53 Years of Nigerian Literature: Lagos Through Fiction

by - 11:35

"The Tejuosho bus stop is a stone’s throw from where I stand. It is a tangle of traffic – mostly danfos and molues – that one might be tempted to describe as one of the densest spots of human activity in the city, if only there weren’t so many others: Ojuelegba, Ikeja, Oshodi, Isolo, Ketu, Ojota". (Teju Cole, 'Every Day is for The Thief' p.150)

This month I'm celebrating Nigeria's literary history and my second post pays homage to the city where I was born and raised, which as the quote above shows can be pretty dense. I love cities and I've always been fascinated by them - probably why I study them in the context of development. I also love how you can learn about new cities through the work of fiction. So if you've never been to Lagos, what better way to explore the city than through the pages of a novel. 

For this list, I'm focusing solely on books in my library - which means I'll probably miss out on quite a bit (e.g. Odio Ofeimun’s Lagos of the Poets). As I'm looking at books published since 1960 I am unable to include Cyprian Ekwensi’s People of the City (1956). I also was not sure whether to include books that begin in Lagos and then spend the rest of the story in a different place (e.g. A Squatter's Tale by Ike Oguine and Eyo by Abidemi Sanusi). In the end, I decided to include the books that are either solely set in Lagos or at least spend a substantial amount of time there. 

These books tell tales of Lagos from Independence to present day, with the military years in between. There are stories of corruption, the stark contrast between rural and urban life, young love, slums and street life, the informal economy, challenging tradition, high society, power cuts, public transport and traffic. To borrow the title of the 2010 BBC documentary 'Welcome to Lagos'. I hope you enjoy it. 

No Longer At Ease by Chinua Achebe (1960)

The story of Obi Okonkwo, the grandson of Okonkwo from Things Fall Apart who returnd to Nigeria after four years studying English in England. He gets a job as a civil servant in Lagos and here is where corruption (which is made all the more easier by the moral and physical isolation of family in a big city like Lagos) comes a-knocking. There's also a focus on how the growth of post-Independent Lagos is money and the desire for prosperity and money - something not found in rural Nigeria.

The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta (1979)

Through the life of Nnu Ego, 
The Joys of Motherhood explores what it means to be a mother (and a woman) in a Nigeria where traditions and customs are changing. Largely set in Lagos, we also get to see the contrast between rural Ibuza (traditional values and lifestyles are maintained here) and urban Lagos (traditional values succumb to the pressures of Western education, capitalism and the mixing of different ethnicities and cultures. 

Waiting for an Angel by Helon Habila (2002)

Set in Lagos in the 90s during military rule, Waiting for an Angel is based around Lomba - a young aspiring writer and poet working for a local newspaper and now political prisoner. Through a number or interconnected short stories we not only learn about Lomba's life as a prisoner, but also his life prior to becoming one. Like the Lagos neighbourhood of 'Poverty Street' where he lives and his neighbours, as well as general life in Lagos during the military regime - curfews, petrol scarcity and subsequent queues, jungle justice. To further show the ability of literature to introduce you to aspects of a city's history, there is a part in the story where Lomba visits the old slave port of Badagry.

Graceland by Chris Abani (2004)

Elvis, is a teenager living in the slums of Lagos with his father, his girlfriend and her kids. He spends his days not in school but on the beach trying to make a living as an Elvis impersonator. As his job as does not seem to make him enough money, he turns into a life of crime - thanks to his friend Redemption. More than life in a Lagos slum, this one shows the influence of American culture (music, film ... Elvis) on a young boy in Nigeria. 

Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta (2005)

Set in Nigeria (well Lagos) and then the UK and then back to Nigeria again, Everything Good Will Come (told through Enitan) is about an unlikely friendship between Enitan and Sheri which starts from childhood and continues to adulthood. Their friendship may form the backdrop, but this novel gives a sense of life in Lagos and of Lagosians. Similar to Waiting for an Angel, it is set during a time of military rule in Nigeria. 

Every Day is for The Thief by Teju Cole (2007)
Part-fiction, part-memoir, Every Day is for The Thief is an account of a Nigerian returning home - to Lagos - after many years in the States. It explores the narrators experiences of contemporary Lagos life. Power cuts, noisy generators, traffic, bus conductors, bookshops, corruption, the Muson centre, the Jazzhole and the slave trade. Possibly one of my favourite books on Lagos. 
London Life, Lagos Living by Bobo Omotayo (2011) 

This is a collection of 37 short Lagos-life observations turned 'stories'. If you ever wanted to know how the other half lives. By that I mean the wayfarer wearing, Veuve Clicquot drinking, social climbers in Lagos high society this satire on today's Lagosians - where image is everything - does just that. 

The Spider King's Daughter by Chibundu Onuzo (2012) 

A tale of young love in modern-day Lagos. 17-year old Abike Johnson is the daughter of the Spider King - Olumide Johnson, a business tycoon. On the other side of the city is Runner G, a street hawker selling ice-cream ob the busy Lagos roads. An unlikely friendship develops between Abike and Runner G which blossoms into love. The novel comes alive in its descriptions of Lagos and portrayal of a street hawker's life, the informal economy, the surroundings in which hawkers and most of the urban poor in Lagos live in. 

Love is Power, or Something Like That by A. Igoni Barrett (2013)

There are nine stories in this collection and while not all are set in Lagos (or even Nigeria - one is set in Nairobi), Lagos does run through Love is Power. There's The Dream Chaser  about a young boy who spends his days in a cyber cafe pretending to be a woman and online and possibly one of my favourite short stories on Lagos, My Smelling Mouth Problem, on the daily troubles a young commuter faces getting around Lagos thanks to his 'smelling mouth'.

You May Also Like