African Writers and the Nobel Prize for Literature

Only five African or African-born writers have been awarded the prize since it was first awarded in 1901: Soyinka, Mahfouz, Gordimer, Coetzee and Lessing.

Image credit Wikipedia user Scartol via Wikimedia Commons.

As the Nobel Committee for Literature announces their chosen awardee tomorrow (1pm Swedish time), the past several weeks has been littered by quite a few notable predictions, arguments, and dream-lists. Even sports betting company Ladbrokes weighed in. Ladbrokes has Assia Djebar from Algeria at 12/1 odds, Ngugi wa Thiong’o at 20/1 and Nuruddin Farrah at 40/1. (Some people are also betting on Ben Okri and Chimamanda Adichie–both at 100/1.) For committed readers and scholars of African literature, the announcement brings hope, or among the more cynical of us—doubt—that one of the continent’s literary geniuses might claim the prestigious prize. Only five African writers have been awarded the prize since it was first awarded in 1901: Wole Soyinka (1986), Naguib Mahfouz (1988), Nadine Gordimer (1991), J.M. Coetzee (2003) and Doris Lessing (2007).

Since 1974 the Nobel Committee has disallowed the awarding of the prize posthumously, but with the passing of Chinua Achebe earlier this year, the demand that he be awarded the prize rekindled a furious debate in his home country. Anyone from Nigerian politicians in search of a cause to everyday readers of Achebe, felt he had been done by while still alive. Wole Soyinka was, however, not convinced, insisting that the call for awarding a Nobel to the late Achebe was “obscene,” “hypocritical,” and a “gross disservice to Achebe.” Nigerian politicians in search of a cause to everyday readers of Achebe all felt an African genius had been unacceptably overlooked. Indeed, in the eyes of many, the work of Achebe — from his seminal novel Things Fall Apart, stories of Biafra collected in Girls at War, and essays such as “English and the African Writer,” published in 1965 — deserved and still deserves, the Swedish award, especially given his impact on the English literary canon, global literature, and postcolonial studies.

That said, if the Swedish Academy were to reverse its stance on posthumous awards in the future, Zimbabwe’s Yvonne Vera, whose death at 40 in 2005 was a devastating loss for the African literary community, deserves a mention on this dream-list. Primarily a writer of fiction, Vera’s novels and short stories make legible the often-silenced narratives of Black urban life in colonial Rhodesia and postcolonial Zimbabwe. Her piercingly lyrical novels such as NehandaButterfly Burning, and The Stone Virgins describe the paradoxes inherent to nationalism, modernity, and revolution, especially as experienced by African women. Her work has encouraged not only a fierce following by literary scholars, but has inspired a new cadre of exceptionally talented female writers from Zimbabwe such as Petina Gappah and NoViolet Bulawayo.

But this is unlikely to happen soon.

Thus, turning our sights to the living, Ngugi wa Thiong’o is perhaps the most realistic contender for the prize. From Weep Not, Child, his semi-autobiographical novel about the Mau Mau struggle in settler-colonized Kenya to his more recent epic satire The Wizard and the Crow, essays in Decolonizing the Mind and his controversial drama Ngaahika Ndeenda Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) and as well as many other works across genres, the work of wa Thiong’o represents the heft, depth, and breadth that should mark a Nobel laureate’s output.

While he was imprisoned for his socialist-inflected writing, he infamously turned from writing in English to Gikuyu. Despite or because of this, wa Thiong’o has garnered a worldwide readership, even as he continues to challenge the hegemony of the English language. His unabashed commitment to writing an African-centered vision of social transformation for Kenyans, Africans, and all people who have contended with physical and cultural forms of violence, domination, and marginalization, makes him an especially relevant choice for the prize in the aftermath of the Westgate attack.

It is ironic that the other East African writer who could be announced as the Nobel awardee tomorrow also reminds us of the recent violence and loss of life in Kenya, via his vantage point on the other side of the border. Still, the work of Somalian writer, Nurrudin Farah, should not be said to only give context to what political analysts have described as state collapse, civil war, and the rise of piracy in Somalia. Instead, Farah’s highly-acclaimed fiction, which includes three sets of trilogies, (the most well-known being the one of which includes the novels Maps, Secrets, and Gifts) tells how the fragility and power of the nation is affirmed and challenged by the stories of cities, communities, and individual people. Indeed, his masterful and complex renditions of coming-of-age, exile, and return narratives captures in colorful detail the failures, triumphs, impossibilities, and dreams which make up everyday life in the horn of Africa. It would be well-deserved good news for both Kenya and Somalia, and all of Africa, if perhaps tomorrow, we hear his name.

Lastly, and, certainly not of the least, is Algerian feminist writer Assia Djebar, whose name has often floated around the Nobel for the last several years. Djebar, a prolific writer of the French language, was inducted into the elite Académie Française in 2005 and awarded, like Nurrudin Farah, the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature. As a very strong contender for the Nobel prize, Djebar’s work unsettles the Anglophile, Sub-Saharan, and masculinist preoccupations within the African literary reading public. Her work topples singular geographic, political, and formal borders as it can be read as Islamic, secular, feminist, anti-colonial, Arab, French, (North) African and covers multiple forms including poetry, fiction, drama, essay, as well as, film screen plays. Author of over ten novels, including Vaste est la prison (So Vast the Prison), this may very well be her year to pluck the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.

Kwame Nkrumah today

New documents looking at British and American involvement in overthrowing Kwame Nkrumah give us pause to reflect on his legacy, and its resonances today.