Nigerian literature: An Interview with Dr Tiziana Morosetti

Dr Morosetti is a tutor in African Literature and a fixed-term affiliate to the African Studies Centre, University of Oxford, where she runs an option course in African Literature for the MSc in African Studies. She specialized in Nigerian literature with a PhD thesis on Femi Osofisan, a playwright that interested her for his political views and the way he uses theatre to provoke or enhance societal change.

EdusoundsNg: What has been some of the cultural similarities you have found between contemporary Nigerian and Western literatures?

Dr Morosetti: Rather than similarities, I would talk of common sources and interests. Western literature, via school curricula and university syllabuses, has had a great influence, and several are the genres or authors that have been of inspiration to Nigerian writers. Brecht, for instance, is a key figure, whose political commitment has had an impact on many voices, arguably worldwide. Shakespeare is predictably another major source, and theatre has been particularly prompt to respond to the challenges of Western example; but then, theatre is also the genre, perhaps, in which most of all is visible in the particular character of local influences.

EdusoundsNg: What are the major differences you have found in the two?

Dr Morosetti: Difficult to answer this, just as the previous question, as they tackle major issues that would deserve several examples. Of what Nigerian literature are we talking about precisely, is the question one should answer first. Ibo, Hausa and Yoruba authors, alongside the many that come from different ethnic backgrounds, have each their own particularities. Perhaps, at a very general level, one may say that one difference between Nigerian and Western literatures is that the nation, although central, is not the only or even most important unifying factor. But then, although we seem to take for granted that Western literatures are ‘national literatures’, they also are very variead, not to mention global issues.

EdusoundsNg: Recently, there seems to be a growing interest in Nigerian literature amongst young Nigerians, what factors do you think could be responsible for it and how do you think it will influence the future of literary works in Nigeria?

Dr Morosetti: Some authors may have a role in this. The phenomenal success of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has certainly triggered interest even in those that weren’t really aware there was such a thing as a Nigerian literature. Literature is also a part of an identity process that sees young Nigerians abroad more involved in their cultural roots. A third factor could be social media, and a general sharing of information that is so much quicker and all-encompassing than in the past. The renewed interest for Nigerian literature will possibly inspire even more numerous young authors, and it is to be hoped local publishers will also be positively influenced.

EdusoundsNg: From your experience, what are some of the issues that teaching literature from a different culture can bring?

Dr Morosetti: Some of my students are Africans, but not always into literary studies (candidates for the MSc in African Studies usually come from studies on economics, politics, etc.), and difficulties on that side tend to be of technical nature (terminology). On the other hand, I have known students very proficient in literature but with little knowledge of African cultures. Moving gradually from familiar to unfamiliar ground is what usually rewards in class, and even when confronted with challenging modes or contents students are usually prompt to appreciate differences and common issues. Language is of course one main issue – some writers do employ words, sentences or songs in African languages, and one (myself included, as I don’t speak any African language) has to rely on translation, which is not always accurate. There is also, I find, one general issue with the image of Africa students tend to have, above all when non-African, and this can be quite a consistent obstacle: such is the popularity of crises of all sorts from Africa (HIV, wars, famine, etc.) that it is difficult at times to draw students into studying African literature in a more ‘ordinary’ way: that not every single work they encounter is the result of trauma, not every author must be read as a prophet, and while it is undeniable that the great majority of Nigerian authors are certainly interested in politics, this does not mean having to read their work as some sort of guide to the postcolonial future of Africa.

EdusoundsNg: Which literary works are your favourites from Nigeria?

Dr Morosetti: Oh, many: Things Fall Apart, of course, Soyinka’s theatre (but not his novels, and certainly not his poetry), the list could be very long. I am not a great fan of Adichie’s work – she interests me more for the place she has been able to carve herself, and the attention she has gained to Ibo authors, rather than her actual novels. Ola Rotimi is a fantastic playwright that academia tends to forget too often.

EdusoundsNg: Are we expecting published books on Nigerian literature from you?

Dr Morosetti: I have published the first guide in Italian to Nigerian theatre (Introduzione al teatro nigeriano, 2009), a survey of Nigerian theatrical activities from the 1940s to the present day. I have also published several articles on Nigerian drama, Osofisan especially.

Thank you Dr Tiziana Morosetti for granting the interview.

You can read two of her articles on Nigerian literature on Nigeria’s young authors are not always ‘heirs’ to their literary forebears and her review of Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen on The Conversation.

This interview was conducted via e-mail and it has been slightly edited for clarity.

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