Nigerian literature is full of many giants. The world has been treated to groundbreaking nationalistic writings, pioneering feminist literature, animist-leaning masterpieces, a body of insightful war literature, soul-stirring love stories, and lots more. The richness of Nigeria’s literary soil became largely evident when Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, making him the first-ever black African to win the prize. But before that landmark achievement of Nigerian literature, a host of writers had, along with Soyinka, blazed the trail in various genres of Nigerian writing, especially in the genre of fiction.
A remarkable feature of Nigerian writing is its fusion of oral literary traditions with literary forms adopted from the West. Nigerian novels have dazzled the world with originality, brilliant storytelling, fascinating oral treasures, feminist infusions, and even Marxist influences, and they continue to intrigue the world. This piece highlights five novels that, on their publication or release, sparked a huge interest in Nigerian literature, and kicked the door open for many readers across the world to come rushing for more writing from Nigeria.
Check out 5 Nigerian novels that sparked a global interest in Nigerian literature…
#1. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Set in the late 19th-century tribal Igbo society, Things Fall Apart charts the tragic life of Okonkwo, a prominent member of the society, from his banishment for accidentally causing the death of a tribesman, to his years of exile, and his return to a society invaded and divided by European missionaries and colonizers. Peppered with Igbo aphorisms and proverbs, this classic novel never ceases to delight readers around the world.
The publication of Things Fall Apart in 1958 created the Nigerian literary renaissance of the 1960s, sparking a huge interest in writing from Nigeria and Africa at large. It also inspired a host of writers from Nigeria such as Chukwuemeka Ike and John Munonye, and even African American writers such as Toni Morrison. Things Fall Apart won the Margaret Wong Memorial Prize in 1959. It has been translated into over 50 languages and has sold over 20 million copies worldwide.
#2. Efuru by Flora Nwapa
Flora Nwapa’s first novel, Efuru (1966) charts the harrowing experiences of a beautiful and talented woman named Efuru and her struggles in a society that prescribes her fundamental role as childbearing. When Efuru is unable to fulfill that role, she is judged unfairly by her society.
The novel draws from Igbo oral tradition and myth. Nwapa is often considered the mother of modern African literature, being the first woman to publish a full-length novel that portrayed feminist themes that inspired a generation of feminist writers challenging injustices against women in society.
#3. The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta
Buchi Emecheta’s novel The Joys of Motherhood (1979) tells the story of the struggles of a Nigerian woman named Nnu-Ego in a patriarchal society. After an unsuccessful and childless first marriage, Nnu-Ego is banished to Lagos where she bears children. But in the context of World War II, she is abandoned by her husband and people and must strive to protect herself and her children. The novel indicates a counterpoint of anxiety, responsibility, and grief that accompany Nnu-Ego’s “joys” of motherhood.
Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood marked a major breakthrough for women’s literature in Nigeria, inspiring a host of other feminist writers after her.
#4. The Famished Road by Ben Okri
Published in 1991, and marking a watershed moment in Nigerian literature, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road tells the captivating story of a spirit child named Azaro who keeps one foot in the world of ghosts and spirits and another in the world of human beings. He is born to live for a short time before returning to the world of his spirit companions. But when, for the sake of his mother, he decides to stay in the world of the living, he is harassed by his spirit companions, who want him to return to the world of the spirits.
The Famished Road follows the animist realism of an earlier Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-wine Drinkard but surpasses it. It won the Booker Prize in 1991 and was on the list of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century. The novel has been translated into over 20 languages.
#5. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Purple Hibiscus (2003) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came out when Nigerian literature, despite its towering pillars, had begun to lose its power and appeal on the world stage. Then came Purple Hibiscus, and Nigerian writing was re-launched onto the world stage. Hailed as a touching and sensitive story by the Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, it tells the story of a shy and self-effacing teenager named Kambili, who describes her life in a wealthy Nigerian family that breaks up partly from the abusive actions of her fanatical Catholic father, and also from a bloody dictatorial regime spreading a rule of terror across the country.
Purple Hibiscus became an instant sensation, drawing lots of readers across the world, and inspiring a new generation of writers. It won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Africa and Overall) in 2005, among other prizes. Purple Hibiscus is also on the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) syllabus. It’s been translated into 28 languages.
Featured image: Beli_photos/iStock
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A writer fascinated by humanity and diversity. He is the author of Do Not Say It’s Not Your Country.