This excerpt is from Elnathan John's satirical book, "Be(com)ing Nigerian: A Guide". The book was chosen as the World Economic Forum Book Club's monthly book for August.
Elnathan John is a lawyer, novelist and satirist. His short stories have been shortlisted twice for the Caine Prize for African Writing, in 2013 and 2015. His novel, Born on a Tuesday won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Nigeria Prize for Literature. It has been translated into German and French and won the 2019 Le Prix Littéraire Les Afriques . On Ajayi Crowther Street, his graphic novel, will be published in November 2019. Elnathan was on the jury of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. He lives in Berlin and is a 2019 recipient of the Berlin Senate grant for non-German literature.
Each month, a new book is selected and discussed among the group, with the author joining in on the last day of the month to reply to some questions from our participants.
Join here: wef.ch/bookclub
How to be a Nigerian writer
You know the value of books. The process of making them intrigues you. You want your name on the front cover of a book and, like an earthworm inches through dirt into the ground, you want to make your way into people’s homes, heads and hearts. I am here to help you achieve that.
The African Writer’s Look
First, you must look the part. It is important to look like an African writer. Find multi-coloured kampala fabric and use it to sew shirts which you’ll wear to all writers’ events. Or an old t-shirt. You shouldn’t look like a model or banker. Your precious time is spent thinking of plot and theme and words, not on dress and grooming. Your hair needs to be unkempt. However, nothing says authentic-tortured-African-writer like dreadlocks. Please, note that in Nigeria there is a difference between dreadlocks and ‘dada’. Dada is less refined, naturally matted coils of hair due to superstitious neglect. Dada is uncool. Dreadlocks are deliberate. They are cool. They make you look wildly creative. If someone asks; no, you are not a Rastafarian. You are an African writer.
Vice and the Writer
As a writer, you must flaunt your vices. You need to show that you are a flawed character. If you drink, drink too much. If you smoke, do it at inappropriate times. Show up at an event reeking of booze. People will understand. People will even understand if you are a male writer who sexually harasses women. Just call your actions a writer’s excesses. Vices are a tool of the trade. Now, you have the basic tools: a multi-coloured kampala shirt, cool dreadlocks, and vices. You must set about the business of writing.
Reading is not synonymous with Writing
You do not need to read a lot to be a Nigerian writer. In fact, as a Nigerian writer you can make shameless statements like “I don’t really read much”, “I don’t want to be tainted by other people’s words jamming my own” in public. All you need is a burning desire to write. It is sufficient to have read Shakespeare and Achebe, and maybe a little of Chimamanda Adichie for contemporary reading. The only thing you need to really study is a dictionary or thesaurus. Please, note that all Nigerian characters are Africans who act the same: children are respectful of elders; parents are always responsible, wise individuals teaching children valuable lessons of life. Characters do not use cuss words or talk about sex, even when in the company of peers. Nobody’s mother smokes and we have no homosexuals in Nigeria. Use big words instead of small words; “discombobulate” instead of “confuse”. How can you write like a layperson when you are a Nigerian writer? It doesn’t matter how many people read or understand you. What matters is that you impress those who do. Use many words. It is always better to err on the side of verbosity than to err on the side of brevity.
Have you read?
Protect your work fiercely and always insist that people give you constructive criticism. Anyone who points out, rightly or otherwise, that your writing isn’t quite there yet, is evil and an enemy of your hustle. You must believe that there is nothing like bad writing. After all, you were inspired by the spirits before you began writing — what do critics know?
Do not waste your time or money on editors. Editors are failed writers whose life ambition is to frustrate the hustle of real writers like you. Show your friends your work. But only the ones who are not jealous of your hustle, and who remind you that your writing is the best thing since point-and-kill. Find some popular person from your village who will write you a foreword without actually reading your book. Then, go to press.
Go to Ibadan or Lagos. Find a cheap printer who can print 1,000 copies without ink smearing or the pages coming out lopsided. Arrange for a transporter to bring your book home.
What is the World Economic Forum's Book Club?
The World Economic Forum launched its official Book Club on Facebook in April 2018. Readers worldwide are invited to join and discuss a variety of books, both fiction and non-fiction. It is a private Facebook group dedicated to discussing one book every month.
Each month, we announce a new book on our social media channels. We then publish an extract and begin a chapter-by-chapter discussion with group members. Selected comments and questions are sent to the author, who in return sends us a video response.
Unlike other book clubs, the group features the direct involvement of the authors, giving you - our global audience with members all around the globe - a chance to directly connect with some of the most influential thinkers and experts in the world.
We have featured authors such as Steven Pinker, Elif Shafak, Yuval Noah Harari, and Melinda Gates.
You can join the Book Club here.
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The Book Launch
A book is not complete without a book launch. In Nigeria, a book launch is a fund-raising ceremony. It is not important to have writers at this event. Well, maybe the book reviewer. You need your state governor (who may not come but will send a representative with a cheque or a pledge); your Local Government chairman; your Pastor or Imam to bless the event; and any minister, senator or rich person that you know. It is important to find a Chief Launcher who will encourage others to donate to your hustle. Do not leave it to chance or the discretion of the Chief Launcher, unless you are sure of his capabilities. In Nigeria, nobody is allowed to embarrass the Chief Launcher by giving more money. So, if you can, gently hint that you know he will set the bar high for others to follow. That is the job of the Chief Launcher — setting the bar as high as possible.
Marketing and Publicity
You do not need a marketer, publicist or publisher. These people eat into your profit margin. If you have a car, carry a few hundred copies in the trunk at all times. Be your own marketer. Steer conversation toward your book and tell them you have written this really cool book. Someone will ask for it and you will tell them to hold on for a minute while you get it from your car. If you don’t have a car, have a big bag that can carry at least ten copies. Do not be ashamed to carry your books to public gatherings. Book by book, God blessing your hustle, you may end up selling off the 1,000 copies your printer produced, and maybe even go for a reprint.
Get an award. It doesn’t matter what. It may be from your church bulletin which you have been writing for since you were in secondary school or your old boys’ association newsletter. You can even have friends get together to organise and award you the “Roforofo Prize for African Fiction”. Then, you can have on your book, ‘Award-Winning Author’. No need to state what award it is. An award-winning writer is a good writer.
It is my hope that you make it as a writer and have many successful books in the market. And with well-organised book launchings, you can be sure that God will bless your hustle.
You can join the World Economic Forum Book Club here.