Africa’s leading literary Powerhouse and the World’s largest Book Fair

Literature provides a great tool to understand the world, to question who we are as humans and to see the future we want to build as people. Indeed, as Chancellor Angela Merkel stated at the opening ceremony of this year´s Frankfurt Book Fair: “Literature opens doors to other worlds, broadens one’s horizon and helps to better understand different cultures.”

This year’s literary host, the Guest Country of Honour France, kindly provided InterKontinental with a tour through their pavilion. It was impressive to see what opportunities this platform provides: intense debates about the country, which obviously result in greater awareness of the politics, history and contemporary cultural and literary developments. The Guest of Honour’s presentation is a magnet for audiences and media coverage. The country’s literature and culture garner tremendous attention. Its publishing industry becomes the focus of the largest international event in the book and media world. Frankfurt is a vibrant and inspiring place. With no less than 270,000 visitors and more than 160 countries being present it is indeed a global event.

InterKontinental had the pleasure to travel to Frankfurt with H.E. Ambassador Yusuf Tuggar from Nigeria this year. It is not an exaggeration to call Nigeria, Africa’s giant. Located in West Africa, it is the most populous Black country in the world; it is about the same size as California, Nevada and Utah combined and three times as big as Germany. With a population of about 186 million and the greatest diversity of cultures, ways of life, cities and terrain it is needless to say, there is great potential, one that has largely been untapped, when it comes to books and the book market.

In spite of the extraordinary political and social challenges faced by Nigeria, anyone who has worked with Nigerians can attest to the fact they are the most vibrant, creative and innovative people. Without a doubt all its writers act as cultural ambassadors, they have gone on to receive acclaim at the highest levels globally. From Ben Okri who won The Man Booker Prize in 1991 to Chigozie Obioma whose novel “The Fishermen” was a finalist in 2015; from Helon Habila, S.A. Afolabi, E.C. Osondu, Rotimi Babatunde, Tope Folarin – all winners of the Caine Prize for African Writing to Teju Cole, who is one of their most respected novelists and essayists; these writers have made their mark on world literature.

One must make special note of the most renowned female writers too, such as Chika Unigwe for example who won the 2012 Nigeria Prize for Literature, valued at $100,000 and is Africa’s largest literary prize. Ayobami Adebayo’s “Stay with me“ was just shortlisted for the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. And of course global feminist icon and MacArthur Genius Award recipient Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, perhaps the most prominent author, who is at the forefront of reshaping political narratives and feminist discourse. Chinelo Okparanta, Buchi Emecheta, Helen Oyeyemi, Amina Mama, Chibundu Onuzo and many more – the list is clearly very, very long. To see only one – without a doubt fabulous – female Sci-Fi writer, Nnedi Okafor, as Nigerian guest in Frankfurt though, therefore left us wondering. Clearly, the authors but also Frankfurt itself are missing out on something very important.

One of the initiatives of Frankfurt Book Fair — the tradition of having a Guest Country of Honour which has existed since 1976 – is one that we find very important. There is hardly a better and more emancipated way for any country and its people to show their culture, their perspectives and their achievements through books and literature to the world. Yet we have noticed the absence of any significant African participation at the fair not to speak of any African state applying to become Guest Country of Honour yet.
No individual African country has ever been Guest Country of Honour so far. Africa only featured once, as Guest ‘Country’ in 1980. To be clear, this is not a critique of the Book Fair but a call for African authors, publishers and political representatives to take a closer look at this opportunity and explore the value it may provide to the political and economic development of their countries.

From the writers publishing in Hausa in northern Nigeria to those publishers who work with English texts all over the country, there is a lot a nation like Nigeria for example could show and share with the world. Since the days of their most prominent writers Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Amos Tutuola and their struggle in the 1960s, Nigerian writers have come a long way. The older generation found a huge readership and a flourishing publishing industry, which was then still in the hands of the British and that was not seen as a bad thing per se. Those publishers – such as Heinemann for example – brought African literature both into the West and into the local schools.

While there are realities which indicate that Nigeria is striving to overcome its challenges with literacy, education is one of the most important fields the government is currently looking at. To say that Nigerians do not read, as the joke goes, is untrue. Cassava Republic Press for example has sold over a million copies of the novel “InDependence” by Sarah Ladipo Manyika. Also, while the generation of writers like Ben Okri or those before him might have looked to the West to get their works published, the new generation such as Abubakar Adam Ibrahim or Elnathan John, who both come from the North of the country, again choose to publish their work in Nigeria first before going abroad. The only reason why they do so is because they can. New publishers have emerged such as Cassava Republic, Narrative Landscape Press and Parresia Publishers Ltd, to name a few only.
One of the most promising and innovative new publishers working to find new ways of reaching readers is named Okadabooks. Okadabooks offers e-books and in their words “seeks to harness the power of the mobile phone to make it easier and cheaper for Nigerians to read”. They challenge the myth of the mobile phone contributing to a poor reading culture but believe that Nigerians do indeed read – if given the chance.

Being aware of the robust but largely underrepresented body of locally published literature in Nigeria, we believe Nigeria would be capable in holding its own in a fair of Frankfurt´s magnitude. But even if not, there are most definitely countries on the whole of the continent ready to apply for becoming Guest Country of Honour in Frankfurt in one the upcoming years. We are already looking forward to seeing this happen.

→  Review Book Fair 2017 

Photos: © Bernd Hartung

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