With a recent history largely defined by a series of military coups and oppressive regimes, Nigeria has only recently begun to find its footing on newly democratic terrain. As with any transitioning country, Nigeria currently struggles against growing pains unfortunately familiar to any nation that has sought an identity free of recent oppressive rule. As the most populous country in Africa, Nigeria continues to struggle against ethnic and religious infighting and the fostering of separatist factions. The rise of the Islamic State-aligned Boko Haram has led to the death of thousands and considerable tumult within the country.
In spite of these challenges, and decades under the thumb of tyrannical regimes, Nigeria is at the center of Africa’s literary community. Drawing on both traditional Nigerian lore and traditions as well as the strife that has defined so much of the country’s history, Nigerian literature is equal parts profound, tragic, hopeful, and surreal. The novels here, each by Nigerian authors, offer a glimpse of the facets of Nigeria’s rich literary history.
The Years of Childhood
Nigerian author Wole Soyinka became the first African to win a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. His memoirs Ake: The Years of Childhood and You Must Set Forth at Dawn are both must-reads for anyone interested in life in Nigeria. Ake is a vivid evocation of Soyinka’s childhood in a Yoruba village during World War II. You Must Set Forth at Dawn chronicles Soyinka’s adult years as an author and political activist, both in his beloved Nigeria and in exile from it.
Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, and Arrow of God
Chinua Achebe is considered the father of modern African literature and his African Trilogy — Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, and No Longer at Ease — is his unquestioned masterpiece. The African Trilogy centers on three generation generations in an African community, each struggling in their own both against and to come to terms with colonialism from the arrival of missionaries to the waning days of the British Empire.
For his Man Booker Prize-winning novel, Ben Okri draws on the lore and traditions of the Yoruba people to weave a fascinating and hypnotic tale of love, tragedy, and survival. The Famished Road tells the story of Azaro, a spirit child existing between life and death. Tinged with hints of magical realism and surreal, apocalyptic visions, The Famished Road is, at base, a powerful chronicle of everyday life in a small African community told through a supernatural lens.
Sefi Atta is one of the most engaging voices in contemporary African literature. With Everything Good Will Come, Atta charts the lives of two Nigerian women from their childhood to adulthood during a particularly tumultuous period in Nigerian history. Set against a war-torn backdrop of tragedy, military rule, and the struggle for progress, Everything Good Will Come is a powerful and fascinating examination of recent Nigerian history.
Helon Habila’s powerful debut novel is a chronicle of the brutality and oppression that defined life in Lagos, Nigeria in the 1990’s. Waiting for an Angel centers on Lomba, a young journalist whose life is upended when his roommate is brutally attacked by soldiers. The story that follows balances the oppressive cruelty of Nigeria’s military regime against Habila’s lyrical and heart-wrenching descriptions of Nigerian life.
Open City by Nigerian-born author Teju Cole is a profound and extraordinary examination of the immigrant experience. It is a haunting story of identity and the disconnect inherent to beginning a new life away from one’s homeland. Cole tells the story of Julius, a young Nigerian doctor wandering the streets of Manhattan and reflecting on his life, carrying him to the Nigeria of his youth and a deeper understanding of the life he has built.
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
Unfortunately, in the greater public consciousness Nigeria is often synonymous with the infamous “419 scam”— also known as the Nigerian Prince scam. In her debut novel, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani confronts this perception of Nigerians head-on with a novel that is both irreverent and profound. Through the life of young man named Kingsley, Nwaubani weaves an oft-hilarious story of familial struggles set against a world of outlandish con men and constant scheming.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is an extraordinary and moving chronicle of the immigrant experience in a post-9/11 world as well as what it means to be black in America. The story centers on Ifemelu and Obinze, young lovers who flee Nigeria’s military regime. Ifemelu settles in America where she struggles against the realities of being a black woman in the U.S. Obinze, unable to immigrate to post-9/11 America, begins life as an undocumented immigrant in London. The novel charts their dual struggles before reuniting the pair fifteen years later in the newly democratic Nigeria.