by Amatesiro Dore
We live in Lagos and they say I’m from a broken home—my father’s house is on the Island and my mother lives on the Mainland. At twenty-seven I shouldn’t live with either parent and believe in Father Christmas but I’m a reader in need of a library and a writer at work on some manuscripts in a city without a literary government.
Blame my parents for my book addiction. My stepdad is a writer and I stalked his bookshelves as a child without toys. My biological dad never bought chocolates or videogames from his foreign trips; he bought whatever titles I requested except when he refused to buy “Snow by Orhan Pamuk” in post 9/11 Texas. Yet they don’t understand my refusal to practise law after getting accepted into the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop—for the best twenty entrants—and getting published by Kwani?.
For the love of family and the peace of my parents I would abandon reading books, re-writing my manuscripts and editing writers. But I’m addicted to this low paying lifestyle despite the reluctance of Lagos publishers to pay for my editorial services as agreed. So I push the boulder up the cliff and down the mountain only to repeat the process all over again. Recently I discovered on the mountaintop what my parents had known from the beginning: Nigeria has not produced a writer worth reading since 1960.
The class of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka are British created minds. Achebe produced works in Nigeria as a paid employee of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation with a house in Ikoyi. Soyinka received pre-independence government education and his works were produced by the British pounds. Buchi Emecheta couldn’t have produced a single line of literature, in Nigeria, with five children and a missing husband. We killed Christopher Okigbo during the Civil War and successive military regimes got rid of the rest by firing squad, poverty, fake drugs, bad roads or self-imposed exile. They sentenced Soyinka to solitary confinement and crippled Achebe’s legs. Chimamanda Adichie went abroad before they could get her at Nsukka. But her generation of Nigerian writers-in-diaspora have been coming and going for several seasons like a gang of abikus. Our book pirates are sucking them dry and Nigerian publishers can’t afford to publish Ghana Must Go, Open City and other books by the class of Adichie.
Yet there is a class of writers in Nigeria that are not interested in living abroad, citizens without pride in being the only Black in a room of scholars, who just want to read and write in a room of their own. But my father can no longer tolerate an “intellectual” under his roof and my mother is irritated by “a man typing on a laptop” in her home during working hours. Though married to a Nollywood pioneer scriptwriter & director, veteran journalist and celebrated poet, my mother is not Vera Nabokov and didn’t envision her first child adopting the miseries of writing. So I need a room to read and write.
But there are no public libraries in Lagos. The first time I saw a library was in Matilda, the movie adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel. It was one of those movies we watched on repeat whenever there was electricity at my mother’s home in Oshodi-Isolo Local Government Area. That was when I began hankering for a library—a vast collection of multilingual minds and published imaginations, an ancient and evolving container of knowledge, an eternal organ of learning. It may be a cave of preserved scrolls or a computer with a million books. But it should contain the elementary and most sophisticated knowledge of the times. An outdated collection of books is not a library but a museum of data.
On Monday, May 24, 1999—a few days before First Lady Munira Marwa and her military family vacated the Lagos State Government House—she commissioned a project on Holy Saviours College Road and it was called the Isolo Public Library. The location used to be an Egbo centre where neighbouring youth and touts smoked weed. The Family Support Programme displaced the smokers, built and furnished a bungalow of reading rooms with books, planted a garden and constructed outdoor relaxation huts.
During the Christmas holidays of 2003 I needed a place to prepare for my 100 level first semester examinations. An acquaintance recommended his former smoking joint where he had successfully prepared for JAMB and WAEC. When I arrived at the Isolo Public Library, under the civilian administration of Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the huts and garden were gone, the bush was in charge, the books were outdated and the Ikeja Military Cantonment bomb explosion of 2002 had cracked the walls.
That was my first experience of a government institution in a democratic Nigeria. The last time was during my short-lived and disastrous enrolment at two different state government colleges. After which my parents privatised my life. Like most Nigerian families, my parents provided education, healthcare, shelter, transportation, security, food, waste disposal and electricity without an iota of government contribution or framework. Yet we pay tolls to use Lagos roads after paying taxes to an embezzling government.
In 2009 I found the Zaccheus Onumba Dibiaezue Memorial Library at Ikoyi on a drive to Jazzhole—a bookshop on Awolowo Way—to buy some Time 100 Novels of All Time. Those were the days when my father provided a car and allowance, a laptop with internet, a cook and a diesel generator powered house in Lekki Phase 1 for my Nigerian Law School education. But I was metamorphosing into a writer and didn’t know.
The ZODML is an air-conditioned storey building of books, internet and reading facilities managed by a private trust. It bears the cost of personal electricity supply, staff remuneration and knowledge accumulation at no cost to the general public. It became part of my Island literary experience. But how can there be only one reputable building of free literary books in a city of seventeen million people and rising? How can an average citizen own more books than a Public Library? How can a twenty year old graduate know and have read more books than a librarian of twenty years?
Let us pretend literature is the only form of knowledge. A collection of the ancient greats and modern masters is about five thousand books and twenty years of pleasure reading. A literary collection with less than five thousand books is not a library but a bookshelf in a room. An “e-library” with less than a million books belittles modern technology. If a man can read all the books in a building, in less than twenty years, that building is not a library.
There are eleven public buildings labelled “Library” in Lagos State. These buildings are museums of obsolete textbooks, archives of decaying newspapers, bookshelves of dust and headaches on paper. The National Library at Yaba is just a place where publishers obtain ISBN and ISSN for local books. The so-called Lagos State e-library on the Island has no internet connection and no idea about JSTOR and other online resources. And my November 2014 experience at the Isolo Public Library was a visit to the dungeons of ignorance and poverty.
On the mountaintop I discovered that writers are not born and writing is not a talent. It is a chore undertaken by choice. I am a writer because I read literature, learn techniques, hone my voice, develop literary skills by re-writing drafts, sit and never leave the room until the work is done. Where we set our stories or mould our characters does not make the writer. We need to stop promoting places that can’t produce writers and shame them for what they are—the heart of darkness.
When goats decide to write their stories and actually do so, they become writers. If Nigeria provides the facilities for a goat to write and publish stories, the goat becomes a “Nigerian Writer”. There are no “Nigerian Writers” worth reading. Read an average Nigerian newspaper, watch a typical Nollywood film, or buy a Made-in-Nigeria book that wasn’t first published in Europe or America and you’ll find “Nigerian Writers”. Ben Okri, Chimamanda Adichie, Teju Cole, Helon Habila, Sefi Atta, Chris Abani, Segun Afolabi, Chika Unigwe and other global names are not “Nigerian Writers”. They are just cultural refugees with Nigerian passports who are pampered and sustained by America and Europe. Can a country without libraries and the conditions to sustain life produce writers? If pottery was haram, would Northern Nigeria have produced Ladi Kwali? If bronze works were forbidden, will the ancient Bini Kingdom produce art?
Vladimir Nabokov and Ha Jin are American Writers. V.S Naipaul and Salman Rushdie are British Writers. Kenya and Ethiopia can produce long distance runners but can never produce the works of Binyavanga Wainaina and Dinaw Mengistu. It’s silly to say Diriye Osman is a Somali Writer; Somali and Writer cannot co-exist. Robert Olen Butler is not Vietnamese and Gabriel Garcia Marquez is not Columbian. James Joyce had to leave Dublin to write and Joseph Conrad found his voice in English. And therein lays the weaknesses of these writers. They are/were disadvantaged at home but their potentials are/were diminished abroad.
Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekov, William Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Naguib Mahfouz, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison and many home-based writers flourished above their peers in all seasons because they are/were sons and residents of the soil. They breathe the same air as their characters, lived near their muses to hear well, and wrote their stories from the source. Imagine how much more Gabo would have written in Columbia, if Joyce could produce in Dublin, If Kenya lets Binyavanga breath and Nigeria allows Chimamanda to settle in one place, these writers will be the greatest they can be.
On the mountaintop I understood why J.M Coetzee abandoned South Africa and fled to Australia. Why Achebe promoted Biafra and Okigbo died defending it. Why only an American in America can write The Old Man and the Sea. Why Mario Vargas Llosa wanted to be President of Peru. Why Mo Yan lives in China. Why a writer must remain at home and home must become conducive for a writer to work. Because all we sell is culture and stories are the testimonies of our humanity. We are the lens of society and governments blur that lens with poverty, strife and censorship. The book formats has evolved from scrolls to paperbacks, audio & video files to posts and links on social media. We need libraries that contain knowledge in whatever format. And it must be accessible to the general public so we may produce writers on merit.
Writers from Nigeria are not produced on merit, they are writers of privilege. Chimamanda Adichie exists because she snubbed a degree in obsolete medicine and escaped to America for the opportunity to read and write literature. So I don’t understand why Niyi Osundare accepted a National Merit Award from a Nigerian government that have not provided libraries to produce writers like him. The incumbent gang of Nigerian leaders share a heart of darkness. They won’t fix our public education system because their children study abroad. They won’t equip the libraries because their families have been privatised.
So here I am—a university graduate at twenty—reading and writing at the pace of a skyscraper construction, for the last seven years, in a city without libraries. We need to mend our broken country so “Nigeria Writers” may produce works worth reading and our cultural refugees in Europe and America may return home to write.