Uncovering Newsprint Literature in West Africa

I have been fascinated by Onitsha market literature ever since completing my PhD on West African popular literature. Written by local authors and published on presses in eastern Nigeria between the 1950s and early 1970s, hundreds of pamphlets were produced in genres ranging from romantic novels and plays to political dramas, letter-writing guides, and books of advice about love and marriage, all for local readers. 

Onitsha market literature contains imaginative interpretations of key political events in the mid-twentieth century, including dramas about the assassination of the Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and romances set during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967–70. These pamphlets are a treasure trove for historians and literary scholars. While many hundreds of titles have disappeared, including the only one known to be by a woman – Cecilia D. Akosa’s Stirring of a Heart (1950) – large collections of Onitsha pamphlets can be accessed at the British Library, Northwestern University, Yale University, and several other archives. 

My book grew out of curiosity about the cultural contexts and literary values that fed into these pamphlets. I wanted to find out if there were other, similar literatures from Nigeria and further afield that might help to explain the genres and styles that inspired pamphlet authors. I also wanted to read pamphlets in their own right and not treat them merely as a stepping stone on the way to supposedly better and more mature Nigerian literature, which is how literary scholars often regard them. 

This research led me to West African newspapers dating from the late nineteenth century. From their earliest days of production, African-owned newspapers are filled with creative writing – including poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction – as well as editorials and articles on the topics of reading, writing and literary value. Reading these newspapers helped me to understand many of the assumptions about literacy that pervade pamphlets in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the ways that public debates about art and literature took form in relation to wider debates about class, prestige and the value of education. 

One of the surprises in the process of researching the book was how often writers included “spoilers” in their publications. Whether in newspapers from the 1930s or pamphlets from the 1960s, Nigerian writers often adopted a position that was the polar opposite of “losing oneself” in a story. Newspaper editors repeatedly summarised plots and, almost without fail, Onitsha pamphleteers gave synopses of their stories in the opening pages. In spite of all their bias towards print and literacy, this suggested the presence of local aesthetic frameworks deriving from oral genres, influencing the ways printed texts were written and interpreted. 

I hope the book inserts additional pieces into the received picture of anglophone African literature in the twentieth century. One of the core messages of the book is that we need to step back from the Eurocentric categories that dominate the discipline of literary studies in order to appreciate locally published literature on its own merits in relation to globally circulating literature. In the process of researching the book, I gained insights into colonialism, the Cold War and postcolonial politics by reading creative writing published in newspapers and pamphlets in the midst of seismic political events in African history. I hope the book will inspire readers to study locally published African literature, whether it appeared a century ago or more recently. 

STEPHANIE NEWELL is George M. Bodman Professor of English at Yale University. Her works include Histories of Dirt in West Africa: Media and Urban Life in Colonial and Postcolonial Lagos (2020) and The Power to Name: A History of Anonymity in Colonial West Africa (2013), finalist for the ASA Best Book Prize 2014. Her latest book Newsprint Literature and Local Literary Creativity in West Africa, 1900s – 1960s provides a groundbreaking examination of literary production in West African newspapers and local printing presses in the first half of the 20th century.

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