In fretting over Ngugi’s Nobel snub, we may be doing him (and African literature) a disservice

by Chijioke Nwosu

Oct 13, 2016 was historic for the literature fraternity. The Swedish Academy awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize to American Bob Dylan ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’. Awarding the prize to a singer-songwriter was unprecedented. The internet was agog with the news. However, many have wondered why the illustrious Kenyan, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, was overlooked…yet again (see here, here and here). Even betting sites were duly represented in this pro-Ngugi alliance; Ladbrokes had put him on a 4/1 odds, making him the  likeliest recipient. Indeed, Ngugi’s name has been floated for quite some time now. What with his sterling achievements as a consummate writer.

But in the din of disapproval that has trailed the 2016 Prize, I cannot help but reflect on the subject of Ngugi’s snub by the Nobel committee. After all, this is not the first time that we’ve had this scenario. Remember the cries of disapproval that greeted the same award each time a winner was announced…and Achebe’s name was nowhere to be found. I have come to ask myself why it bothers the African intelligentsia so much what a group of Swedes decide about their appreciation of literature. What has our seeking the validation of others ever brought us?

The Nobel prize in literature is one of the five awards instituted by the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite ‘… to those who have done their best to humanity ….’ Each year, a seven- (all-Swedish) member academy decides a winner based on their evaluation of nominees. First and foremost, what is clear is that the man whose will established the award and the entire committee who decide the recipient(s) are nothing African. Nothing is innately wrong with this arrangement. But, given that no human evaluation is value-free, it need not be argued that the values undergirding this award might not have much sympathy for African values (whatever they are). And this is not necessarily racism or any other shade of malevolent discrimination. It may simply be that the values espoused by most black African literary icons do not resonate with the seven Swedish members of the Swedish Academy.

If you ask me to evaluate the literary ingenuity of Fela, the Nigerian king of Afrobeat, and Bob Dylan, I’m likely to declare the former the unequivocal winner. Fela’s message resonates with my lived experiences. But ask many an American! Fela’s music might become a cacophony of tunes rendered in weird language. This is not a war on the universality of art. It just echoes the fact that human evaluations are always couched in values. And by their very nature, values have cultural contextualisations.

Now, what I find difficult to understand are the cries of unfairness or even hidden racism levelled against this body. Even if these are justified, why must we look to a European institution for relevance? Much as I do not begrudge any winner (African or not) such an award (indeed, four illustrious Africans; one of them black, have won it), what I cannot allow myself is the apparent lessening of the import of Ngugi (and others’) illustrious careers due to non-recognition by a Swedish club. Reading commentaries by some Africans, you may be excused in thinking that should Ngugi die without winning the award, some will feel that a fitting epitaph should read, “Here lies an illustrious man who was denied the Nobel Prize”, a stance that Wole Soyinka labels obscene and irreverent. What a sad way to sum up so illustrious a life. Is this a fitting way to recognise a fearless literary icon who could not even be cowed by prison walls and threats to life? Does this do justice to a man who had the courage to defy convention and express himself in his mother tongue in an environment and era when neocolonialist acquiescence substituted for substance? Does such a fixation with outside validation not run counter to the clamour for decolonisation currently sweeping through our continent?

If we are so intent on recognising the sterling works of Ngugi and his like, why not establish our own (equivalent or superior) reward system which will make black Africa the centrepiece of scholarly recognition? Surely, nobody, but ourselves, can deny us such an enterprise. African literature, and indeed African epistemologies, do not need the Nobel for validation. If they are recognised by outsiders, good. But if not, let us feel courageous enough to be our own judge!

Chijioke Nwosu holds a doctorate in economics from the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

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