The Plague Of The Foreign Setting by Vivian Nneka Nwajiaku

Old vintage typewriter, close-up.

During my glory days as a teenage author of no less than twenty unpublished novels, I had a flock of mentees who wanted to write like me. Of course, I desperately needed a mentor myself because… well, I didn’t know the first thing about being an author. But I did know one thing—and only because my mother made me know it: my mentees and I were filling up pages with lies.

You see, there’s a difference between imagination and dishonesty. It’s imagination if you create a world that doesn’t exist or tell a story that never happened while making it clear that it never happened. It’s dishonesty when you deliberately mislead your readers with facts and figures that are neither facts and figures nor fiction. We were telling the stories of persons, animals and things in places we had never been to, and if you had asked us, we would have sworn that though the stories and characters were imaginary, the animals, places and things were real. If I had twenty stories, only one would be set in Nigeria.

You see, we didn’t write about Nigeria. We didn’t want to write about Nigeria. Our friends told us that the few Nigerian stories we told were boring but the foreign stories were interesting. And we believed them. Most of them hadn’t read Things Fall Apart or even Eze Goes to School. They hadn’t even tried to. The only copies of those books that lay on their shelves at home were old and dusty—books that their parents had read too many years ago. At that age, nobody wants to read the books that seem to have expired. We were much younger than we are now, but we were already in the age of trends and the internet. High School Musical and Camp Rock were the movies to watch, and their novel adaptations were the books to read. These books taught us about the simplest forms of romance, and before we knew it, we were reading the more complex forms—Harlequin and Silhouette books.

We felt that these foreign books were more relatable than the indigenous ones. We are 90s kids in the 21st Century. It was easier to gel with modern kids in American books than kids from the past featured in Nigerian books. And when the books were adult books, we were excited about the explicit content that we knew our parents would never let us read. Besides, it’s not everyday that you see a Nigerian book with explicit content. Our culture hates it, or at least claims to. So we accepted that Nigerian stories were boring. They lacked the excitement of explicit content. But mostly, they lacked relativity. And that was what killed our interest.

We didn’t know that there were Nigerian books that we could relate to. Television and the internet did not tell us about books like Abidemi Sanusi’s Kemi’s Journal and Zach’s Story. We didn’t realise there was a book like Nnedi Okorafor’s Zahrah the Windseeker. As far as we were concerned, books were either foreign or set between the 1950s and the 1980s. We chose foreign books. We wrote foreign books.

Today, we’re much older. We’re no longer so much bothered about high school novels or romance novels. We’ve seen what the world really is—brutal, unloving, painful. We now watch and read Inferno, The Fault in Our Stars and Gone Girl. Most of us are unaware that some among us have dared to tackle social issues in our own context and in innovative and interesting ways. Books like Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel was not nearly as popular as it should have been. So, we write foreign stories again, this time in the context of the Western social scene. We would have loved to write police procedural novels, but we didn’t think it’d work here, not with the police stations looking the way they are. Again, we wrote foreign books.

Not to forget fantasies and comics, we’ve tried to imagine what they would seem like in the Nigerian environment. Seems like a bad idea. But it’s not a bad idea when Nnedi Okorafor makes it happen. It’s not a bad idea when foreigners write a comic set in Africa. Why then is it a bad idea to many of us?

You know what’s so funny about this story? It’s that our foreign books never get published. They simply can’t. Or have you read any book about the US written in Nigeria by a Nigerian who has probably never been to the US? So, we just give up on writing.

If we put all that inspiration into good use, we’d turn out a good number of good relatable books set in Nigeria. Talents would not be going to waste. The ones coming after us would be encouraged to write their own stories instead of lifting from foreign books. And the writing industry in Nigeria will blossom beyond expectations. So, the next time you catch your friend or sibling or even yourself writing lies with the excuse that Nigerian books simply don’t have the flow, you must point out to yourself or to that person that flow is a creation, and any creative person can do it right.

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