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Debate: Is the Nobel Prize in Literature culturally rigged against Africans?

Until American poet Bob Dylan was named this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, fans of US-based Kenyan literary great Ngugi wa Thiong’o waited with bated breath.

It has been a long wait. Bookmakers have been placing the Kenyan author, alongside other ‘unlikely’ candidates such as Japanese Haruki Murakami, high on the list of those tipped to win.

And the frustration among Ngugi’s fans can be seen in the number of columns penned on the matter, some citing race as the reason Ngugi might never win it. Those who subscribe to this view argue that even the seven times the award is said to have come to Africa is a lie.

They cite such authors as Nadine Gordimer of South Africa, who won the prize in 1991, and whose father was a Jewish immigrant from present-day Lithuani and a British mother.

In the same vein, they argue Doris Lessing, the Zimbabwean 2007 winner, was born Doris May Tayler in Iran, in 1919, to Britons Alfred Tayler and Emily Maude Tayler. Albert Camus of Algeria, one of the finest philosophers of the 20th Century, was French, having been born to an Alsatian (from Alsace, France) and a Spanish mother. South Africa’s JM Coatzee, who clinched the prize in 2003, became an Australian citizen after years of successfully trying to become a US citizen.

Cultural perspectives

This argument goes that while Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka (1986) and Naguib Mahfouz (1988) may have bagged it, some of their writings tend to lighten the cultural perspectives of their people in favour of the liberal west ideals. Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, depicts the dilemma of Olunde, a student studying medicine abroad who comes home to take part in a ritual suicide. His father, Elesin, is the king’s horseman who must die with the King, but a colonialist, Pilkings stops the whole ‘barbaric’ affair. But Olunde offers to die in his father’s stead. Some say the vision of the author in the work does not favour Yoruba ways.

As for Mahfouz, his tendency to experiment with issues such as homosexuality in his rather conservative background is comparable, to a lesser extent, to works by authors who renounce their people’s ways. Who recalls Salman Rushie’s epic run around the world over his Satanic Verses?

That said, I’d be hesitant to see the reason Ngugi and others like Achebe have been bypassed by the Swedish academy. First, I don’t think it would be easy, or prudent, to dish out a literary award purely on the basis of race. Even to do so, one would have to anchor their judgement on some link – however woolly - to the involved writers’ works.

My take, however, is that there could be some element of truth such West-based literary prizes may be, albeit unintentionally, biased against African literary icons. The bias, however, is more cultural and conceptual than continental or skin colour-based.

Take for instance Achebe’s works.

While Arrow of God may be my best African novel ever, largely for how it latches on to the oral tradition unique to African storytelling, its tapestry might not fit the bill for what is defined in the west as ‘best literature’, ‘universal literature’.

This would explain why Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was kept in the anthropology books section in UK libraries, even after it was published under the UK-controlled African Writers’ Series. I’d guess Ngugi’s Matigari, which plays on African magical realism and Devil on the Cross, which subtly plays on the biblical crucifixion motif to magnify theft of NYS (sorry, national) resources, would not fit in.

Those familiar with works that try to define ‘universal literature' would agree. A good example is FR Leavis’s The Great Tradition (1948), which culls works by Jane Austen, George Elliot and such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Joseph Conrad as the be-all end-all of literature. True, Shakespeare was great. It is also true that what Leavis was trying to do was to identify the works that would pass muster as great works but ‘in the English Tradition’.

Obvious bias

Now, given the way globalisation works, and given that we are coming from 100 years where it was believed the sun would never set on the (British) empire, it’s not hard to see why Leavis’s innocent attempt to rank and explain the greatness of the English literary works was spread half across the world as the official definition of all literatures. That also goes for attempts by Euro-American critics to define other genres, which Edgar Allan Poe tried to do with the short story. The ironic tragedy is in trying to define what great literature that captures universal human struggle is, the authors of works that police the borders of what is and what is not great fall into the trap of glorifying what they are familiar with.

Given that most of those on the judging panel at the Swedish academy are likely to see great works through the Leavisite lens, what did we expect? Next time, maybe fans of African orature should demand their own in it. Sometimes we tend to ignore the fact that literature is part of culture. Whatever one writes that tickles his or her people must essentially resonate with the cultural tastes of his origin.

Ngugi writes with an obvious bias for the downtrodden among his people. He lost a brother in the struggle for freedom and has no time for the authorities, both colonial and post-colonial, who steal land and kill the dreams of the poor, as seen in Petals of Blood, which I found more political than artistic, and his other left-leaning works. His are works that a Briton and a Kenyan would have seen the same way CORD and Jubilee supporters see reality and truth about Kenyan politics.

Literary grain

Ngugi’s commitment goes against the Nobel literary grain. If you have read works such as Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul’s Bend in the River, A House for Mr Biswas, Suffrage of Elvira, Miguel Street and such stories as the pathologically satirical Yung Man Baker, you realise Naipaul is the opposite of Ngugi. He renounced his Caribbean Islands origin because “they don’t understand literature” while Ngugi went back to write in his mother tongue. Ngugi writes with a heart for the oppressed, while it is vintage Naipaul when he starts The Road to Elvira thus: “On the road to Elvira there was two white women and one black bitch....” And ends it: “Elvira, you is bitch...” Even Gordimer, whose July’s People and connection to Mandela endears her to Africa, expresses her concern for humanity in his anti-apartheid works from a European’s perspective.

And while lovers of art are in agreement that Dylan is among the finest songwriters and poets, it is telling that some are arguing that the award did not reflect the vision Alfred Nobel had when he founded the prize 115 years ago. He said it should be awarded to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” The Guardian on Monday quoted Dylan’s friend Leonard Cohen as saying the prize was like “pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”

French Moroccan writer Pierre Assouline said the prize was “contemptuous of writers”. Is it why the 75-year-old American took five days to make up his mind whether to accept it after countless calls and emails from the committee?

Or as fans of Ngugi would like to ask, was it given to Dylan so as not to go to Ngugi or Japan’s Harki Murakami?