Uploaded by Jibril Lawal on July 16, 2013
November 2003. We’d just moved to Lagos from London and were keen to get involved in cultural production (and escape the wasteland of living in VGC). Sensing kindred spirits, we volunteered to help Ebun Olatoye (now Feludu - pictured) and Yemisi Ogbe, then editor on how to improve Farafina magazine’s online presence and make it more financially viable. This was in the context of Jeremy’s experience in the new media sector in the UK. At our first meeting (a quiet Saturday in Onikan), we offered the best free advice we could give. Meanwhile, Ebun had brought copies of the novel of a new writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her excitement and desire to promote it in Nigeria was so infectious that we could not help but share in her enthusiasm. We got hold of a copy and devoured it in days. Purple Hibiscus drew us in: Nigeria had a new talent. We agreed with Ebun that Adichie must be widely known in Nigeria. Jeremy wrote the first review of Purple Hibsicus and had it published in the Guardian a few days later.
The rest of the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie story is history (or herstory), if not quite a single story. It was inspiring to be a part of the early days, supporting the first tour from behind the scenes (Jeremy was pushed forward, reluctantly, to interview Chimamanda at the first book event, at Yellow Chilli restaurant). Ebun’s workload and passion for the project back then was awesome: we can’t forget the late nights she worked (and the vulnerable after-midnight drives home to Agege), the sheer hustle of the woman as she made one jigsaw piece click into place after another. She managed to get Fatai Rolling Dollar to perform his wonders that evening, re-introducing many of the guests to the music of their parents. The relatively shy and unknown Asa also performed that night, singing ‘Iwa El’ewa’ written by Ebun and Alaba Ajani. Rolling Dollar even took a shine to Ebun and had many of us rolling! Had Nigeria in recent times witnessed such a beautiful evening in a contemporary Nigerian culinary setting? Actors acting out parts of the book, beautiful music wafting in from outside. There was a sense of a new cultural moment everyone in the audience felt. That night and all the activities leading up to it placed both Farafina and Chimamanda in the minds of Nigerians. In our view, it was also what led to the birth of NLNG’s involvement in literature as Yemisi Ogbe drafted a proposal for Farafina to organise the NLNG event.
The energetic and fluid way Yemisi and Ebun worked together to put Farafina and Adichie on the map is a constant reminder of what women can do to support other women. Their role in the rebirth of Nigerian publishing will likely be lost in the forest; they will be women yet again written out of history. But we remember Yemisi and Ebun and their contribution to a new era in Nigerian publishing and writing, just as we remember all those indomitable women around the continent who continue to sweat quietly to ensure that our multifarious stories are kept alive and read: Colleen Higgs at Modjadji, Irene Staunton at Weaver Press, until not long ago Simi Dosekun and now Yona Oyegun-Masade at Kachifo, Afi Omoluabi at Parresia, Muthoni Garland at Storymoja, Melinda Ferguson at MF Books, Angela Wachuka at Kwani, the FEMRITE women and many more. They are all part of the exciting re-emergence of publishing across the continent.
The efforts of Yemisi and Ebun at Farafina were the second spark that led eventually to setting up Cassava Republic three years later and the publication of Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief. The first had happened three years before in 2000. We’d visited Unilag bookshop (during a trip to Nigeria), and noted the heart-breaking paucity of books available. We both felt a pang of pain and a visceral “something must be done”. At that time, we just didn’t know quite what it was.
And so, ten years on. It’s wonderful that Chimamanda Adichie is now an icon in Nigerian (and African) writing and alongside Helon Habila - who opened up the fourth wave in Nigerian writing with his Caine Prize winning story ‘Prison Note’ which later became ‘Waiting for An Angel’ – as well as Teju Cole, are among the Nigerian/Africa/global literary superstars of our time. We celebrate the work Farafina/Kachifo has done in casting the words of Adichie, Sefi Atta and others far and wide across Nigeria. We also applaud their work in organising prestigious writing workshops, and bringing emerging talent together from across Nigeria and beyond. Long may Farafina/Kachifo, and our other fellow publishers such as Chimurenga, Parresia, Bookcraft, Modjadji, Weaver Press, MF Books, Amalion, Kwani! and others continue to thrive despite the challenges. Of course we cannot go without acknowledging the dogged determination of the men and women at CORA who, by keeping Lagos Book Arts and Festival going for over twelve years, continue to inspire others such as the Garden Literary Festival and the forthcoming Ake festival (organised by that unstoppable force of nature, Lola Shoneyin) about the importance of offering a space for creative minds to come together amidst the brute, chaotic and commodified fetishism of the Western myth-making machine and its ongoing symbolic erasures.
The raw talent will keep coming – all the stories of Nigeria cannot be captured or told by a single author or publishing house - our mission is to spot it, nurture and challenge it, and then to publish it. We need more celebrity authors, just as we need many more publishing houses to nurture the next generation of writerly superstars. We all know the work of pioneering companies – after all, for a while, publishing in Nigeria went through a death phase - is never easy. Long may we also reach out and support each other on the journey. And viva the Etisalat Prize! And the Caine Prize too!
The challenges for we small publishers are mountainous: a scant number of reliable bookshops (those that keep records and pay on time such as Quintessence, Terra Kulture, Salamander Café, Booksellers: we appreciate you!), no distribution networks, unreliable printers, a low buyership of books outside the south-west, endless port delays and theft. However, these challenges are tiny blips in comparison to the existential opportunity: to generate powerful narratives that speak of the present, through conversations with the past and the future, and that take the conversation on who we are and where we are going forward. The privilege of publishing is also to dream up ways of engaging technology to amplify all that we do, social media is definitely our friend as we embrace the emerging e-commerce sites such as Konga, Buyam, Jumia who are already transforming our bottom-line, just as we continue to appreciate all our small retailers and those who buy books by us and by other African publishers.
Writers, readers and publishers work together to dream of a new present, where a thousand voices articulate the passions and the contradictions of the now. Who would baulk at such a privilege? Publishing is just giving birth in Nigeria today. The future is shiny bright.