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Young writers start new chapter in Nigeria's literary history

By Catriona Davies for CNN
  • 19-year-old student is the youngest woman to win book deal with publisher Faber
  • Nigerian writers have won many international awards and much acclaim
  • More new talent is on the horizon, say publishers

CNN's new series i-List takes you to a different country each month. In September, we visit Nigeria focusing on changes shaping the country's economy, culture and social fabric as it celebrates 50 years of independence.

(CNN) -- A 19-year-old Nigerian undergraduate student has signed a two-novel deal with the British publisher Faber, making her its youngest ever woman author.

Chibundu Onuzo, a history student at King's College London, will have her first novel, "The Spider King's Daughter," published next year.

"I wrote the book in my last year at school," Onuzo told CNN. "I've been writing since I was 10, but this was the first novel I finished, so it was very liberating to be able to write 'The End.'"

Onuzo, who moved to England to go to school five years ago, found an agent before she had even finished writing, and sealed the book deal on her first meeting with a publisher

Her editor at Faber, Sarah Savitt, describes Onuzo as a "very talented writer at the beginning of an exciting writing career."

Nigerian writers past and present
Wole Soyinka, now 76, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.

Chinua Achebe, 80, whose first novel "Things Fall Apart" (1958) is a modern classic and has been translated into 40 languages. Achebe won the Man Booker International Prize in 2007.

Ben Okri, 51, won the Man Booker Prize in 1991 for "The Famished Road."

Helen Oyeyemi wrote her highly-acclaimed "The Icarus Girl" when she was just 18 and has written two novels since;

Nigerian writers Helon Habila, Segun Afolabi and E.C. Osondu also won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2001, 2005 and 2009 respectively.

Onuzo is the latest of a new generation of talented young Nigerian writers -- many of them female -- who have made their mark in the literary world in the past few years.

They include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who won the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction for "Half of A Yellow Sun;" and Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, published her first novel, "I Do Not Come To You By Chance," last year, which has also garnered several awards, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

In 2009, Uwem Akpan's debut collection of short stories "Say You're One Of Them," was picked by Oprah Winfrey and included in her book club. The book rocketed to the top of the U.S. bestseller list after the endorsement by the chatshow host, who said the book had left her "stunned and profoundly moved."

Nigeria has a rich literary tradition spanning the 50 years since its independence, including one Nobel Prize for Literature, one Man Booker Prize winner, one Man Booker International Prize, one Orange Prize winner, and three winners of the Caine Prize for African Writing, which is often described as the "African Booker."

It is an impressive haul, even for Africa's most populous country with a population of 150 million, but according to those in the know, it is just the beginning.

Publishers and writers say there is an explosion of young Nigerian writers about to gain even more international recognition.

Jeremy Weate, a British man who set up Cassava Republic publishing company in Abuja in 2007 with his Nigerian wife Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, said: "This is a very exciting time and the best of Nigerian writing is still ahead.

"There is some awareness overseas of Nigerian authors and an increasing number of Nigerians winning awards, but we believe this is just the beginning.

"There is still a huge amount of undiscovered and up-and-coming talent in Nigeria."

There are going to be even more brilliant young writers coming through in the next few years.
--Helon Habila

Among the new wave of literary talent are Chika Unigwe, an Afro-Belgian author who writes in both Dutch and English published her first English novel "On Black Sisters' Street" in the UK last year. It was described by Alistair Campbell, press secretary to the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on Twitter as the "best novel so far read this summer."

Habila, who won the Caine Prize for his novel "Waiting for an Angel," told CNN: "My generation has been very fortunate. The return to democracy in [in Nigeria] the last 10 or 12 years has brought people more freedom to express themselves and to travel, and opportunities for publishing and writing workshops that have encouraged creativity. There was active suppression of these things until the late 1990s.

"There are going to be even more brilliant young writers coming through in the next few years. Whenever I go home I see the incredible enthusiasm and hunger of young writers. They have seen us succeed, so they know it's possible."

Unigwe, too, is optimistic about the future.

She told CNN: "For a long time we thought the western market was closed to African writers, so it was a huge thrill when we started to see them being published.

"I get lots of emails from young writers who want to get published and there's some really amazing stuff coming out. It gives me a lot of hope for the next few years."

Most successful writers have moved away from Nigeria, some leaving when they were very young. If writers of Nigerian parentage, born elsewhere, were counted the list of success stories would be even longer.

Lizzy Attree, expert in African literature and consultant to the Caine Prize for African Literature, said: "Nigeria has a rich literary tradition and at certain points it has come particularly to the world's attention.

"The first wave was in the 1960s after independence with writers like Chinua Achebe, and then a new wave has emerged in the last few years with the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Some second and third generation Nigerians in the West have also made links back home and brought their stories to a younger generation."

Or, as Onuzo puts it simply: "There's something in the water in Nigeria. I guess we just have a lot of interesting stories to tell."

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