Will Twitter kill off African literature?

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

For you. Thank you.

Reading Chibundu Onuzo’s The Spider King’s Daughter is a sedate but thrilling experience. The senses travel everywhere with this gentle storyteller as she quietly but accurately records the history of contemporary Nigerian dysfunction. At some point, you realize you have been tricked, this is a love story. Romance! This is not your traditional genre of romance literature, where you are told from the first sentence of the book: This is going to be about heart-break and you will love it. Onuzo’s lovely book straddles the no-man’s land between chicklit and serious literature. No, The Spider King’s Daughter is not “serious literature”, as self-appointed purists of African literature would say in the unctuous and supercilious manner that only they can conjure up. This is a compliment to Onuzo. For the weary reader, “serious literature” as it is applied to African writing is fast becoming a pejorative for reams of shameless self-absorption drowned in overwrought, insincere, and yes, awful prose. This reader is not impressed.

This is not a review of The Spider King’s Daughter but you should read the book if you are like me and you are getting downright frustrated with pretend-novels that are actually personal opinions about certain social conditions that are hoisted on orthodox structures of fiction. Sometimes a reader wants to have fun. That is why I enjoy reading Pius Adesanmi. A fine thinker and supremely self-assured, Adesanmi does not contrive pretend-novels to deceive the reader into listening to his personal opinions about how Africa should be run (he has plenty of those). He writes, you read – and you applaud. Adesanmi makes the compelling case that you do not have to write a novel to be called an African writer. Just write and we will read. And call you a writer.

The most popular African books that are being read voraciously today are Twitter and Facebook. A vast vibrant readership of African youths, perhaps equivalent to the population of a good size African country is on social media, transfixed by the drama, heartbreak, poetry, prose that is Twitter and Facebook. They read the equivalent of whole chapters of a book daily. Where many thinkers despair about what they see as addiction, others see an opportunity and are re-engineering their writing to fit the new dispensation that is our digital world.

It is more challenging today to be a writer because it is a bit harder now to get a reader away from a salacious blog on a smartphone to go read a good book about endless suffering in Africa. E-readers are making it easier for the distracted reader to step away from a tweet-fight and read something edifying and deep and thought-provoking – as long as the overwhelmed reader does not happen into yet another twitter thread that is edifying and deep and thought-provoking. It is not the smartphone that is killing the traditional African story. Readers, weary of sores and wars seek balance, not necessarily in the story-telling, but in the offerings.

Of course art imitates life. I suspect that most writers are genetically wired to be cynical, to look at the world from a deficit perspective. Black Africa amplifies that trait in the writer. It is easy to be downcast about our circumstances and future and I have nothing but admiration for the African writer for shining a much needed light on our open sores. Much of the progress African countries have made in governance and civil rights are due to the advocacy of the African writer. Indeed, unlike Western writers, the African writer has felt this burden to be the conscience of the community, speaking out, many times at great risk, against crushing injustices.

Many moons ago, I set off a furor when I went on a rant lambasting the short-list of the Caine Prize for celebrating poverty-porn as literature. A few thinkers mistook my concerns as implying that I was seeking only “happy stories,” whatever that means. Nothing could be further from the truth. It bears repeating: The reader fed on a steady diet of misery seeks relief. I have nothing against sad stories; it would be dishonest and silly for us to write only stories that diminish the depth and implications of the condition that Black Africa finds herself. My point has always been that this is not the sum of our experience. These stories with their narrowness of range, do not completely define us. These stories are not us. Because they are not complete.

The other day, my teenage daughter spied The Spider King’s Daughter under my arm and she asked me what I thought of the book. I sang the book’s praises and asked her if she would like me to get her a copy. Her eyes hesitated, as she was fishing for words to say, “hell no!” sweetly. Then I remembered. I once made her read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. She liked the book, but she was traumatized by the death of Ikemefuna. She wrote a short anguished essay about it. Then later, she read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. She liked the book but she was traumatized by the emotional and physical abuse in its pages and she wrote a short anguished essay about it. My daughter has always been sensitive; I am sure it was not the books’ fault.

From my perspective, it is not enough to sneer at the poor reading habits of consumers glued to their smartphones, reading only what they desire. Writers must meet consumers where they are and use structural methods to return voracious readers like my war-weary daughter to the reading fold. The world might see another War and Peace someday, but I can assure the writer, we will not read it. For good or for bad, the world has moved on from that era of literature. The good news is that a generation of entrepreneurial African writers is rising from the ashes of orthodoxy and engaging readers in the digital world – with lovely works, dripping with sexy prose-poetry.  They are liberating themselves from the tyranny of mediocre publishing houses and taking matters into their own hands. And they are making progress. Is social media killing off African literature? I don’t think so. We are witnessing a rebirth. It is all good. And yes, my daughter will read The Spider King’s Daughter. And she will enjoy it.