How Nollywood can save African Literature

African writers produce in literary prose — a language and cultural ethos in which they do not live.

Binyavanga Wainaina at the Brooklyn Book Festival in September 2009. Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

Nollywood may be, for Wole Soyinka, an “unprepossessing monstrosity” or a sordid “thrill of the grotesque,” but for Binyavanga Wainaina it represents a powerful revolutionary impulse much needed in contemporary African literary culture. In a recent video posted by Writers Center Norwich, Binyavanga makes the claim that the salvation of African literary publishing lies in getting Africans hooked on African fiction. Nollywood may be trashy, “diabolically melodramatic thrillers,” but Africans are hooked on it.

African writers produce in literary prose — a language and cultural ethos in which they do not live. Nollywood, on the other hand, produce stories in the languages in which Nigerian life is transacted. They produce stories that are relevant to Africans, stories that capture the urgency of the African moment. “Chimamanda’s books are not going to build industries,” Binyavanga insists. “What will build industries are having thousands and thousands of romance books, of kids’ fantasy books, of transporting our children away, getting them hooked on these things…like Nollywood.”

Cultural movements like Nollywood and the Nigerian music industry are, therefore, the ones “creating the revolution.” Not African literature. They constitute the “avant-garde?” Not African novelists. They are the ones creating new markets, new content, and tapping into forms and archetypes that are genuinely relevant to African life.

African critics, writers, and publishers have to move away from the “ridiculous, complaining position of saying that there are no novels” and begin to mobilize African readers around fiction that captivates their imagination. Binyavanga concludes: “I’m not part of this sentimental, nostalgic, where-did-literature-go, loving-the-smell-of-books, proust-proust nonsense. I want to be part of the new world.” And this world, he argues, lies in the path already paved by Nollywood and other pop-culture movements on the continent.

Here’s a transcript  of the video (lightly edited for easy reading):

What is Nollywood?

Not even ten years have passed before this thing properly explodes into the world. People with cheap cameras, not even digital yet making movies in a week, hundreds and hundreds of movies and throwing them down this pipeline of rivers, roads, trains, ideas, bicycles, all over Nigeria, primarily in pidgin English, or English or in Yoruba.

From the day it started, people bought, they bought and bought, then they bought again.

It has multiplied so many times no one even knows. They say it’s the second largest film industry in the world, no one knows ‘cause more keeps coming.

Nollywood films right now are on digital networks, which is to say on-the-service middle class paid tv channels in less than ten years.

You have an industry not owned by anybody, not Apple Corporation. No one can buy in ‘cause they can’t even get into the tangle of networks, relationships. As a decolonizing act, you can’t get better than hollywood.

You can put your copyright law or do whatever you want to. Copyright to protect what?

Someone is making relevant content, relevant just for the cheap thrills that it produces, relevant for the idea that it just was Africans kissing Africans, talking to Africans, marrying Africans, diabolically manipulating other Africans in diabolically melodramatic thrillers.

I got hooked. Me with all my hifalutin, read-Proust, and whatever. I keep watching them. This woman who converts people into a cell phone. How better can you get than that?

My contention really is first that the writers of my generation and the writers in English writing out of Africa are generally the product of a publishing industry. They are people who loved to read. They were one of a hundred people in their primary school and their primary school was an elite primary school of bright, young anglo-educated or anglo-facing Africans who learnt to know what a Penguin book looks like, what good prose looks like in English and so on and so forth.

 [They] have some idea that they can contend—and I believe I can—with those cool writers in New York and those cool writers in London for the same edge of a market place— your edgy, your different, your cool, your socially concerned.

But really the majority of the cash money—for these African writers— comes because of people in the West. George, Dave, Matilda in the West who are the buyers. That is the primary place that all English-speaking publishing faces ultimately.That’s where people get book deals. They get contracts and everything else. That those novels may end up being on a reading list in an educational system in Africa is only a byproduct of the fact that they had been bought for the West.

So my question is: who is avant-garde? Who is the person creating the revolution? And the revolution really is the necessity for books. The necessity for books at this point just means something bound, pounded, and cheaply available to a mass audience and because we are not binding anymore— ‘cause you don’t have to bind, you don’t have to build bookstores, you don’t have to transport books up and down the middle of nowhere, it’s going to be a digital revolution. It’s going to be a digital revolution simply because it can be, simply because the platforms are there to buy, sell, distribute, download in minutes.

Now my book which I love, which I loved producing is never going to be a mass book. What my book can do is not save African literature. It has its own esoteric audience. It will continue to. It won’t pay my rent. It will pay nobody’s rent. It will build no industries. None of these books are going to build industries. Chimamanda’s books are not going to build industries.

What will build industries are having thousands and thousands of romance books, of kids’ fantasy books, of transporting our children away, getting them hooked on these things…like Nollywood, you want that initial spurt, which really needs money, real investment to pay writers something and to be able to purchase the time to get talent to produce large amounts of work and sell them…

[In Africa] we are talking about the platforms within which people live, where people call community. It can be twenty million people. It can be 200 people. Their manner of engagement, their manner of politics and everything else, all these are things still in formation. There is no agreed platform yet, and because there is no agreed platform yet, there is not only work to do but also adventures to be had in terms of creating. The making of the platforms is interesting, but it is not about making digital platforms. The digital platforms are there, in their hundreds, easy ones to make, easy ones to monetize and so on an so forth. It’s about throwing the diversity of stories into these platforms and selling them.

We’ve seen the Nollywood industry grow and explode. Kenya has Riverwood, making films. Ghana has a film industry.

We’ve also seen the Nigerian pop music industry explode…You have rappers rapping in Yoruba…[They] get the lime light on digital paid TV network ten times more than any Chimamanda or any other person simply because they can, simply because they have that mass audience, simply because they produced for it.

It was not even a matter of asking what does the audience want? At some point it was just really a matter of why doesn’t anybody sing songs in yoruba that are relevant to my life? So that just the fact of somebody [rapping in Yoruba] becomes a revolutionary act, the fact of somebody ennobling pidgin becomes a revolutionary act. You transact in pidgin, you live in pidgin, millions and tens of millions of you [whereas] nobody, even me, live in the language of the prose which I produce.

There are novelists in Nigeria who sell 30 thousand copies in ten years. That’s true, but that’s not the creation of a market place.

I’m very interested in being that generation of people who own the wealth of our continent.

At this point, these [digital] platforms have been made. They can digest enormous amounts of content. My phone can digest as many novels as I want, [yet] we are in this kind of ridiculous, complaining position of saying that there are no novels…

[As for me], I’m not part of this sentimental, nostalgic, where-did-literature-go, loving-the-smell-of-books, proust-proust nonsense.

I want to be part of the new world.

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