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I’ve always been a huge fan of Nigerian literature. A few years back I even went on a course to learn Igbo. I started seriously reading Nigerian literature during my PhD studies on Nigerian and Zimbabwean contemporary fiction—a course, incidentally, which I never finished, because I began writing my own novel instead. The brevity, freshness, and unique storytelling style of Nigerian authors made me fall in love with the country’s literature and, in turn, taught me to believe in myself and my own writing style.
With over 500 languages and over 240 ethnic groups, Nigeria is a mesmerising place for any writer to write about, and the country boasts some of the greatest authors in African literature. The first person from an African country to win the Nobel Prize for Literature was Nigerian playwright and poet Wole Soyinka in 1986. Nigerian Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, is still one of the most widely read book in African literature. The first African author to win the Orange Prize for Fiction was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with her novel Half of a Yellow Sun in 2007, and the first Booker Prize awarded to an African author went to Nigerian Ben Okri’s The Famished Road in 1991. Evidently, Nigeria has a very rich literary tradition, which continues to this day.
Here are some of my recent favourites:
Jude Dibia’s Blackbird (2011)
A powerful novel about love, jealousy, and the fragility of life. Dibia caught my attention with his first book, Walking With Shadows, a brave and sensitive novel about homosexuality in Nigeria. Blackbird goes further in exploring what makes us human, how far we are prepared to go to for the people we love, and whether the sacrifices we make are ever truly worth it.
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come To You By Chance (2010)
Have you ever wondered who’s really behind all those Nigerian scam emails promising you untold riches? Meet Kingsley Ibe and the dangerous yet fascinating world of Nigerian 419 scams. This book is incredibly funny—at times I laughed out loud reading it—but it also shows the industry’s darker side, exploring why people might decide to enter the criminal world in the first place.
Helon Habila’s Oil on Water (2011)
Oil on Water is Habila’s third novel and tells the story of two journalists in pursuit of the kidnapped European wife of an oil executive. It is a pessimistic but must-read novel that highlights the ongoing tragedy of the environmental degradation of the Niger delta and the Ogoni people.
Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street (2010)
An unsettling novel about four Nigerian prostitutes living in Antwerp. Before she wrote it, Unigwe approached a number of women working as prostitutes to tell her their life stories, and the book reflects this underlying reality in its raw and vivid language. Unigwe tells a story of courage and hope and manages not to stereotype her female characters as victims.
Mohammed Umar’s Amina (2006)
Set in northern Nigeria, Amina is one of those rare books which offer a glimpse into a world under Islamic rule. This novel has been translated to over 40 languages, and it tells the story of one woman’s transformation into a leader of a movement to bring much needed social change. There are very few Northern Nigerians who write in English and Amina is a great place to start.
Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives (2011)
Baba Segi has four wives. But his fourth, the young, ambitious and college-educated Bolanle, has still not had a baby. Imagine Nigerian Big Love, but so much better!
Chris Abani’s The Virgin of Flames (2007)
Set in East Los Angeles the book follows part-Salvadorian, part-Nigerian mural artist Black and his obsession with transsexual stripper Sweet Girl. Black’s friends include Iggy the tattoo artists and Bomboy the Rwandan butcher. Unforgettable characters that will keep you awake at night.
Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s In Dependence (2008)
I fell in love with Manyika’s characters: Tayo, a Nigerian on scholarship in Oxford and Vanessa, a British colonial officer’s daughter. A touching and bittersweet cross-cultural love story set in the 1960s.
Richard Ali’s City of Memories (2012)
Ali’s first novel tackles the big question of what love really means, set during the time of religious and ethnic upheavals in Northern-Central Nigeria. A beautiful book of self-discovery by a young author to watch.
Uwem Akpan’s Say You Are One of Them (2010)
A collection of five short stories, each written from the point of view of a child, and each set in a different African country. It is not an easy book to read, and the stories will haunt you long after you finish them.
A. M. Bakalar
A. M. Bakalar was born and raised in Poland. She lived in Germany, France, Sicily and Canada before she moved to the UK in 2004. Her first novel, Madame Mephisto, was among readers’ recommendations for the Guardian First Book Award. She is the first Polish woman to publish a novel in English since Poland joined the EU in 2004. A. M. Bakalar lives with her partner—a drum and bass musician—in London. She is currently at work on her second novel.