Nigeria’s northeastern state of Borno is currently in the news, due to the Boko Haram group’s involvement in the abduction of many girls and other incidents. If, like me, you’d like to gain some understanding of the country of Nigeria as a whole by reading about its culture and history and experiencing its rich literature, here are a few nonfiction and fiction titles to get you started. All are available at OC Public Libraries.
Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria by Noo Saro-Wiwa
Nigerian-born Noo Saro-Wiwa was raised in England, but spent every summer in Nigeria with her activist father, Ken Saro-Wiwa. After Ken was executed by the Nigerian government in 1995, Saro-Wiwa stayed away from the country for several years. However, she recently returned to Nigeria and describes her experience in Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria. She details her travels within the country, from the capital of Lagos, to collegiate Ibadan, urban Abuja and the Islamic north. She also visits nature preserves; Benin, formerly the principal city of the Edo kingdom of Benin and the oil city of Port Harcourt where she was born. She discusses diverse topics, from religion, slavery and the effects of the petroleum industry to Nollywood (Nigerian cinema) and the Trans-Wonderland amusement park itself. Along the way, she develops a nuanced perspective on Nigeria, noting the existing corruption but also struck by the country’s beauty and variety. Saro-Wiwa’s travelogue is an excellent starting point for those who wish to learn about Nigeria.
There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra by Chinua Achebe
Nigerian Chinua Achebe is the author of the acclaimed novel, Things Fall Apart, in which he depicts Nigerian tribal life before and after colonialism. However, in There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, Achebe covers another topic, his memoir of Biafra, a country which existed from 1967 to 1970. During the military coup and countercoup in Nigeria in the early 1960s, thousands of members of the Igbo ethnic group were killed. Igbo survivors fled to the east and pronounced this region of the country to be the independent Republic of Biafra. This led to a civil war between the Nigerian government and Biafra, which ended with Biafra's defeat in 1970. In There Was a Country, Achebe employs both prose and poetry to discuss politics, history and his own experience of Biafra as an Igbo and as a cultural ambassador for the country. He also describes his childhood in the town of Agidi, where he was surrounded by both Christian and Igbo culture. This is a great book for anyone wanting to learn more about Achebe, Biafra or Nigeria.
Every Day Is for the Thief: Fiction by Teju Cole
Nigerian Teju Cole received the PEN/Hemingway Award and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award for Open City, a novel in which he describes a Nigerian psychiatry resident’s walk through post-911 New York City. Before Open City, however, he wrote Every Day Is for the Thief, which was published in Nigeria in 2007 and then revised and updated for its first publication in the United States in 2014. In Every Day, Cole depicts an unnamed narrator’s walk through Lagos, the capital city of Nigeria, after he has spent time in the U.S. Although the narrator seeks inspiration from his walk, character development is not the main focus of this novel. The novel is a series of observations of contemporary life in Lagos, with settings ranging from local markets to buses to Internet cafes to the national museum. Cole addresses culture, poverty and the changes that have occurred in Nigeria. Also included are the author’s own black and white photographs. Those who want to be immersed in the city of Lagos or simply enjoy the writings of novelists and poets who have described their journeys through urban areas -- Baudelaire, J. M. Coetzee, W. G. Sebald and others -- should definitely not pass up this work.
The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
During the most recent “Storytime for Grown-Ups” at my library branch, I read aloud a short story by Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “A Private Experience”. It depicts the interactions between two women sheltering in an abandoned shop in a Nigerian city, the affluent Christian narrator and a poor Muslim mother who helped her find this hiding place during a riot. As a result of their time together, the narrator realizes that the stereotypes about Muslims promulgated by the media are inaccurate. This story is part of the short story collection entitled The Thing Around Your Neck, in which Adichie writes about a range of topics, including romantic and familial relationships, Nigeria and the experience of Nigerians living in the United States. Individual stories concern family secrets, infidelity, the loneliness of the immigrant experience and self-examination. Adichie’s novel Americanah, a fictionalized yet semi-autobiographical account of a young woman who leaves Nigeria to attend university in the U.S., won the 2013 National Book Critics’ Circle Award for fiction. I highly recommend The Thing Around Your Neck to anyone who wants to gain insights into human nature or the Nigerian or Nigerian-American experience.