Which writers qualify as African is irrelevant because what matters is the quality of their work
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At a virtual event at the New York Public Library to celebrate the publication of his first novel in nearly half a century, the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka had some good-natured fun about the Nobel Prize for literature, which he had won in 1986. Earlier that morning, the prize committee in Stockholm had announced that this year’s winner was going to be the Zanzibar-born Tanzanian-British novelist, Abdulrazak Gurnah. Immediately, several commentators noted that this was the first “African winner" since 1986. Soyinka was indeed the first African writer to win the prize, 35 years ago, and for an honour that’s regarded as the most important in the world, the fact that it took more than eight decades to recognize the work of a whole continent indeed shows its own myopia.
When prompted about this being the first Nobel award for an “African writer" in 35 years, Soyinka played along, saying how pleased he was for Gurnah, and added that the award should remain in Africa somewhat longer now, and there should not be such a long gap.
But has there been such a long gap? Between 1986 and 2021, four African writers have won the Literature Nobel: 1988, Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt; 1991, Nadine Gordimer of South Africa; 2003, J.M. Coetzee, also of South Africa; and 2007, Doris Lessing, born in Zimbabwe. Granted, none of them is ‘African’ by way of complexion, but is that what being African means? Who is an African? Is it defined by the colour of one’s skin? Are all writers of a certain hue African? Do all African writers have the same skin tone? Is the colour of their skin more important than the content of their writing?
To be sure, we live in a biased world. As several commentators have pointed out in the past week, the predominance of relatively obscure European writers on the Nobel list is odd. The committee’s idiosyncratic choices have led to mystifying absences, such as Graham Greene, Mahasweta Debi and Philip Roth in the past, or Milan Kundera and Salman Rushdie so far.
In any case, what does a writer represent? One’s own self, or a passport, or a regional sensibility, or a language? And if there is an African sensibility that Soyinka has and which Gurnah shares, is it an Anglophone sensibility honed by the experience of growing up under British colonialism? Does that make Francophone African experiences, of writers like the Cameroonian Enoh Meyomesse or the Congo-born Alain Mabanckou, different? Does the inequitable world that Coetzee and Gordimer have eviscerated through their fiction become less meaningful because they are identifiably Caucasian? Should it matter? And Doris Lessing—she who imagines alternative universes, and whose account of her life in and after her time in Zimbabwe is called African Laughter, any less African? And north of the Sahara, what are we to make of Mahfouz’s Cairo? Isn’t Africa broad enough to include Alaa Al-Aswany and Ahdaf Soueif?
There are many other African narratives: the gritty reality Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes of, the fragmenting universe Chinua Achebe warned us of, the firm refusal of Ngugi wa Thion’go to embrace English, the interplay of Indian and African lives in Tanzania that M.G. Vassanji illustrates, the transformation from an Afrikaner mind to an African mind that Breyten Breytenbach demonstrates, the perpetuation of misery that aid dependency has caused on the continent, which Nurudin Farah laments, or the phantasmagoria that Helen Oyeyemi creates. These are African experiences, of a continent rich with ideas, resources, and people, exploited and treated inhumanely by leaders drawn from the outside and from within. As Ngugi once wrote, the invisibility of the Indian in Africa had to be made more visible; and as Marq de Villiers said in his book, White Tribe Dreaming, the Afrikaner was also “from here". The National Party’s cruelty in South Africa was not vastly different from the cruelty of other leaders—like Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia, Idi Amin in Uganda, Sani Abacha in Nigeria, Laurent Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, or Paul Kagame in Rwanda.
It is a cliché to say this, but humanity emerged in the Rift Valley, and all of us have roots in Africa. And yet, there is a uniquely African perspective. And that comes from understanding that milieu, from growing up there, dreaming in the languages of Africa, and living through the magic of communal life and oral culture, all of which build the awareness of living with myths and accepting them as real. Ernest Hemingway wrote once: “In Africa, a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon and you have no more respect for it than for the lovely, perfect weed-fringed lake you see across the sun-baked salt plain." Those who have travelled through Africa—Hemingway of course, but also Karen Blixen, and, arguably, Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul—have also understood the continent and its multifaceted reality.
Gurnah has brought to life inter- ethnic-group experiences in Zanzibar and later Tanzania, and the grimmer reality of living in an acutely race- conscious society like England, where minorities, as Rushdie once described them, are “visible but unseen". Gurnah makes what’s ambiguous clearer, and what’s inexplicable magical, turning a part of the world so that it represents the story that touches all of us.