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September 01, 2009

A new voice for African writers

I sort of put my foot in my mouth the other day when I met Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, a young Nigerian writer whose first novel, I Do Not Come to You by Chance, has won praise in The Washington Post, among other places. Adaobi's story takes us deep into the Lagos underworld of a 419er -- a young guy who helps create those "Dear Friend" Nigerian scam e-mails -- and delves into the reasons why these scams exist and why they sometimes work.

The concept sounds great, and I started to tell Adaobi that it must be a good time to be a Nigerian writer. I'd just come from the U.S., where Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's latest work was arrayed in bookstores amidst the bestsellers and editors' picks. Nigeria has the strongest literary tradition in Africa -- including Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Ken Saro-Wiwa -- and perhaps the West is starting to pay attention again to writing from the continent's biggest population.

As Adaobi gently reminded me, however, it's not that Nigerian writers have just now resurfaced. They've been writing all along. While she didn't refer specifically to Adichie -- a massive talent who moved from Nigeria to the U.S. as an undergraduate -- she was making a distinction between Nigerian writers in the diaspora and those who are 100 percent based in the home country. The writers we know about are those that have been "discovered" by a big Western publisher, which then brings those books back to Africa.

Without that kind of money behind you, it's impossible for a writer in most of Africa to reach a mass audience. Writers still write, Adaobi said, but they self-publish.

As it turns out, another person I met in Nigeria was Jeremy Weate, co-founder of a new, Abuja-based publishing house called Cassava Republic. Jeremy and his wife are hoping to give African writers greater voice by discovering unpublished writers and publishing African works locally at affordable prices. Adaobi's book, which has already been published in the UK and the U.S., will finally reach Nigeria under this homegrown imprint at the end of the year.

It's not unlike African coffee, for example, which for many years was picked as beans here before being shipped off to Europe to be roasted and "value-added" -- and sold for a massive mark-up. Now a lot more coffee from Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia is roasted at home, so more of the proceeds stay closer to home. In the case of writing, it hopefully means that more talents in Nigeria and throughout Africa will be "discovered" at home -- and that more of them will be able to make a living doing what they do well.


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Somewhere in Africa was written by McClatchy correspondent Shashank Bengali, who covered sub-Saharan Africa from 2005 to 2009. He's now based in Washington, D.C., as a national correspondent.

Read Shashank's stories at news.mcclatchy.com or send him a story idea.


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