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Paradise lost: How book festivals in Nigeria are regaining lost glory

anote
  • November 20, 2023
  • 12 min read
Paradise lost: How book festivals in Nigeria are regaining lost glory

‘Lost glory of Ife Int’l Book Fair now regained in Nigeria Int’l Book Fair’

‘Port Harcourt Book Festival going under is irreparable cultural loss’

‘Reading culture campaign must involve celebrity writers for its success’

By Anote Ajeluorou

THE months of October to December have been dubbed Nigeria’s culture festival season. No less than 20 festivals take place to animate the country’s culture calendar, with Lagos taking a large chuk of the festival offerings. From Kano to Enugu, Lagos to Abuja, Benin City to Sokoto and Port Harcourt to Owerri; and they range from book festivals to film and arts. However, book and film take the lion share of festivals in the country in terms of their sheer numbers and occurrence. With Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF) being the longest running in its 25 years of consistent celebration of books, films, arts, children’s art and those who energise these art forms, the hunger for more festivals continue to grow, just as practitioners eagerly respond to the people’s yearning for more culture festival programming.

It was therefore not surprising when the subject of festivals, their origin, consistency and usefulness formed an illuminating discussion point at LABAF 2023, as a panel examined book festival trends from its earliest beginnings at Ife, the then University of Ife, Ile-Ife, (now Obafemi Awolowo University). The panel session was appropriately tagged ‘From Ife till today: Nigeria’s Book Fairs, Festivals and the Reading Culture’ to underscore the impact of book fairs and festivals in the reading habits of Nigerians. Panel members included the founders of Borders Literature, Olatoun Gabi-Williams, Rainbow Book Club and organisers of defunct Port Harcourt Book Festival (PHBF) that also hosted UNESCO World Book Capital in 2014, Koko Kalango; editor of Position magazine, Dapo Adeniyi and Executive Secretary, Nigeria Book Fair Trust (NBFT), organisers of the yearly Nigeria International Book Fair (NIBF), Abiodun Omotubi. The session enjoyed the expert moderation of journalist and publisher, Uzezi Akere Adesite.

The forum’s four sessions began with the CEO of Quramo Publishing, Convener of Quramo Festival of Words and Quramo Writers’ Prize, Mrs. Gbemi Shasore, giving the opening remakrs for CORA-NBRP Publishers-Booksellers-Authors-Readers, and stressed the importance of the forum where publishers, authors, booksellers and readers find a common ground to articulate issues in the book value chain in Nigeria.

Olatoun Gabi-Williams (left); Koko Kalango; CORA board Chairman, Kayode Aderinokun; panel session moderator, Uzezi Adesite; Dapo Adeniyi and Abiodun Omotubi PHOTO BY GODWIN OKONDO

According to Shasore, “This year’s festival theme, “THE RESET: History and the Darkling Plain,” comes at a crucial moment in our nation’s history where we are settling into a new dispensation and all the uncertainties that come with it. The undeniable influence of literature and the arts in shaping our perspectives and driving conversations is at the forefront of LABAF and the events planned for this festival serve as a crucible for exchanging ideas and perspectives that mold our national consciousness.

“Today is brimming with interviews, readings, and discussions featuring esteemed artists, authors, entrepreneurs, and filmmakers who will share insights that have shaped and will continue to shape the industry. The panel sessions scheduled for today underscore the festival’s commitment to addressing the pressing issues of our time. Everyone is buzzing about Artificial Intelligence, but have we considered its impact on our publishing industry? Have we taken a moment to explore the rich history of book fairs, festivals, and the reading culture in Nigeria?

“Allow me to also give a special mention to the Publishers Forum, in collaboration with the Network of Book Clubs and Reading Promoters of Nigeria, a daylong symposium and networking event that focuses on the book value chain from the writer to the reader. Our commitment at Quramo Publishing to pushing literary boundaries and cultivating a culture of voracious readership is evident as we sponsor the Publishers Forum for the seventh consecutive year. This underlines our dedication to the growth and evolution of the reading culture and the publishing industry in Nigeria.

“I encourage each of you to fully immerse yourselves in every element available today. Engage with the esteemed panelists, absorb the knowledge from the sessions, savor the readings, and contribute to the collective wisdom that LABAF is brewing. Let us recognize that the conversations and ideas emanating from here have the potential to become the guiding light that leads our nation out of these darkling plains and initiate a reset for Nigeria.

“I am genuinely excited about today, and I hope you are too. I look forward to crossing paths with you at any of the lined-up activities.”

Thereafter, the panel members took over. Gabi-Williams was of the belief that Nigeria International Book Fair is a significant book destination point, but that it is yet to get it tight in terms of organisation. She noted that while it’s a theoretical success, it is far from being so in practical terms, adding that its former University of Lagos venue was not progressive. However, the foremost book fair that will hold its 23rd edition next year has since moved venue twice – once to Harbour Point in Victoria Island and now Oregun Road, Ojota, Ikeja, Lagos, with a record of modest successes in operations. She also said Ife International Book Fair had such a roaring effect, but it became defunct too soon.

Kalango also noted that she didn’t believe NIBF is modern or creative enough in its organisation, noting that she “would have loved to be there, but activities for young people aren’t exciting”. She, however, commended the book fair “for its consistency; there’s always room for improvement.”

The pioneer book fair in the country that set the tone for what currently happens today in Nigeria’s culture space in terms of fairs and festivals was Ife International Book Fair, organised by then University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State. Adeniyi was nostalgic about the preeminent position of the Ife book fair in the country, and lamented its unfortunate demised, saying it was comparable to international book fairs now being held in London (Ife was actually older than London Book Fair by 10 years!), Sharjah, Frankfurt and Edinburgh, etc.

According to Adeniyi, “Ife International Book Fair was very exciting. Most of the figures that delighted us in the book world – Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Flora Nwapa – were there. It was more of a carnivalesque. Books were a great deal. Announcement of books soon to come out were made and we looked forward to buying them. You entered the venue and you got lost in the world of books. Zimbabwe Book Fair too was a bid deal.”

For Adeniyi, it’s paradise lost when it comes to books and reading culture in Nigeria. He noted that with international publishers doing business in Nigeria at the time (1960s), it was easy to fall in love with the outputs as against what currently obtains, saying, “We’ve lost a whole lot and it’s so obvious. Most of the publishers were international going concerns, but they have all left. We have more textbook merchants now. Most of the campaigns we’re doing today about reading culture were not needed back then. Books were so alluring and well made. Books are more of utilitarian now. Odia Ofeimun’s The Poet Lied was such a great book you’d hate yourself if you didn’t own a copy. A whole lot of books are now so drab, not alluring at all.”

Adeniyi argued that the country “seemed to be going back in circles in a good way; it’s good to have another Nigerian doing something brave, new and wonderful in Lola Shoneyin with Ake Arts and Book Festival” that starts tomorrow, Tuesday, November 21, 2023.

Omotubi’s first encounter with a book fair was in 2009, as a marketing executive for a company unrelated with books. There, he met young author expert, the late Prof. Chukwuemeka Ike, whose books like The Bottled Leopard and Our Children’s Are Coming he’d read in school, and several other writers of note. It became love at first sight. The encounter was humbling and a motivation for him, and he fell in love with books the more.

Adegbola Adesina, who joined the session virtually from his London base, situated what a book fair or festival symbolised, when he said, “It’s a cultural event, a sort of carnival. Book fairs are strong cultural events. At Ife, I came face to face with Profs. Ike, Soyinka, Dr. Wale Okediran; saw people who write books physically. I had always admired Soyinka. Everywhere you turned you saw books. It’s quite nostalgic today. Ife gave birth to the Nigeria International Book Fair at the University of Lagos, although not comparable to what happened at Ife back then.

“Each of the fairs have their own contents that broaden the horizon of readers. Mostly, they promote reading culture, because they are about books, but whether the people are reading is a different matter. Children come to these fairs; different groups also attend. But whether the book fairs are enough is another matter; we need more book fairs. When you look at our population, we need more fairs. Fairs must be well conceived with noble vision, love for books, current trends in technology, and not just by mercantilists.”

Kalango was quick to point at Adeniyi as one of the gains of Port Harcourt Book Fair, as one of the consultants to the festival, who gave invaluable advice how the fair should run: “Having him at the festival; he consulted for us, bringing the Ife experience to us. PHBF was a recreation of what Port Harcourt city had lost. What we did was more than a book festival. We tried to make something that appealed to everyone – that widened the space; we had books adapted for stage.”

Omotubi opposed Adesina who said Nigeria International Book Fair hasn’t lived up to hype or expectation. Rather, he said, “The glory lost by Ife has been regained by NIBF – the major brains behind Nigeria’s book ecosystem now come to NIBF – writers, publishers, governments, etc.” He said the goal of the book fair is to promote book trade and the reading culture, adding that the fair has done so admirably over the past 22 years, and still going strong.

Omotubi, however, lamented the irreparable cultural loss Nigeria has suffered with a major book festival like PHBF going defunct and being referred to in past tense. He said he could not understand why PHBF that brought global recognition and honour to Nigeria as book destination point with the UNESCO World Book Capital was allowed to go under, while Rivers State and the federal governments merely looked on without a care: “PHBF brought honour to Nigeria and I wonder why government hasn’t upheld that glory,” he said.

Foremost philologist and writer Pa Modupe Oduyoye lent historical perspective to the conversation when he gave the historical background to the founding of now defunct Ife International Book Fair that opened in 1962, a full decade before London Book Fair came into being in 1972. A Sierra Leonean is believed to have started the Ife International Book Fair, according to Oduyoye, and wanted the Ife University Bookshop to compete with that of the neighbouring University of Ibadan, adding, “he organised book exhibitions and took it round Nigeria. This led to a conference on book publishing in Africa that gave birth to the resolution that there should be book fairs and a calendar for books fairs was drawn. He also got the Japanese Noma to award a prize for book publishing in Africa. This was the beginning of The African Book Publishing Record.”

Oduyoye said one Wunmi Adegbomire was saddled with the task of organising the Ife book fair, but he “left scandalously as electoral officer in his state. He was succeeded by a civil servant, who did not know anything or cared about books. He advised that Ife should go to London Book Fair to learn how to run a book fair. Can you imagine that? Ife International Book Fair started 10 years before London Book Fair began. So what can Ife learn from London? Anyway, Ife book fair died when the name of the university was changed from University of Ife to Obafemi Awolowo University!”

Gabi-Williams said book fairs are more of book trade, but that they also have elements of cultural festivals in them, adding, “LABAF has a unique personality to it. Ake too has a different personality, very international, very unique; it has local and international flavour. The programme is so diverse and delivery is superb.”

Panel members also weighed in on possible ways to advance book fairs, so they become more appealing to the public in their efforts to promote the people’s reading habits. Omotubi said marketing book fairs has to be enhanced to reach more people, noting that attendance to book fairs has continued to dwindle over the years. “People don’t have much interest in attending book fairs; we need to do more to get them interested,” he said. “We need to enlighten and educate Nigerians, particularly young people on the usefulness and the benefits of reading books.”

Kalango canvased for excellent, professional handling of fairs, so they are appealing, adding, “We had our state governor reading to pupils and students on Children’s Day. Celebrities are a factor, too. We’re excited by celebrities writing books these days as well. Hilda Dokubo, Julius Agwu, Richard Mofe-Damijo (RMD), Omoni Oboli, etc have written books; this is a way of drawing attention to books. Adeniyi sued for collaboration rather than working solo, saying, “If we collaborate, we can do a lot more. There’s need to run a collective. We need African Book Collective as a template for the local book market. We need innovation in the book trade.”

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