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Whom do we write for?

  • Published at 06:48 pm December 19th, 2014
Whom do we write for?

I published my first book in Nigeria in 2005. It was a collection of stories edited by my father and released by his one-man company. The day the printer delivered the books was memorable: imagine my eagerness as I grasped my first-ever copy, then stared at it in disappointment: dreadfully designed, atrociously typeset, abominably printed – it is still the ugliest book I’ve ever touched.

Over the next two years I distributed the books myself; hence, I know that less than one hundred copies were sold. The left-over nine hundred were handed out to anyone who didn’t refuse the gift.

In the beginning, I was convinced I could make a living from my sales. Nigeria had a population of more than one hundred million, and so one thousand books, even ones as unattractive as mine, would sell quickly. Like many self-published authors before me, I figured wrong.

By 2007 I was disenchanted enough with DIY publishing to take up a job with a traditional publisher, where I spent the next two years learning everything about why my book had failed.

I republished the book in 2008. My father supplied the money to print one thousand copies, but it was my employer that supplied the publishing manpower, albeit unofficially.

When the printer made the delivery, I was astonished that the same book could look so different. While the first edition had never found a place on my bookshelf, this one would. Even better, it would sell. I had it all figured out; I would use my employer’s distribution network.

Lagos had a population of about twenty million, and so one thousand books, especially ones as attractive as mine, would sell quickly. I did more than hope this time: I invested in publicising the book. I pitched myself to newspapers as an interview subject; I went on a book tour; I organised monthly book readings at the largest bookstore chain in Nigeria; and, finally, I resigned my job in publishing and began writing again.

The second edition of my book sold out in 2011, three years after publication. Logistical expenses guaranteed a commercial loss, exacerbated by systemic hindrances, the most infuriating being the booksellers who cheat publishers out of their sales earnings – a common practice in Nigeria.

By this time I had realised that I wanted to be a full-time writer, not a part-time publisher or a half-hearted book promoter.

What worried me was my future as a writer in Nigeria. If I’d learned anything since 2005, it was that it was impracticable for any investor to turn a profit from selling literary fiction in a market as difficult as Nigeria. All those hardscrabble years spent as a local talent had confirmed to me that success for most writers in English – whether African or Australasian or Asian – depends on the publishing powerhouses of the West, mainly in New York and London.

I knew where to go if I wanted success.

My second book was published in 2013. It was a collection of stories edited by foreigners and released in the US, the UK, and Nigeria. Like many foreign-published Nigerian authors before me, I noticed a spike in my book sales and experienced a heightened profile. My book was reviewed, I was plied with interview requests, and I received a rash of invitations to literary festivals.

Over and above these perquisites, I had the freedom to dedicate myself to writing. I had entry into a publishing structure that took care of copy-editing, typesetting, printing, distribution, publicity, all those chores I formerly had to take on myself.

The sole task entrusted to me was the only one I wanted, which was to write whatever I wanted. To make a living from my writing, all I had to do was create stories that would engage my readership – a readership, I soon realised, that had grown larger outside Nigeria, the place where I’m from, where I live, and where my stories are set.

The only issue was, seeing as my audience was mostly foreign, whom, then, do I write for?

In a recent New York Times op-ed entitled “African Books for Western Eyes,” the Nigerian writer Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani argues that “success for an African writer depends on the West.” She goes on to state: “But we are telling only the stories that foreigners allow us to tell. Publishers in New York and London decide which of us to offer contracts, which of our stories to present to the world. American and British judges decide which of us to award accolades, and subsequent sales and fame.”

And then, in ending the piece, she declares: “Until African writers can start their careers by publishing in their home countries, none of this will change. Some of the greatest African writers of my generation may never be discovered, either because they will not reach across the Atlantic Ocean to attract the attention of an agent or publisher, or because they have not yet mastered the art of deciphering Western tastes.”

Uncompromising words from a debutante novelist who, like me, lives in Nigeria, and is published by a foreign publisher. I don’t share her pessimism. There might be writers who pander to foreign audiences, to foreign publishing houses, and to their foreign editors.

Same as there must be writers who cater only to the human imagination. The writer who abandons her craft and dedicates effort to “deciphering Western tastes,” is a writer doomed to either failure or success, whichever comes.

Even as I confirm Nwaubani’s observations about the dismal state of Nigeria’s publishing industry, I disagree with her assumptions about the powerlessness of African writers to control the narrative of their creations. In my experience, publishers are more likely to be sharp-nosed businesspeople rather than cultural fascists. And editors, whether local or foreign, are suggesters, not insisters.

During the editing of my second book, I never had difficulties with my British-born editor over my Nigerian characters’ use of ungrammatical English – a likely flash point, I had assumed, until I realised that my editor was reading not just for the sense of the language, but for the rhythm, too.

What more can a writer ask for than to be read so deeply? What is fiction if not the search for the universal in the particular? If literature cannot overcome the false barriers that divide us, the “us versus them” positioning that Nwaubani considers the affliction of African books, then what will?

To answer my own question, I write for the Nigerian in all of us. The same as Dostoevsky wrote for the Russian, Faulkner for the American, Marquez for the Colombian, Gordimer for the South African. Like many African authors whose run-ins with local publishing are similar to mine, I have chosen to employ foreign machinery for dispersing my work to the world.

So long as I connect with the human spirit in whatever skin or nationality it resides, I am achieving success on my own terms.