The Nigerian Fiction Tradition in the 21st Century and its Postmodernist Imperative

Terhemba Shija


Still insisting on the essentialist and peculiar nature of African Literature, most older critics are reluctant to admit that postmodernism had taken its toll in the production and interpretation of contemporary art of Africa. In their evaluation of the Nigerian fiction since the advent of the 21st Century, these critics depict it as lacking in substance as well as inept in the treatment of “big issues” that were once the defining features in the Nigerian literary tradition.

This paper, however, argues that the real issue of dispute in recent Nigerian fiction is more with the critic than the writer. It cites salient contemporary developments in academics, technology and the mass media to justify the shift in focus in determining the big issues of our time as well as locates the teleological metamorphosis of Nigerian fiction in the globalised and postmodernist literary discourse. Suggestions are also made on how the various fragmented occupations of new writers can indeed constitute and sustain the big issues that always pervaded Nigerian literature.

If there is any singular scholar that has given direction to the study of Nigerian literature in the new millennium, he is Charles E. Nnolim. Although a humanist critic with proven disdain for modern literary theory, Nnolim had dismissed the African literary tradition since Achebe’s era as merely lachrymal or lamentative in nature. He says African writers began by weeping for the loss of their culture, dignity, religion and general heritage through slavery and colonialism and have continued to blame the Europeans for everything wrong that happened to their society. This stigmatized view of subservience and self-abasement is noticed too in the literature written after most African nations won their political independence. The focus of the agitations only changed from the colonial masters to African political leaders, who aside from corruption, nepotism or ineptitude, neglected to provide basic amenities like shelter, health services, water and electricity to the suffering masses. The military power mongers who incessantly interrupted civil governments in Africa were not also spared by the writers, who now wore the toga of postcolonial writers.

So for the greater part of the second half of the twentieth century, African writers had merely waged a war against colonial and political leaders ranging from the era of colonialism, through national independence struggle to what is now regarded as the post-independence era stretching to the end of the 20th century where Nnolim admits that African literature had reached a “point of exhaustion”, and dwindled to a narrow artistic canvass. It was therefore quite refreshing that he sought a break from the boring stereotypes of defensive grandstanding by declaring that:

…a new image of the African personality needs to be fashioned to reposition Africa for the take off of the 21st century. We need a new spiritual reorientation, a new creative hope to give artistic impetus to a new world order. Our writers in this new epoch of globalism dominated by a technologically oriented new world order must create a new Africa, a new spirit of optimism, an Africa full of promises, able to feed its teaming populations, with a healthy and vibrant people not dependent on Europe and America for sustenance(3).

There is no doubt that dozens of Africans, particularly Nigerians have responded to this clarion call to write for the new age. In their introductory study of the novel genre in Nigeria in the 21st century, Allwell Abologu Onukaogu and Ezechi Onyerionwu [2009] have outlined the prolific turn-over of novels within the first ten years of the new century and were particularly impressed with their artistic sophistication as well. What has however, bothered Nnolim more is the alleged lack of depth of seriousness in the handling of themes in contrast with their predecessors like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Elechi Amadi, Festus Iyayi, Ben Okri and so on who were firmly committed to big issues like colonialism, nationalism and corruption and well advocating social change.

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