Growing up in Lagos, the closest library to my house was an hour’s drive away. It was a private library, moderately well stocked and tidily catalogued but you could only borrow one book at a time. If you have to drive an hour each time you want to borrow a book, you’re going to borrow the biggest books in the library.
This meant that I almost always borrowed European classics. They had dull covers with obscure oil paintings on them. Their print was too small and I didn’t know what whist or barouches were but these books were hundreds and hundreds of pages long. I always rued the days I let the glossy covers of Nancy Drew and the Famous Five lure me into checking them out. These books could be finished on the way home if traffic was particularly bad.
Another influence on my early reading was my mother. She grew up in colonial Nigeria, where she was instructed by British teachers. Thus the books she read in her childhood were the same ones she bought for me. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, E Nesbit’s Five Children and It, CS Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers: are some examples. A few North American staples also snuck in: L Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Louisa May Alcot’s Little Women and Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm but there were very few African authors on my list.
I don’t remember ever deliberately buying or borrowing from the library a book by a Nigerian author. Any African books I read were casually picked up from friend’s houses or from older siblings who read these books in school. Some were blatant propaganda as my eldest sister has pointed out. Stories of disadvantaged children, struggling to go to school against all odds, a lesson for young readers about the importance of education and listening to your parents, teachers, elders and all adults in general.
Thus in my early years I consumed African literature in a mostly oral form. Every night my father would tell us stories that his mother had told him in his childhood, stories of the goings on in the animal kingdom, often about Tortoise but other creatures featured. The stories were told in a multimedia format. There was speech and singing and call and response. There was also a popular story-telling TV show that I watched called ‘Tale’s by Moonlight,’ whose stories gave me nightmares.
I came to written African literature as a teenager. I moved to England when I was 14-years-old and on a shelf in Winchester, I discovered Chinua Achebe’s Thing’s Fall Apart. I knew of the book. I knew of Achebe but I had never read him and after I read the novel in one sitting, I wondered why? Perhaps it was because subconsciously, I assumed that African heavyweights like Achebe and Soyinka and wa Thiong’o would be stodgy. There was some stodge in the African literary canon I encountered (as there are in all canons) but I also discovered many delights.
I lost by not reading these books in my childhood. I lost by not associating the world of books and imagination with Nigeria. Like other African writers, my first novels (which I began writing from 10 years old) were set abroad, with foreign characters, with foreign names, with foreign problems.
But I also gained by reading these books as a teenager. Firstly, I can remember them. If you asked me at 11 years old what my favourite books were, I would have said, “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “David Copperfield” and “Jane Eyre.” Thanks to the movie, I remember Jane Eyre’s story but Dickens’ and Dumas’ twists and turns are now lost to me. And since I can now borrow more than one book from my local library in Barnet, I am unlikely to reread these tomes anytime soon.
Secondly, by adolescence when I began powering my way through dozens of African authors, I could understand better the context the novels were written in, the ideas they were engaging with and the wider narrative they contributed to.
There is something to be said for reading a story only as a story. As a child I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm in this way and was very confused years later to hear all the talk about Communism. But reading ‘Thing’s Fall Apart and then going on to read and listen to what Achebe had to say about his work (something I would never have done as a child), allowed me to see the many layers of the book. A novel could be a cracking good read as well as a form of activism, a way of wresting control from an oppressor, a way of saying that Africans have a right to tell their own stories and that our lives were not lived in the heart of darkness.
It is something to read a body of books as a teenager and realise that these are my literary parents. Children are not their parents. They can grow up to be just like them or completely different. They may look like them or they may not. They may accept them or reject them but your parents will always be your parents.
Ancestry is not destiny but there is a sort of power and confidence that comes from being able to trace your lineage and draw up a family tree. I’m glad I discovered Achebe at an age when I started taking my writing seriously. It has made all the difference.
Chibundu Onuzo’s The Spider King’s Daughter is available from the Guardian bookshop. Chibundo is also speaking at the Guardian Education Centre’s Reading for Pleasure conference on 24 November for secondary school teachers and librarians, along with Stephen Kelman, author of Pigeon English. The conference is being run in with the British Library’s exhibition, West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song. If you know anyone who would like to come please let them know quickly as there aren’t many places left!