Chris Blattman

African literature is better off without another Nobel?

So says Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani in the Times:

A Nigerian publisher once told me that of the manuscripts she reads from aspiring writers, half echo Chinua Achebe and half try to adopt Wole Soyinka’s style. Mr. Achebe and Mr. Soyinka, who won the continent’s first Nobel in literature in 1986, are arguably the most celebrated black African writers, especially in terms of Western accolades. But their dominance causes problems in a region where the common attitude is, “If it already works, why bother to improve on it?”

…An Ngugi Nobel would have resulted in the new generation of aspiring writers dreaming of nothing higher than being hailed as “the next Ngugi.”

Perhaps true, but this is possibly better than 90% of American writers trying to be the next Dan Brown.

On the subject of new African literature, fiction that (to my ear) sounds little like Achebe or Soyinka or Ngugi:

  • I usually love Dinaw Mengistu’s work, but found the new novel flacid and full of characters who loathed themselves more than I did them.
  • I wanted to like An Elegy for Easterly, but the stories seemed to try to hard for political potence and tender depictions of modern life in Zimbabwe.
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Nduchie does this much better with a book of short stories on Nigeria and Nigerians. Easily one of the most consistently excellent collections I’ve read in some time.

14 Responses

  1. It seems a little odd to me that in most of the online discussions I’ve seen of Nwaubani’s op-ed piece, very few are discussing the main anxiety she seems to have about younger writers imitating Ngugi. She says (this quote left out above): “I shudder to imagine how many African writers would be inspired by the prize to copy him. Instead of acclaimed Nigerian writers, we would have acclaimed Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa writers. We suffer enough from tribal differences already. This is not the kind of variety we need.” She is “shuddering,” not just at young writers copycatting old ones (an expression of impatience I can identify with), but at the thought of more African writers following Ngugi’s lead in writing in African languages.

    Now the language-debate in African literature is an old one, often set up between two (false) extremes of Ngugi’s commitment to writing in African literature and Achebe’s vote of confidence in English. However, Nwaubani here goes far beyond Achebe’s practical argument for English as a “language I have been given and I’m going to use it,” to a really disturbing elitism, in which she seems to prefer to see Nigerian languages die out in preference for a national unity under the English-language. Nwaubani equates writing in “Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa” here to creating “tribal differences.” What in the world would she make of people who live their whole lives speaking them?

    @Ranil, of course, opinions about literature all come down to preferences and personal taste, but in your opinion, why exactly does Ngugi not deserve to be in the company of Soyinka, Mahfouz, Gordimer, or Coetzee?

    1. Just simply because of the Ngugi books I’ve read (in English, though I read swahili as well – and if I’m correct A River Between and Don’t Cry, My Love were both written in English) aren’t very good. A River Between is plodding and obvious, and Things Fall Apart covers similar thematic ground with far more verve and power. It’s also better written.

      1. I don’t think you can tell me that the body of works of Soyinka, Mahfouz, Coetzee and Gordimer are all enjoyable to all. The fact that you didn’t like some of his works doesn’t mean that he doesn’t deserve to be in such a group. Soyinka’s novels has never been acclaimed. Besides, how known were the works of Herta Muller when she won the Nobel. You have just mentioned two novels from his numerous works. What happened to the others? Besides have you read all his works?

      2. Ranil, the two books you mention A River Between and (I think you mean) Weep Not, Child were his two earliest novels, written while he was a student. The Nobel Prize looks at the entirety of one’s literary output. A Grain of Wheat is, imo, his most masterful work in English. With his move to Gikuyu, his fiction picks up an energy and humour not as evident in the English-language works. His satire Devil on the Cross, the first novel he wrote in Gikuyu, is one of my favourite novels of all time–it is cutting yet also very funny. Matigari is also powerful, and although I haven’t read Wizard of the Crow yet, the excerpts I heard Ngugi read (in which he played with language and phonological jokes between Gikuyu and Swahilli–which he somehow then translated into English) while on book tour had people rolling on the floor in laughter. I don’t think you can judge whether he deserves a Nobel or not based on his two first novels. Personally, I think his books are far more accessible to a wide audience than Soyinka’s or Coetzee’s, but then that is just my own personal taste.

      3. Nana – Of course I haven’t read all his books – there are very, very few authors in the world that I would read the entire cannon of because there are so many that are worth reading, and even if I read a book a day for the rest of my life I will not have read everything I want to.

        And of course I’m not telling you that Soyinka, Mahfouz et. al. are all enjoyable to all – why on earth would I make such a ridiculous assertion? I said *in my opinion* Ngugi doesn’t deserve to be there. My opinion probably matters quite little to either Ngugi or the Nobel committee.

        Carmen – Point taken that these were among his earliest novels, and his work may have evolved. I will probably give him another shot at some point, but until then, there are a lot more books by a lot more authors that intrigue me more, or who made a better impression with the novels I read. I don’t know any gikuyu, so I’m not sure I’ll get all the nuances of the language though – translation into english of puns playing on gikuyu/swahili similarities must be extraordinarily difficult. There are some writers who simply can’t be translated. My Russian speaking friends tell me that Joseph Brodsky’s poetry is like this – virtually impossible to render in any other language. I’d suspect that Hugo Williams’ poems are very, very difficult to render in any other language (except perhaps French). And I’ve seen a swahili translation of The Little Prince, which right down to the title ‘Mtoto Mdogo wa Mfalme’, just loses the magic of the original, or the English translation.

  2. Achebe has not won the Nobel. There are only four African Nobel winners, all richly deserved:

    Soyinka (the first)
    Naguib Mahfouz (a couple of years later, primarily for the masterly Cairo Trilogy)
    Nadine Gordimer (and if you like short stories, read Jump)
    JM Coetzee (the most recent).

    In my opinion, Ngugi wa Thiongo’o doesn’t deserve to be in such company.

    A bigger question is when will the first African poet win a Nobel? There are some incredible ones from Senegal, and I think David Rubadiri from Malawi is one of the best poets of his generation from anywhere.

    1. Re poet, there is already one – Wole Soyinka. The Nobel Prize was for his body of literary work, which at that point was made up largely of drama and poetry. The only prose he wrote pre-1986 are The Man Died and Ake. The Nobel citation mentioned only The Man Died.

  3. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s latest is definitely on my Christmas/Kindle list – I’ve loved her other books. Somewhat ashamed to say I’ve never heard of Soyinka or Ngugi, and Mengistu has long been on my list but never read. I need at least a year’s sabbatical just to catch myself up!

    1. Soyinka is best known for his memoirs and as a playwright. I would argue that his best books are Ake: The Years of Childhood, and You Must Set Forth at Dawn, his political memoir. Also worth checking out are his Reith Lectures, entitled Climate of Fear. And he also wrote a prison diary (he was imprisoned for political activism), The Man Died.

      I’m not a fan of Ngugi, but I think his most famous books are A River Between (has echoes of Things Fall Apart), Petals of Blood and The Wizard and the Crow.

      1. It’s a matter of likes and not likes. In Soyinka’s case you mentioned two of his works that you liked, in Ngugi’s case you mentioned those that you like. The Nobel is also given to individuals whose works have served the cause of mankind in a positive way. So when Soyinka won, it was also about his writings seeking to correct a political wrong. When Gordimer won it was about her works damning the apartheid government. Herta Muller was awarded for protecting a minority language etc.

        Besides, it is a matter of choice and tastes when it comes to literature. To be there are a lot of works of Ngugi that I love than Soyinka.

    1. Achebe did not. And I must say that this justification for not awarding the prize to Africans is shaky. Besides Achebe, Soyinka and Ngugi there are lots of other African writers with different styles. Tutuola, Armah, Ba, p’Bitek, McGoye, Mpahlele, among others who belong to that older generation but who wrote differently. And then there is the new generation of writers, including Chimamanda and Binyavanga Wainaina who also have a completely different style and address completely different issues in their writings.

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