Riot Lit

The first thing you'll notice when you pick up this collection of 1960s African market literature from the eastern Nigerian town of Onitsha is that it's a virtual riot: the outlandish, overgrown, even incomprehensible language (dubbed "Mad English" or "Young English"); the bizarre cover art and fractured typography (replicated here in irresistible facsimiles); the hodgepodge of literary genres and styles (from romance and adventure to moral instruction); the bold pen names of authors like Okenwa Olisah (a/k/a "Your Popular Author, The Strong Man of the Pen" and "Master of the Universe"), or C.N.O. Moneyhard, or the writer simply known as Speedy Eric. And then there are the titles: "Money Hard To Get But Easy To Spend," "Drunkards Believe Bar As Heaven," "Why Harlots Hate Married Men and Love Bachelors," and "Mabel the Sweet Honey That Poured Away."

Certainly, there is a cacophony of voices squeezed between the book's covers—a boisterous eruption of half-baked pop fiction from a newly literate culture—even if the book's editor, the private librarian and collector Kurt Thometz, warns us not to read these out-of-print artifacts as either art or sociology. "This is a selection of Africa's first popular written literature and it is best read as the authors intended: as an education, as entertainment, as instruction," he explains in an introductory essay that, like its subject, is at times difficult to untangle (even though it's peppered with useful Nigerian history, a touch of Elizabethan analogy, and the names of more familiar Nigerian writers like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, and Ben Okri). "Here in demotic, uncooked, Mad English, composited by illiterate printers in broken type, newsprint bound in bush-bruised wraps and distributed from hand to mouth," Thometz writes, "is a potential literature's growing pains on display." Nigerian Nobel laureate Soyinka spells it out a bit more emphatically, giving us a jumbled list of influences: "The models (style and content) of Onitsha Market literature are a bizarre mixture of Marie Corelli, John Wayne, Cisco Kid, Watchtower instructional brochures, beauty cream literature, Candid Revelations, News of the World, Superman, Indian films, Awful Disclosures of . . . , True Romances, James Bond, Lennards' Overseas Catalogue, etc., etc."

The authors of the selections, however, are the real stars of this pamphlet literature that exploded roughly from the end of World War II to the beginning of the Biafran War—writers like Moneyhard and Speedy Eric, who are drawn from the messengers, schoolboys, taxi drivers, sign painters, guitar players, and farmers who flocked to this booming market town in eastern Igbo land. Their cautionary tales navigate the new ways and mores of city life—all the juicy drama of low-life bars, high-life clubs, cinema halls, and markets that crawl with "harlots," "money mongers," and "bottle-knockers."

Mad English: Africa's first pop literature
photo: Pantheon Books
Mad English: Africa's first pop literature

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Life Turns Man Up and Down: High Life, Useful Advice, and Mad English: African Market Literature
Selected and introduced by Kurt Thometz
Pantheon Books, 356 pp., $26.95
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Among these versions of genre fiction, there's the gun-toting, weed-tooting "Adventures of the Four Stars," where author J.A. Okeke Anyichie reenvisions a noir-style caper in the seedy bars and wharfs of Lagos. "In the Western Countries of America they call it Wild Old West, but here in Africa, it is the era of the dope addicts and peddlers; the Bad Boys of Tinubu Square, the Wild Takwa Bar-Beach Boys and jayi-jayi addicts of Idi-Oro suburb. Read of them in thrilling and fascinating adventures packed in one," he exclaims. Then there is the overheated, bodice-ripping romance of Miller O. Albert in "Rosemary and the Taxi Driver," where the language hyperventilates with descriptions of Rosemary's "canon-ball-head" and her "fervent flirtation and ardent, vehement of fervourism, which went gay with all her generate days."

Yes, these snatches of tawdry serials and dime-store novels—most didn't cost more than a bottle of beer—certainly are entertaining. But there are also moments of pathos. One of the most disturbing pieces is from the deceptively titled "How to Write Famous Love Letters, Love Stories, and Make Friend With Girls." It is the true-life story of Easther Johnson, a Nigerian woman who's serving a life sentence for the murder of the European lover that had abandoned her.

You can read these stories for enjoyment, for the shock and thrill of the language, and the wild glimpses of a youthful literature and nation. But despite the editor's warnings, you can also glean something powerful, even sinister, at work behind the chaotic words and emotions. Something like the mood described in "Adventures of the Four Stars": "Kid Akabueze woke up to the glorious rays of a bright sun light morning. The invigoration air from the Barbeach was blowing merrily and gay. It was a beautiful morning; a morning that was full of vigour and the sweet of life. There was something potentous, something sister about the very feel of the air, the laughing brightness of the early sun dawn." These selections are retrieved from a fleeting moment in Nigeria's history, between the optimism of independence and the destruction of its civil war. And the riot hasn't died down since.

 
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