Read Your Way Through Lagos

For a historical overview, I’d recommend “Lagos: A Cultural History,” by Kaye Whiteman. It traces the history of the city from the arrival of Portuguese explorers in 1472 to the British takeover in 1861 and contemporary times. It takes us through the topography of Lagos (the Island-Mainland dichotomy), the streets and their stories, the city’s nightlife and its film, music, art and literary scenes.

Teju Cole’s novelEvery Day Is for the Thiefis styled like a travelogue. The unnamed narrator has just returned to Lagos from New York after 15 years. He wanders around the city musing on its danfo buses, internet scammers, area boys, policemen, music center and the like. He characterizes the body language of Lagosians as one of “undiluted self-assurance,” their facial expressions proclaiming, “Trust me, you don’t want to mess with me,” all to counter the area boys. You’ll find Lagos at its very best (its people warm, stoic, wildly creative) and at its worst (street lynchings). Throughout the narrative, there is a sense of decay, one that mirrors that of the entire nation. In a poignant episode, the narrator visits the Nigerian National Museum in the Onikan neighborhood and finds the exhibits meager, the sculptures and plaques “caked in dust” and “badly mildewed.”

Chris Abani’s postmodern “GraceLand” is mostly set in 1980s Lagos in the swampy slums of Maroko. Elvis, 16, is a high school dropout. He aspires to become a professional dancer. At first, he tries to subsist by impersonating Elvis Presley for white expatriates, wearing a wig and dousing his face with talcum powder. His friend Redemption leads him into crime, with devastating consequences. At times brutal and horrific, the novel is also tender and hopeful in its portrayal of deprivation, dictatorship and disillusionment. Moreover, its pastiche narrative includes notes on Igbo philosophy and recipes for delectable Nigerian dishes.

In contrast to Abani’s Elvis, Enitan, the protagonist of Sefi Atta’s “Everything Good Will Come,grows up middle class. Born in 1960, the year Nigeria gained independence, Enitan’s transition into womanhood takes place against a backdrop of the Nigerian civil war, military juntas and widespread corruption. Despite her privileged position (she works as a lawyer and later as a banker), she struggles to navigate her patriarchal society, the recurrent sexism she suffers (even from her father) and the trauma of a friend’s rape. The affecting narrative proffers feminist solutions for a troubled nation.

In Lagos, you’ll want to try some Nigerian food. The classic Nigerian jollof? The aromatic suya or moin-moin? Whatever your appetite, “Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds,” by Yemisi Aribisala, is built for it. This fascinating collection of essays is part memoir, part cookbook and part epicurean treatise — and employs Nigerian cuisine as a framework for analyzing Nigerian society, culture and folklore. Significant themes include the urban-rural divide, the chafing of the traditional against “the modern” and the ethics underpinning the consumption of controversial foods such as dog meat. Aribisala’s prose is energetic, adroit, a joy to read. The book complements the recipes in Abani’s “GraceLand.”

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