Nigerian authors reveal books that shaped their lives

Chika Unigwe

Martin Akpan, an Akwa Ibom-based medical doctor and author of a novel and two poetry collections, has an interesting thing to tell you about ​why he embraced​ creative writing, alongside his medical profession.

Mr. Akpan credits this fundamental aspect of his life to a 1956 play, This Is Our Chance, by James Ene Henshaw.

“As a primary school pupil, I was made to act the part of Bambulu, a flamboyant, grandiloquent teacher in the play to mark our parents’ day,” Mr. Akpan told PREMIUM TIMES.

“I was conscripted into this enterprise by my teacher, Mr Edet Nyah (now late). It remains an unforgettable experience more than 40 years after.

“I was particularly fascinated by the author’s predilection for medical jargons in that book. It aroused my curiosity.

“However, years later, as a medical student at the University of Nigeria, I found that the author was a surgeon and a creative writer. Pronto, I made up my mind to be a doctor and a writer.”

Akpan sa​y​​s ​​he feels happy and fulfilled that, despite his busy schedules in the hospital, he has been able to “birth” a number of creative works, including the novel, The Crumb Eaters, which is a political satire. His two poetry collections are Brainwaves At Dawn, and Mixed Strokes.

Akpan said another book that had profound effect on his life was Niyi Osundare’s Moonsongs.

“I never really knew what poetry was until I read Osundare’s Moonsongs in 1992 (Literature was not a part of my ‘offerings’ in WAEC).

“That encounter with the pantheon of literature was to mark a turning point in my life. As a result, just a year later (1993), my first poetry volume was published. I shall remain eternally indebted to this profoundly cerebral teacher,” said Akpan who is a former chairman, Association of Nigerian Authors, and the President, International Society of Doctors in Literature, Nigerian Chancery.

Eghosa Imasuen, like Mr. Akpan, is a Nigerian writer and a medical doctor.

For Mr. Imasuen, Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus is the book that altered his life.

“It was 2005. I had just begun writing a few months before, and had travelled to Lagos for a book-buying spree. I remember reading this book (Purple Hibiscus) on the bus trip back to Warri. I remember reading it on the okada ride from the park to my house. I remember not sleeping that night until I was done (reading it),” said Mr. Imasuen who has written two novels – To Saint Patrick and Fine Boys.

Imasuen said what the book did for him was that “it told me that my generation had been given permission to write our truths”​.​

Imasuen copied the address of the publisher of Purple Hibiscus, and submitted his own manuscript to them which they published a few years later.

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“For technique, for sheer unbridled skill, and joy, I would say that Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is the second book.

“I still find myself reaching for it when I want to remind myself of the talent that exists in this world.”

Chika Unigwe, a Nigerian author who lives in Belgium, gives it to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen, as two books that have really shaped her life.

“The former gave me permission to write, and it validated the African experience as one worthy of being written about (at a time I was inundated with Enid Blyton books) and the latter opened the way to immigrant literature for me,” said Ms. Unigwe, the award-winning author who has written two novels – De Feniks, and On Black Sisters’ Street, among other literary works.

Unyime Ivy-King, author of Burning Hurt, picked Mabel Segun’s My Father’s Daughter as one book that had profound impact on her life.

“I cannot remember now if it was a recommended text or my parents bought it for me, among the many books they bought for us, but it made enough impact on my young mind for me to yearn to be a writer like Mabel Segun.

“I just know that I wanted to see my name in print, just like Mabel Segun’s and that was one of the early motivations which started me off writing numerous stories in countless note pads as a child,” Mrs. Ivy-King told PREMIUM TIMES.

Woman Of Substance by Barbara Taylor, was another book for Mrs. Ivy-King.

“Funny enough I read that book whilst in primary school and the story of the young Emma, a mere maid who grew up to run a huge business empire impressed me a lot and that was what gripped me about that story.

“Young as I was then, it intrigued me that one could rise from such humble beginnings to such great heights in life. It made me feel that you could achieve anything you wanted to in life, no matter the circumstances.

“I may not have understood the finer intricacies of the story but that fact alone stood out for me and I remember desiring to become a woman of substance in life.”

Bisi Daniels, the leading adventure novelist in Nigeria, said his style of writing is greatly influenced by the works of Sidney Sheldon whom he said is his favourite writer, and that of James Hadley Chase.

“I think the novels (of James Hardly Chase) reinforced what I was taught by my parents about crime – it will eventually be exposed, no matter how well it is hidden,” said Mr. Daniels who early this year launched some of his bestselling novels on Amazon.

“From Chase’s novels I launched into novels of my most favourite writer, starting with If Tomorrow Comes. I’m talking about Sidney Sheldon, my master of mystery.

“If Tomorrow Comes is a 1985 novel, a story of idealistic Tracy Whitney who is framed by the Mafia, her subsequent quest for vengeance towards them and her later life.”

For Chinelo Okparanta, a U.S-based Nigerian author, it is Le Petit Prince, a 1943 book written by Antoine de St. Exupéry.

Ms. Okparanta said she came across the book during French literature class in her high school, and that it was the first book she read completely in French.

“I was immediately mesmerized by this precious, little, deceptively simple book. It was filled with some of the most important life lessons I’d yet to come across at that age,” said Ms. Okparanta whose creative works include a novel title Under The Udala Tree, and who was also a finalist for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing.

Okparanta said some of her favourite quotes about life come from the novel. She mentioned quotes like ‘You’re beautiful, but you’re empty. No one could die for you’ and ‘Well, I must endure the presence of a few caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies’.

She also mentioned The Bluest Eye, a 1970 novel by an American author Toni Morrison, as another book that shaped her life.

“From Pecola Breedlove (the protagonist in the novel), I learned that strength comes in different forms, that not everyone fights back in the same way – sometimes fighting back looks like weakness, like passivity, like insanity.

“But destroying white dolls is just not Pecola’s way, nor is it her goal. Because Pecola does not seek to destroy. Pecola is full of heart, and full of vulnerabilities, and full of humanity.

“Hauntingly unforgettable, she forces us to remember her, and to remember our past, and to keep our future in mind; this is Pecola’s strength. Just existing in the nightmarish circumstances that she does requires great strength–and great tenacity. I admire Pecola for her strength and tenacity.”

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