its themes aligning with the same gritty realities considered in Adichie’s work. The main character is fourteen-year-old Adunni, who is first forced to marry to an older (very old) man to pay off her family’s debt, and later sold into domestic slavery. Yet, all Adunni dreams of is an education, and to learn English well enough to become a teacher. What Daré perfects is a presentation of modern Nigeria today, where there is an immense diversity of life – from the capitalist hub of Lagos to rural villages which still adhere to deep rooted tradition. 

Just like Adichie, Daré writes with incredible clarity and charm. Part of what is so enchanting about Adunni, is the way she is defined so heavily by her language. The narrative is written in broken English, which gradually improves as Adunni becomes more fluent. She is caught between the comfort of her native tongue, and a desire to improve the language which carries the country’s colonial history. Through Adunni’s experience, Daré shows how Nigerians still navigate the complex legacies of their country’s past, often having to sacrifice traditions in order to progress. 

As Daré’s protagonist, is forced into unsafe, misogynist environments, the book also reveals that whilst there are emerging opportunities for the country’s poorest, there is still far to go if young women in Nigeria are to live safely. Despite the cruel hardships she endures, Adunni manages to find small moments of solace in language. The books she secretly reads provide security and seem like  ‘two big hands, full of love, drawing me close, keeping me warm and feeding me food’.  Her unwavering enthusiasm, allows for unrelenting feelings of hope to be the persevering foundation of the book. For this reason, it was one of my favourite reads of 2020.
Many of the best books of last year, saw themes of identity imbedded in language. Bernadine Evaristo’s writing in Girl, Woman, Other was one of the most talked about and interesting uses of language of 2020. The lack of punctuation in the book is cleverly used to express the hardships of various women of colour over several decades. Perhaps un-coincidentally, Evaristo was born to a Nigerian father and, like other contemporary Nigerian female writers, she has inherited a deep understanding of the heritage that language possesses.
Each book I've read by a Nigerian female author in 2020, has managed to perfect the balance between establishing a rich, authentic sense of their country’s history, and the emerging modern challenges that face individual people. This is seen most of all in The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi. The book draws on similar themes to that in The Girl with the Louding Voice, where a Nigerian protagonist searches for a place to exist safely and freely. We begin the book learning that the main character, Vivek, is dead. What happens to him is gradually uncovered via short extracts about those who knew him, as well as his own attempts to consolidate his identity as both male and female. 
Vivek is cursed from the beginning ‘born, after death into grief’, always physically and socially askew. Yet, for us readers he remains fascinating, enchanting and ‘so beautiful he made the air around him dull’. Emezi’s untethered and occasionally sporadic writing, fittingly imitates the ungendered, free existence that Vivek hopes to find. This book not only provides an abundance of rich sentences to bite down on, but also creates an important space where gender and ethnicity in Nigerian culture can be examined freely.
I’m certainly excited for Emezi’s new book set to come out in June, entitled Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir. The book is described as an exploration of a life lived in various realities, both real and unreal, in worlds which are devoid of expectation. I look forward to delving into this very ambiguous title later this year. 

One final publication that I’ll be looking out for is Sankofa by Chubundu Onuzo, the author of Welcome to Lagos (2017). Her new novel follows the journey of a mixed-race British woman who goes searching for the African father she never knew. Like Onuzo’s past fiction, it’s sure to be a heartfelt expression of the challenges that occur when identity, nationality and ethnicity converge.
There is no doubt that these new titles will continue to contribute to the success that Nigerian female writers found in 2020. More than ever before, their stories of ethnicity, nationality and most especially, the place of women/non-binary genders in society are being shared. It’s writing that time and time again combines beautiful description, with original form and important social topics – a rare balance to perfect and something which you really mustn’t miss out on in 2021. 

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