The Best Fiction Books

Novels Set in Nigeria

recommended by Chioma Okereke

Water Baby

out now

Water Baby


Nigeria is a vast, vibrant, and highly diverse country that offers endless inspiration for fiction writers. Here, the novelist and poet Chioma Okereke—whose new book Water Baby unfolds in Makoko, an extraordinary floating slum in Lagos—recommends five fascinating novels that are also set in Nigeria.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

Water Baby

out now

Water Baby

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Thank you for your thoughtfulness while putting together this list of novels set in Nigeria. What makes Nigeria such an interesting setting for fiction?

I don’t know if Nigeria is necessarily more interesting than anywhere else in the world. But I do think it is a massive country with so much diversity, and that in and of itself makes it ripe for storytelling.

Your own new novel, Water Baby, is set in a floating slum in Lagos called Makoko.

I learned about Makoko from a YouTube programme during the pandemic. I couldn’t believe I didn’t already know much about it; I was ashamed by my own ignorance.

It’s a fascinating place: the largest floating slum in the world. Because it’s an informal settlement, the figures aren’t accurate, but anything between 85,000 and a quarter of a million people live in the lagoon illegally. And I think those figures are conservative, considering Lagos is the most populous city in Africa. Makoko started in the 19th century when fishermen from the nearby republics of Benin and Togo settled on the lagoon, and it has gradually spread. So, yes, it’s an incredible setting for a book.

While I was watching this programme, my mind wandered and I met my protagonist. I had this mental flash of Baby, my main character, in a canoe. I just kind of knew her, I had this vivid snapshot of her. I said to my partner: if I wrote about that, I bet publishers would grab the story. He said: well, why don’t you? So that’s what I did.

As soon as we were allowed to travel, I had to go there and visit it, see it with my own eyes. I wanted to check that I was capturing the community respectfully and accurately, which was of the utmost importance to me. I thought I was prepared, but nothing prepares you for somewhere like that. And from the moment I arrived there, I felt obligated to do more. So I decided to set up an organisation, Makoko Pearls, with the hope of benefiting the inhabitants of the lagoon and helping them empower themselves.

We wish you all the best with your fundraising. Shall we look at the books you’d like to recommend? These are all novels set in Nigeria. The first is The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta, which was first published in 1979.

I was born in Nigeria and moved to the UK when I was six or seven and went to a boarding school there. So, invariably, you start off reading what your peers are reading. Then you find the library and you discover a lot of African American books—the James Baldwins and the Alice Walkers. After that, I stumbled upon the Heinemann African Writers Series.

Buchi Emecheta was, I think, the first Nigerian author that I came across, and she has definitely imprinted on me. The Joys of Motherhood is one of my favourite books by her, because it really encompasses the whole female condition. The protagonist Nnu-Ego is born with a birthmark on her head linked to her Chi—which is like a god—who they claim is denying her a child. She’s sent to Lagos from her village to marry a man she’s never met and finds herself immediately disappointed with this new husband, who washes clothes for a living.

City life is in complete contrast to her life in the village as the daughter of a chief in a polygamous rural community. She has no family support there and she struggles to adapt in her new environment. Her first child dies in the first chapter, and she’s devastated by the loss. Gradually she recovers when she has a second child and goes on to have nine children. But with that comes a struggle for survival. When her husband’s brother dies, he inherits four wives. He moves the youngest and prettiest of them into the home, and challenges ensue.

“Nigeria is a massive country with so much diversity, and that makes it ripe for storytelling”

It’s the story of one woman’s battle to raise her children, to give them better opportunities than she had. It’s called ‘The Joys of Motherhood’ because her children’s success should be enough for her, but her own hopes and dreams are squandered.

Intertwined alongside her story is the story of the changing face of the country. At the beginning of the book, there is English colonial control over Nigeria. After World War Two, you start to see Nigeria striving for, preparing for independence. You have the youth eager for change, but the older generations tied to the traditions of the past. It’s very vibrant storytelling, and it’s done in Emecheta’s own unique way.

Her writing captures and deals with a lot of injustice and inequality, capturing a quiet dignity and instinctive womanhood: just cracking on, soldiering on. Emecheta is a very impressive writer.

A number of these novels explore Nigerian womanhood.

I realised this as I was putting the list together. There’s a theme! I’ll pretend I did it on purpose.

Shall we talk about your next book recommendation, Everything Good Will Come? It’s by the Nigerian author Sefi Atta, and the novel won the Wole Soyinka Prize for African literature in 2006.

I fell in love with this book purely from the title alone. I feel like it’s the mantra that has been playing in the back of my head ever since I read it. Everything good will come, eventually. The book charts the fate of two African girls—one born of privilege and the other of a lower class. Basically, it’s a story of coming of age in a culture that still insists on feminine submission. These two girls have a brief period of time together at the start of the book, then they are separated but keep in touch via letters. Again, it gives you a sense of life in postcolonial Nigeria, and it covers very, very tough subject matter, which will be triggering for some.

One, Enitan, later witnesses the rape of the other by three boys, which affects her deeply and makes her distrustful of men. It shapes her. They don’t discuss what she’s seen, but it moulds her into a strong, combative person who is willing to fight against her father and the government.

It’s a book with nuanced, flawed characters. On first read, Enitan seems extremely selfish, but she’s in  fact very influenced by her experiences. Her friend Sheri seems more likeable of the two women. But it’s a wonderfully observed book about female friendship and making your way in the world.

Yes, complex protagonists give us something to chew on. Your next recommendation of a novel set in Nigeria is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. I think quite a few of our readers will be familiar with it, but perhaps you’d talk us through it for anyone who hasn’t yet come across her work.

Half of a Yellow Sun centres around a family as they transition from a position of influence and privilege to being just regular citizens of the newly formed Republic of Biafra. I don’t know how much I need to tell you, but, basically, about six years after Nigerian independence there was a civil war known as the Biafran War. Thirteen months later, over a million had died due to the fighting and famine. In January 1970, Biafra surrendered and was reabsorbed into Nigeria.

In the book, you have a 13-year-old houseboy employed by a university professor; the professor’s beautiful mistress Olanna, who has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos for a new lover and a university town; and Richard, a shy young Englishman who is in thrall to Olanna’s twin sister. As Nigerian troops advance, the three run for their lives. Their ideals are tested as well as their loyalties to one another.

It’s a beautifully written, big swing of a novel with lots of themes: moral responsibility, ethnic allegiances, class, race. And it’s all set against the backdrop of this pivotal time in Nigerian history.

Yes. I think powerful fiction in a historical setting can offer very good insights into how it was to live through periods of upset and social change. Do you feel you learnt a lot about Nigerian history through this novel?

I definitely did. As a Nigerian, you are made aware of your history. But this is one of the things that made it real for me—that’s the beauty of fiction. Rather than ingesting facts and stats and not quite understanding, I can read a book that really humanises that experience. By following the stories of these characters, you really do get a sense of that time. Adichie’s storytelling is so impressive. She brilliantly evokes the promise and disappointments many people held at that time in the country’s history, while giving us such vivid, well drawn characters that really stay with you. In a way, I hoped to do the same with Water Baby: to write a book that is educational and informational, but steeped in fiction.

Perhaps next we could talk about Chika Unigwe’s The Middle Daughter? It’s a modern retelling of the Hades and Persephone story, set in Nigeria.

Exactly. So, Hades abducted Persephone and tricked her into marrying and loving him. The Middle Daughter centres on a wealthy Nigerian family who, at the offset, are very, very happy and filled with hope. But they get a call one night and tragedy has befallen them.

The focus of the book is on the middle daughter, Nani, after she loses her oldest sister and father in quick succession. Her world spins off its axis and, isolated and misunderstood by her grieving mother and sister, she’s drawn to this charismatic preacher who offers her a new place to belong. All too soon, that comes with complications. She finds herself tethered to an abusive husband, to children she loves but can’t fully comprehend, and she has to find the courage to break free and get her life back.

This is a big book with a lot going on: domestic abuse, abduction, illegal baby trading. You find yourself at times, like, shouting at the page. The character does things you really wouldn’t do yourself. So Nani can be quite frustrating. But that’s reality! And, again, she has been shaped by her experiences and circumstances. It’s another great book by Chika Unigwe.

I think that might bring us to your final book. The fifth work of fiction set in Nigeria that you’d like to recommend to us is Blessings by Chukwuebuka Ibeh. It’s available now in the UK, and shortly to be released in North America.

I’ve been dying to read this, picked it up while I was visiting Lagos and wolfed it down so quickly. I cannot believe Ibeh is 22 years old. It’s incredible. I saw it described as “Moonlight meets Purple Hibiscus”—it’s a gay coming-of-age novel set as Nigeria was on the verge of criminalising same-sex relationships with the Sex Marriage Prohibition Act of 2013.

When the protagonist Obiefuna is caught by his father in a tricky situation with another boy, he’s immediately dispatched to seminary school. We witness sexual awakening, abuse, and how he has to navigate this new boarding school’s hierarchy and unpredictable violence. It’s a tender, beautiful text. From someone so young, Chukwuebuka Ibeh is a supremely skilled writer and I can’t wait to see what he produces next.

There’s a slight messy dual narrative, where we hear from his mother. But I think it’s necessary in this book, because in Nigeria’s traditional, patriarchal society, there’s an intelligent arc about a mother coming to terms with who her son is, and the strains that knowledge has on her marriage and relationship. All the while, there’s a time-crunch because she has a health crisis that is speeding this whole thing up.

It’s a very elegant story that asks how one can live free in a country that forbids one’s true self.

I was really blown away by the novel. And it makes me really happy that they are telling these kinds of stories there, because it’s the kind of thing I imagine will do better outside of Nigeria. But he’s breaking boundaries by telling this kind of story, by bucking expectations of the types of stories that ‘African authors’ are allowed to tell.

Sounds like he has an amazing career ahead of him. I wonder if this brings me to my final question. I wonder: has writing about Nigeria altered your relationship with the country?

I don’t know if it has altered it. There will, for me, always be this question of authenticity. I cannot detach from Nigeria. It’s in my name, it’s in my Chi, it’s in my everything. I’m Nigerian, even if I have explored the globe and lived elsewhere—it trickles into everything.

So, I don’t know if it has changed my relationship with the country, but there is always this lingering question of authenticity, particularly when I’m not writing from my own perspective, but from the perspective of a 19-year-old growing up in an informal settlement. It’s a question I think any author would ask of themselves, approaching any work outside of their own experience.

That was my challenge with Water Baby. And I hope that any Nigerian, residing in Nigeria, reading my book will find it convincing.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

May 1, 2024

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Chioma Okereke

Chioma Okereke

Chioma Okereke is a poet, short story writer, and novelist. Her latest novel, Water Baby (Quercus), is predominantly set in Makoko, Nigeria: the largest floating slum in the world. She founded Makoko Pearls, a charitable organisation to benefit the inhabitants of this vibrant but disadvantaged community.

Chioma Okereke

Chioma Okereke

Chioma Okereke is a poet, short story writer, and novelist. Her latest novel, Water Baby (Quercus), is predominantly set in Makoko, Nigeria: the largest floating slum in the world. She founded Makoko Pearls, a charitable organisation to benefit the inhabitants of this vibrant but disadvantaged community.