The Rise of Brittle Paper: The Village Square of African Literature By Obinna Udenwe

When I was a child, up to my teenage years, growing up close to the state university, we used to gather at a junction connecting all the streets in our neighbourhood to play all sorts of games – it was there that we made our bones, learnt how to build cars using old tyres and Coca-cola corks and how to run after older, posh university girls to sing funny songs for them. We thought we were in heaven until we visited the village and cousins took us to the village square: there, was a different kind of fun – there were trees to climb, trees old enough they could possibly guess correctly the birth date of Methuselah, their branches connecting with one another such that we played hide-and-seek on them. There, we heard gossips about what girl was the most beautiful, who was sleeping with who, which man beat up his wife the night before. Now each time I visit Brittle Paper – Africa’s leading literary journal, I recall my village square.

When I came across Brittle Paper in 2012, my short stories had only been published by a few platforms, including The Kalahari Review and Fiction365, then in 2013 I wrote this story that was very erotic and I was having doubts that journals would accept to publish it. It was titled Fool— about a young man who was seduced by his neighbour, a married woman. Then I submitted the story to Brittle Paper. When the story was published, I was surprised to get instant feedback per minute from readers. This spurred me to begin to write more– I was amazed, for the first time, to see a robust, easy to navigate platform that had people gathering to read publications and to interact—Brittle Paper was the village square of African literature, with a website designed to welcome folks for on-the-go conversation.

At the time that I discovered Brittle Paper, it was morphing from a personal blog into an African literary playground, and like me, many writers and lovers of arts and literature was having a good time, accessing stories and poems and sending out their works to the world. It was in 2013 that Brittle Paper metamorphosed into what I call an establishment – for unlike The New Yorker and many regular journals and reviews, Brittle Paper warehouses writings of whatever kind imaginable, it shines the light to the future and gives voice to emerging talents without policing their work, providing room for all kinds of activities to thrive – like what happens in a village square where children could be playing in a corner whereas adults are holding a meeting at the centre.

The curator of Brittle Paper is Ainehi Edoro, a young Assistant Professor of African Literature at Marquette University, who teaches African fiction and contemporary British novels. It was in 2010, while studying at Duke University that Ms Edoro first came up with the idea for the journal, as a blog where she intended to ‘escape’ from her post-graduate classes. In a review by The Guardian UK in 2015, it is mentioned that Brittle Paper is ‘a virtual space where Ainehi Edoro plays and experiments with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture’, but that was long ago. In a 2017 interview with Jenifer Emelife of Praxis Magazine, Ainehi explains that at first ‘it (Brittle Paper) was a general interest philosophy and literature blog’, but at what point did this ‘philosophy and literature blog’ morph into the most visited African literary playground in the world?

The first post made on Brittle Paper was on the 1st of August 2010. Within this first year and the year to follow, Brittle Paper hosted only Ainehi Edoro’s philosophical ‘rants’. Early publications included Cafe Conversations— a series of short articles or philosophical musings about life that are as rich as they are lush and poignant. In one of such few entries made under the Cafe Conversations heading titled Cafe Conversations: Liquified Humanity, Ainehi Edoro questions the interaction between the divine and mortals in a way that leaves the reader wondering if she is a lover of Maria Corelli’s works. She posted short and crisp articles on movies and photography— reviews that draw attention to classics and why they deserve interest. That same year, she published Coloured Recollections and under this title she made short posts using memories to explore facts and weighing these realities on the same scale with that which is abstract.

Some of the first philosophical essays Ainehi Edoro blogged at the time were: To the Probing Question of Who I Am, Architecture of the Page, Lost and Beautiful Things and Being Dead in Abuja. A current Brittle Paper reader would be surprised to learn that most of those posts got, at the time, only but a few comments, while some didn’t get any reaction at all.

At the same time, Ainehi Edoro delved into poetry, publishing on Brittle Paper, her own poems such as, The Apocalyptus which was posted in January 2011 – I was surprised when I saw the poem and read the comments that followed thereafter, for before now, I never thought Ms Edoro to be a poet. Within the same period, she made posts that could be classified as academic, such posts as: Quest for the Love Story with Walcott – where she reviewed Derek Walcott’s poem, ‘Love After Love’ and another titled,Angel of History.

Still at the early stage, Brittle Paper tried experimenting with short stories. In April 2011, Ainehi Edoro wrote and published a short fiction titled, Awaiting the Unreturnable Lover – a study of this story reveals it to be a mixture of both fantasy and philosophical meditation.  And worthy of note is her creative nonfiction posts wherein Ainehi Edoro questions: ‘Is home not merely the traces of an unremembered dream?’ she writes about a dream she had and her life as a student going to the libraries and living in a foreign land.

Like a toddling child graduating from crawling to standing on her own, Brittle Paper, towards the end of 2011, began to weave bigger dreams for itself. Around December of 2011, there was the shift from a personal blog to an open one when Ainehi Edoro published on the 24th of December 2011, a very short piece titled, If You Were A Character In A novel – the idea behind the piece was ‘to use descriptive details to make sense of the self’. Ainehi Edoro wanted the reader to imagine how they’d be described in a book. She writes:

‘How would you describe your face or your body? . . . is your face oval or round? Is your mouth wide? Are your lips lumpy? Would you rather the colour of your skin were different? Does your weight define you? . . . what effect does your appearance have on people? Let the adjective pile up and don’t be afraid to compare yourself to things.’

She used Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway to explain this further. It’s a very short but interesting piece for writers struggling with character attributes/description.  From that point, Ainehi Edoro began to try her hands in experimenting with ideas to generate content for the blog, aside some of the columns already mentioned, she posted what she called Toilet Reading in July of 2012— calling her readers to stop on her blog from time to time whenever they were in the toilet doing their thing, to read funny pieces and keep themselves entertained. She wrote:

‘Toilets are beautiful places and a frequent stop on our daily rambles. It can get quite eventful in there and, at times, a bit boring, hence the disorderly collection of magazines you’ve got stashed in the corner. But if you ever feel like diversifying your reading, make a blogstop here from time to time’.

The first post under Toilet Reading was from A Book of Nonsense by the 19th century British artist and poet Edward Lear. Ainehi Edoro did a few movie and book reviews. By August 2012, the ‘blog’ opened its arms to other writers and began a gradual dive into media. One of the early news to appear on it would be on 2face Idibia’s visit to Chicago and a highlight on Achebe’s interview with an Iranian Journalist. More reviews and essays followed.

In September 2012 Brittle Paper published an excerpt of Achebe’s Biafran War memoir, There Was a Country, and another on if J. K Rowlings read Fifty Shades of Grey.  By 2013, Ainehi Edoro reviewed Tolulope Popoola’s Nothing Comes Close and Interviewed Ikhide Ikheloa, the famous Nigerian critic and Myne Whitman who at the time was Nigeria’s number one romance writer. That same year, Brittle Paper spearheaded publicity on the demise of Achebe, publishing tributes and commentaries written by writers on the late literary icon. In April of 2013, it published Ben Okri’s Belonging – an excerpt from his short story collection. It was in 2013 that, like Madonna the musician used sex to promote her brand, Brittle Paper’s bold and daring attempt to explore the sex life of characters in African novels would pay off. Ainehi Edoro’s Writing Sex in African novels – a three part narrative that explores African novels attempt at writing about sex generated some rave on social media especially on Twitter. That same year, Fool and Holy milk – stories rich in eroticism were published – generating lots of conversation on the now important and popular blog (or do we call it a ‘journal’ at this point).

In general, it is right to posit that it was in 2013 that Brittle Paper ‘morphed into an Africa-centered literary site’. In the interview with Jenifer Emelife of Praxis Magazine, Ainehi Edoro informs that one of her major reasons for allowing the blog to metamorphose into what I now call an ‘establishment’ was because she;

‘didn’t like the way we talked about African literature . . . the gate-keeping that allowed only a select few access based on decisions being made by people who had lost touch with what was cool and amazing about African literature’.

Ainehi Edoro

In truth, before Brittle Paper, there wasn’t any ready, easy to navigate blog, journal, review, whatever, that housed a mixture of stories and poems, reviews and gossips, news and expository columns that educated, informed and entertained the world on and about African literature and the art – there was none. In fact, before Brittle Paper, lovers of books and literature in Africa had no playground where they could gather and listen to gossips on what Chimamanda Adichie wore to a fundraiser, what Lauren Beukes ate for dinner and the kind of butterfly Nnedi Okoroafor saw in her bedroom. Among many others, Brittle Paper created ‘a place where emerging African writers could find their voice and grow before venturing out’ – and in working towards this, it published and helped nurture writers like David Ishaya Osu, Otosirieze Obi-Young, Romeo Oriogun, Kelechi Njoku, Ola Nubi, the Kenyan award winning blogger Magunga Williams, and Tolulope Popoola etc., etc. It also continued to satisfy the thirst of her readers by publishing renowned writers that shape the African literary structure such as Petina Gappah, E. C Osondu, Ben Okri, Binyavanga Wainaina, Ella Wakatama Allfrey, Chibundu Onuzo, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Sarah L. Manyika, Titilope Sonuga and Akweke Emezi. Brittle Paper became the village square where folks of all kinds and interests come to have fun. The opening up of the website created fun contents like the entertaining post on African valentine, the literary puzzle about six African writers sitting in a danfo, the eroticisation of Things Fall Apart done by Kiru Taye and many others.

In keeping with the original tradition of the journal, the curator Ainehi Edoro continued to dish out academic works that generate in-depth discussions, such posts as: Did Beyonce Rescue Adichie’s Americanah From Being a Sales Flop? and another titled, Racist Passage From An 1896 Issue of Vogue Magazine, and many more.

Having transformed into an African literary establishment, Brittle Paper’s daily visitors increased so much so that in 2015, it began hosting adverts from Google Adsense, generating the much needed finances to fund a few of its ideas like the story series projects, ranging from Ayodele Olofintuade’s Adunni to Obinna Udenwe’s Holy Sex and The Night My Dead Girlfriend Called by Feyisayo Anjorin. These series became huge success and Brittle Paper would in 2016 delve into publishing by turning Holy Sex into a novella and publishing it as an e-book available on Amazon, Smashword, Okadabooks and on the Brittle Paper website.

Holy Sex – Novella

Brittle Paper became for African literature what Linda Ikeji’s blog is to the Nigerian entertainment world— exposing readers to the activities of African writers. It continued to follow activities on the Facebook walls of African writers and report them for her readers on a daily basis, unfailingly searching through magazines, journals, e-zines and news platforms looking for news relating to African writers, artists and books so as to keep her readers abreast with latest happenings. Brittle Paper follows the success of new books, profiles young and established writers and leaves their names on the lips of her readers.

In keeping with its promise to bridge the gap between authors, their works and their consumers, Brittle Paper unearthed and rekindled many forgotten African literary projects—worthy of note is Bessie Head’s long forgotten letters, describing them to be ‘such beautiful things’ and exhuming the works of Amos Tutuola and making them fresh in our minds, causing many people to go in search of his books.

At the 2015 edition of the Ake Arts and Books Festival, the curator of Brittle Paper, Ainehi Edoro mentioned that the journal’s core desire is to see African literature grow to the point of self sufficiency and independence. The journal has through its project pursued the actualisation of this objective. It became the very first to break the news on Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers becoming the first African novel to gloss a million dollar in book deal, it announced that Half of a Yellow Sun had been optioned and was being filmed and would be the first to put up the movie’s trailer, it announced Beyonce’s  adaptation of Adichie’s Ted Talk on feminism into one of her songs and informed her readers of the Lauren Beukes/ Dicaprio movie deal and many more, including a critical essay on Laolu Senbanjo as an artist titled Afromysterics And The Narratives of a Busy Mind.  It was Brittle Paper that harmonised the conversation and debate that erupted around the claim by some African writers that Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila ‘reeks of misogyny’. Brittle Paper chaired the conversation and reviewed them for her readers. When Bob Dylan, the American musician was announced winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature and there was mixed reaction in the African literary community, it was Brittle Paper that balanced the story and published the concerns of people pro and against Mr. Dylan’s win—Brittle Paper continued to shine the torchlight.

Foremost in creative and innovative content, Brittle Paper experiments with a lot of things, including getting the revered Ikhide Ikhloa – a social and literary critic to anchor a column titled Dear Genevive as a weekly writing advice series that; ‘will dish out prized advice on various aspects of writing’. This column has published over ten articles such as: African Literature needs Innovation and Funding publishedin February 2017, Africa Reads and Writes published in March 2017, Twelve Steps to Becoming a Writer, The Writer Should Be Paid for Content on the Internet etc., etc., and the first essay in the column titled, It’s All in the Narrative published on the 16th of January 2017 – the essay highlights the need for the young writer who wants to learn the craft of writing to ‘just write and write’. Mr. Ikheloa argues that the idea that Africans don’t read is false and that there is great need to find creative ways of getting those who read to pay and for writers to make money. He wrote,

‘the writer cannot live by bread alone . . . even as I enjoy the free content in digital spaces, I am also saddened that people who spend so much time making me happy and educated are forced to do it for free’.

He wrote that the way a writer weaves his narratives determines his stakes – ‘the narratives rule the world . . . find your own voice and tell your own story with it. . . .’

In same year, it created a column titled Dear Tete Petina – and as described by the anchor of the column, Petina Gappa, the Zimbabwean award winning author of An Elegy for Easterly, the idea behind the column was:

‘to share wisdom I have gained as a published author, and as a writer still trying to write that definitive masterpiece . . . I am happy to share what I know on how to find an agent, rights issues, writer’s block, competitions, getting published . . . .’

The rave around the first article on the column titled Dear Tete Petina: I Am Not on the Caine Prize Shortlist showed that it was an idea well loved by the literary community.

As much as the journal received steady progress as it transformed from a blog to a ‘literary establishment’, Brittle Paper has had its own share of challenges. In doing their work, the journal has been called out by writers who felt exposed and are insecure with how they’ve been brought to the attention of the public. Shortly after Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen was published, Brittle Paper was the first to profile the author and the book, creating awareness for both. Brittle Paper, in line with their tradition of following up every news relating to African writers and their works also published the skirmish that had started on Twitter about the reviews of the book did by Percy Zvomuya and Obinna Udenwe. As reported by Pulse News in a post titled “Author of The Fishermen Strikes Back at Brittle Paper’, Chigozie Obioma hit Brittle Paper with posts and comments calling out the journal for what he felt was ‘hatred’ against him whereas the journal had promoted his work and was doing so at the time – an incident that would have discouraged the journal from mopping up issues around books and their authors and bringing them to the attention of their readers. Then in 2017, one of her writers, Chibuihe Obi was kidnapped basically for an article against homophobia that he’d published on Brittle Paper titled We’re Queer, We’re Here. Brittle Paper would champion a campaign on the release of Mr. Obi.

While we acknowledge the rise in literary platforms since 2010 – such important ones as Expound Magazine, Bookshy, Afrikult, The Kalahari Review, Afreada, Praxis Magazine, Creative Writing News, The Magunga etc., etc., we haven’t seen one that equals Brittle Paper in style, creativity, innovation, richness of content, flexibility of the website and in giving room for whoever that is a writer, no matter how good or bad and in whatever stage of literary career, to share their works and have a space to interact with the larger literary community.  In a letter Mukoma Wa Ngugi sent to me in 2012, he mentioned that African literature needs all the support it could get to help build its literary tradition. He mentioned journals, reviews, awards, prizes and robust publishing enterprise as some of the building blocks that sustains this tradition, so Brittle Paper’s ideas not just help build the African literary tradition but sets its foundation on a solid rock and gathers all classes of people who are needed to sustain the tradition and safe-guard it.

This essay first appeared in The Afro Vibe Magazine in 2017.


Obinna Udenwe is the award winning Nigerian author of Satans & Shaitans, and Holy Sex. He is the co-founder of The Village Square.