Text and image (c) African Independent/IOL
Three New Books Excite Nigeria
The three most anticipated books in Nigeria have been released over the last fortnight by two of the country’s most vibrant independent publishers–Cassava Republic Press and Parresia Publishers. The books are Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms and Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen.
Nigeria has always had strong claims to being Africa’s literary engine room. Chinua Achebe, whose seminal 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart, inaugurated Africana studies in the world of Academe was a father figure while Wole Soyinka is, of course, the continent’s first Nobel laureate. Both are Nigerians. Over the last five decades, each generation has thrown up heirs to these men even as their ideas and engagements continue to influence African imaginaries. Elnathan John, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Chigozie Obioma are the present pretenders. Their books have been flying off the shelves and interest in them is high.
Elnathan John’s present offering is his debut novel. He is, however, already well known for his prose, having been shortlisted twice for the Caine Prize for African Writing. Born on a Tuesday expands on the story of Dantala, an almajiri, who made his first appearance in Bayan Layi–Elnathan John’s Caine prize shortlist for 2013. An almajiri is a student of Islamic learning, usually children sent far from home to learn the Quran from esteemed teachers. In effect, these students become abused children, urban child labour and grow to form the bulk of society’s malcontents. Elnathan’s novel explores the society of northern Nigeria in the period immediately before the rise of the Boko Haram sect, telling a powerful story of religion, politics and some love, through the prism of an almajiri’s experience.
Season of Crimson Blossoms is Abubakar Adam Ibrahim ’s debut novel. Same as Elnathan, Abubakar has a strong profile, having won the BBC African Performance Prize in 2007. He was also shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2013 for the title story of his collection, The Whispering Trees. Season of Crimson Blossoms, same as The Whispering Trees, was published by Lagos-based Parresia Publishers Ltd. In this novel, Abubakar undertakes a bold exploration of social strictures in a time of political machinations through the unexpected feelings that grow between middleaged and widowed Hajiya Binta and a thug named Reza. Widely praised by such literary icons as Leila Aboulela, Veronique Tadjo and Zoe Wicomb, Toni Kan describes Crimson Blossoms as “. . .a brave and important novel which shocks and excites in equal measure with its echoes of Marquez, Soyinka and Ben Okri.” Abubakar Adam Ibrahim is a Gabriel Garcia Marquez Fellow, and also a Civitella Ranieri Fellow.
Chigozie Obioma took the sleepy Nigerian literary space by shock months back by making the highly prestigious Booker Prize shortlist this year. Not much was known about his writing prior to this and even for this novel, The Fishermen, the first indications of its potential came in a review in the Guardian UK, written by Helon Habila–a Caine Prize winning novelist (who shares a Nigerian publisher with Abubakar Adam Ibrahim–Parresia Books). Wonder attended Habila’s review, building into a fever after the Booker listing became public. The Fishermen is a tale of Nigeria in the 1990’s, a period recent enough to be remembered by a lot of people, yet one possessed of certain strong themes–deepening military dictatorship, the pro-democracy struggle, the Ogoni troubles–as to overcast ordinary lives. Obioma’s novel chronicles the descent into ruin of a Nigerian family when the children, the fishermen of the title, are told that one of them will kill the eldest boy.
The Christmas period is a peak selling season for publishers worldwide, a fact attested to by book cover design details. Nigerian publishers have not been left out of this gambit to catch the reader’s attention and garner sales. Cassava Republic’s colour choice for Born on a Tuesday consists of black, russet red, a haunting yellow and pale orange. The image is of a papercut figure running away from flames. Book title and author’s name are in white while the blurbs on the back, underscoring the violence at the heart of the story, is in fiery yellow. The Fishermen, also by Cassava Republic, goes with a more classic book design, while sharing a template with Born on a Tuesday. The palette here is blue and black; arcs of blue are arrayed as waves and one lower half of a circle, with a paddle inches away, reinforces the marine metaphor of the book title and story. Parresia Publishers went with crimson red and black, on a stark white surface for Abubakar Adm Ibrahim’s book. Vines frame both the front cover and the back, such that Zoe Wicomb’s blurb, “A powerful and compelling debut. . .a novel to be savoured” catches the eye. All three are very beautiful books.
Richard Ali is a Nigerian lawyer and a member of the Nairobi-based Jalada Writer’s Cooperative. He sits on the Board of Uganda’s BN Poetry Foundation and tweets @richardalijos