The feeling was stronger than previous years, and it did seem like the Swedes were gazing towards Africa. One of the most infuriating things about the Nobel Literature prize committee is how hard they try to be cool and to surprise everybody, and to make sure never to pick anyone who’s on the betting rosters. That’s why I was certain that the Nobel Prize in Literature would not go to perennial Ladbroke favorites, Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o or Somalia’s Nuruddin Farah. I was ready for something outrageous like the prize going to Chimamanda Adichie (you never know though, they may give her the Peace one). I was frankly ecstatic that this year’s choice was Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose novels come to us by way of the sea, from the Swahili coast of Zanzibar.
Abdulrazak Gurnah is the sixth African writer to have won the Nobel Prize in literature.
The others are Wole Soyinka (1986), Naguib Mahfouz (1988), Nadine Gordimer (1991), JM Coetzee (2003), and Doris Lessing (2007). Indeed, he is also only the fourth Black writer to have won the prize; apart from Soyinka, the others are Toni Morrison from the United States and Derek Walcott from Saint Lucia . Unlike the Booker Prize which has historically scored well on the diversity points, the Nobel has always favored the whitest and the most European of all literature.
That said, the Nobel had its heyday of diversity too. There appears to be a tidy alignment between the ascendancy of multiculturalism movements in Europe and recipients of the literature prize. The short spell of the canon wars during the late 80s and 90s, and the furious debates about what is canonical and classical seemed to have directly shaped the way the Nobel’s literature experts thought about the prize. Soyinka, Mahfouz, Gordimer, Walcott, Morrison, and Kenzaburō Ōe won almost in succession from the years 1986 to 1994. For a brief eight years, the LitNobel was diverse, political, progressive, and completely with-it.
What followed was not so bad either. After a short spell of mostly Europeans, the LitNobel crew took a truly international journey from the years 2000-2012. Gao Xingjian from China, V.S Naipaul from Trinidad, Orhan Pamuk from Turkey, and amazingly two African writers, albeit white: South African J.M Coetzee and Zimbabwean Doris Lessing. A side note here: that it was not one but two South Africans (Coetzee and Gordimer) that won this prize, is somewhat astounding. The LitNobel is a pretty committed one-country-of-color only kind of institution. South Africa and China are the only two countries from the Global South to have scored this lottery twice. The LitNobel is essentially enamored by French literature (17 winners) followed by US literature (13 winners) and then British literature (11 winners). Even though it is tempting to think of African countries performing poorly here, it is the vast body of literature from the Middle East and South and Central America that appears to be least rewarded by the Swedes.
Gurnah’s win pushes us to think about the role of the LitNobel and prizes, more generally, and the way in which they construct what we think of, read, engage with, and buy as African literature today. In the end, it’s not too different from the way scholars, critics, and academics do it. Lily Saint and my African literature survey is a good case in point. English language writing is privileged, it’s always about the novel, South Africa and Nigeria dominate. And the place of Egypt, North Africa and writing in Arabic always presents a crisis of categorization.
I remain ecstatic about Gurnah’s win but the elephant in the room here is the snub to the giant of African letters, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. I would go as far as to say that Gurnah would even agree with me that Ngũgĩ more than deserves this prize. Suddenly, East Africa has been put on a pedestal and will come to be constituted into the Western prize circuits. But alas, it has been emptied of its most important, decisively pioneering writer as well as an influential critic and academic: Ngũgĩ. It is a bit surreal but the fact that Gurnah who writes in English was picked over Ngũgĩ, the vocal native-languages advocate also sends a message about the primacy of English language domination in African literature. Undoubtedly, Kenya and Tanzania are vibrant centers of Swahili language, culture, education, literature, and Swahili operates alongside several other languages in these countries. Gurnah choose to write in English, perhaps partially because he fled to the UK at a really young age. But Zanzibar and Tanzania are places which have birthed legends of Swahili literature such as Haji Gora Haji, Euphrase Kezilahabi, and Shabaan bin Robert.
The LitNobel chose to highlight this incredibly linguistically rich region but sidestepped the very man who gave us the “decolonize your mind” mantra entirely premised upon the loss of native languages and who has fought for the psychic, spiritual, and core importance of cherishing mother tongues that were snatched by colonialism. This decision does not simply make for bad symbolism but has concrete and material effects upon the marketplace within which African literature operates, the ways in which the West and “Rest” consume African literature.
This LitNobel for Gurnah has held up the mirror to publishers, editors, agents, and critics. In the US, no one can find his books for purchase or public libraries. Many friends in my tiny circle of African literature lovers have been called by the US media to offer comments and pull quotes; there is a scramble to gain more information on him. The truth is crystal clear: US publishing is truly hostile to African literature. Here, only one, two, three writers are held up to represent an entire continent of over fifty countries and a gazillion languages, cultures, and landscapes.
The visibility factor will drastically change for Gurnah and rights for his books will get bought up and the books will also get bigger distribution. But what about the countless other new and old literary works from the African continent?
But, first we’ll take this win.