Sunday, December 12, 2010

USA Africa Dialogue Series - African Literature: The curse of the Nobel Prize

In Africa, the Laureate's Curse
New York Times, December 11, 2010
Lagos, Nigeria

THE Nobel Prize in Literature was presented to Mario Vargas Llosa at an awards ceremony on Friday in Oslo. This reawakened the disappointment felt by many fans of African literature, who had hoped that this would be the year for the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o. But there's actually reason to celebrate Mr. Ngugi's loss. African literature is better off without another Nobel ... at least for now.
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?"
Here, each successful seller of plantain chips spawns a thousand imitators selling identical chips; conformity is esteemed while individuality raises eyebrows; success is measured by how similar you are to those who have gone before you. These are probably not uniquely African flaws, but their effects are magnified on a continent whose floundering publishing industry has little money for experimentation and whose writers still have to move abroad to gain international recognition.
An Ngugi Nobel would have resulted in the new generation of aspiring writers dreaming of nothing higher than being hailed as "the next Ngugi."
This would be a shame. Of course, it would be a relief to know that there's at least one more option for young writers besides becoming the "next Achebe" or the "next Soyinka." But what African writing needs now is real variety and adventurousness - evolution, not emulation. Messrs. Ngugi, Achebe and Soyinka are certainly masters, but of an earnest and sober style. What about other styles?
As a lover of humorous books, I'm often saddened that I can find hardly any by African authors. Fans of lighter literature or commercial fiction often make the same complaint. I know some young writers who are experimenting in these and other genres; an Ngugi award could have pushed them back to the old tried and tired ways.
I should say that Mr. Ngugi remains one of my literary sweethearts, and he's hardly a conformist. Many fans have extolled his brave decision to write in his mother tongue, Kikuyu, instead of English. If he truly desires a Nobel, I can't help but wish him one. But 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.
I'd rather we miss out on this year's Nobel party and are able instead to celebrate the accomplishments of more literary groundbreakers in the future. African writers will achieve more greatness when they are rewarded for standing on the shoulders of their elders to see farther ahead, instead of worshiping at their elders' feet.

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, an editor at the Nigerian newspaper NEXT, is the author of the novel "I Do Not Come to You by Chance."

The Public Editor: Readers With Plenty to Say
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Toyin Falola
Department of History
The University of Texas at Austin
1 University Station
Austin, TX 78712-0220
512 475 7224
512 475 7222  (fax)


  1. While I love Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani's novel I Do Not Come to You by Chance, and I am sympathetic to her call to be innovative in style and break away from merely imitating elder African writers, I had real problems with the fact that she said she would "shudder" at the thought of young African writers taking a lead from Ngugi and writing in their own languages.... See the rest of my response here:

  2. One of the dumbest op-eds I've read in a while. She needs to take a minute and read Ngugi's "Decolonizing the Mind." That would really help raise her consciousness a little...


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