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Literary prizes can spur African fiction

By | Jul 12th 2009 | 3 min read

Ferdinand Mwongela

Canadian short story writer Alice Munro took the Man Booker International Prize crown in May ahead of other literary greats like Trinidad’s VS Naipul and Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Had Ngugi won the prize it would have been a successive win for African writers after Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe won the biennial literary prize in 2007.

The focus, however, remains on African writers and their apparent drought of major literary prizes. Taban Lo Liyong’s views about East Africa being a literary desert aside, Africa has produced a fair share of consistent and prolific writers whose recognition at the world stage has, however, been wanting.

However, Achebe’s win and Ngugi’ s nomination was a step in the right direction. Ngugi was one of 14 nominees from 12 countries among them previous winners of the prize — Trinidad’s VS Naipul, UK’s James Kelman and Australia’s Peter Carey.

Ngugi has been a critic of political institutions and neo-colonialism mainly in postcolonial Kenya and by extension stifling political regimes across the length and breadth of Africa.

Substantial impact

His impact on the world literary stage has been substantial. One of the key determinants of the Man Booker International Prize is a ‘writer’s overall contribution to fiction at the world stage’, rather than a single literary text, which earned him the nomination.

Like many key African writers, Ngugi has been at the forefront of resisting the application of Eurocentric paradigms to the judgement of African works of literature; a campaign which has seen mixed results, as some African writers have received recognition at the world stage yet the shadow is not completely gone.

While we hail the convictions of a writer like Nigerian Christopher Okigbo whose passion for his country could only find expression in a physical engagement in the Biafra war, Ngugi’s contribution should be viewed through the lens of participation in the liberation of African literature from the shackles of Eurocentric judgement; not the myopic view of an academic driven by powerlessness and guilt to atone for non-existent errors of omission — and commission — by resorting to the pen for a ‘personal cathartic effect’.

The socio-political commitment of literature aside, Ngugi’s contribution and that of other African writers prove there is no inadequacy or lack of writers on the continent. And then there are the upcoming writers who might not have made it big on the international stage but are making waves locally.

Emma Dawson, an editor with Critical Cultural and Communications Press asserts most African writing is now going beyond the post colonial to the ‘post post’ colonial. And this writing is mostly by upcoming writers of the younger generation, which view stories of African liberation heroes as just tales.

However, latter day writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie whose text, Half of a Rising Sun revisits the Nigerian Biafra civil strife, still include remnants of the theme of the effects of colonialism or forced colonial boundaries.

There are those doing a lot to encourage upcoming writers but more still needs to be done. Organisations such as Storymoja and Kwani are leading the way, opening up the narrow restrictions of genre descriptions to include a wider variety of creative writing.

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