From Soyinka to the 2021 Gurnah Nobel Prize, African narratives in world literature

Talk to The Guardian after winning the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature, Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah remarked, “I could do with more readers.” Gurnah – who has published 10 novels, several short stories and essays – began writing in English when he was 21, a refugee in England; he was forced to flee the island of Zanzibar after the revolution that overthrew the monarchy. A distinguished scholar and critic, his work has been recognized for its “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the plight of the refugee in the chasm between cultures and continents”. Diasporic literature, themes of exile, memory and migration are intrinsic to his work.

Gurnah is the seventh African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, after Albert Camus (born of French parents in Algeria) in 1957, Wole Soyinka (1986), Naguib Mahfouz (1988), Nadine Gordimer (1991), JM Coetzee (2003) , and Doris Lessing (2007). And, he is the second black African writer after Soyinka to win the prestigious award. While Chinua Achebe things are falling apart, set in Nigeria, could have been our introduction to African literature in English, Gurnah’s victory once again reminds us to pay attention to the diversity of literary narratives emerging from the continent. For now, one can check out Soyinka’s latest novel, Chronicles of the Land of the Happiest People in the World, which comes almost 50 years after his last novel.

In an interview with THE WEEK, Madhu Krishnan, Professor of African, World and Comparative Literature in the Department of English at the University of Bristol, tells us more about the evolution of the art of African literary writing and its place in the world. She is currently working on a five-year project, funded by the ERC, entitled “Literary activism in sub-Saharan Africa: commons, publics and networks of practice”.

Madhu Krishnan, Professor of African, World and Comparative Literature at the University of Bristol

Do you think Gurnah’s Nobel Prize win is good news for African literature on the world stage? Will it really help to generate more interest and readership for the continent’s lesser-known authors?

It would be impossible to suggest that the Nobel Prize will not increase the visibility of African literatures on the world stage, or at least [professor] Visibility of Gurnah. Already we are hearing stories of his books selling in various US markets, and there has certainly been an increase in interest in the UK. [no doubt linked to the level of publicity here around his win]. The big question is how long this surge in interest lasts. It has been well documented that grand prizes won have an immediate positive net impact on the sales of the winner’s work, but the long-term impact can be less positive and in some cases even negative. I’m skeptical that an institution like the Nobel can help spark interest in less visible writers and literatures, especially those who embrace a more deliberately radical aesthetic or ideology. I would also dispute the idea that [professor] Gurnah himself is “less known”. Certainly, among the African literary readership, he is extremely well known! The question of how well known a writer is or not is a matter of perspective and a matter of scale. In some ecologies, something that, say, the global literary market considers “unknown” or “peripheral” might have much more purchase and relevance, and a wider audience. We must therefore be careful when we speak in these terms of who we are focusing on and from whose perspective we are speaking. I would report this piece in flimsy paper, which has collected over 100 responses from African writers to victory – not really less well-known, I would say!

How did the 1986 Nobel Prize for Wole Soyinka change the global reception of African literary narratives in English?

I’m not sure that has changed the reception of African literary stories. It might be more accurate to say that [professor] Soyinka’s victory gave a certain amount of intellectual and social capital to African literature, as a market category, but one could say that it was a process that had already begun decades ago, with the canonization of writers like Chinua Achebe, among others. Perhaps the most important thing about [professor] Soyinka’s victory was the way his work refuted some of the most particular ways in which African literatures are read. Here, I think of the way in which, certainly through the 1980s, but fortunately less frequently today, African literatures have been read as sociological or anthropological data, rather than as artistic or literary works. Admittedly, African literary writing, like all writing, intersects with politics, and [professor] Soyinka’s work is deeply committed; at the same time, its explicit modernity and highly crafted aesthetic forces readers to think more deeply about the art of African writing, you might say.

How relevant is the language question for contemporary African novelists writing in English in a post-colonial world? Is transmitting the African experience in English the only way to become a literary giant on the world stage?

I think the language issue is one that comes in two parts. In structural and institutional terms, it is difficult to refute the idea that English, as a language, has the largest market share and the greatest reach. It is simply a fact that, dollar for dollar, writing in English outstrips other languages. So there’s a question of infrastructure and economics to think about, which is one thing. The other issue, however, concerns the language of expression. First, I would argue that it is dangerous to regard English as anything other than an African language – if an African writer chooses to write in that language. Why shouldn’t an African writer be as proficient in English as a British or American writer? Certainly, a myriad of African writers have shown how they can take English and turn it into a language of their own, shaping it and pushing its boundaries. All languages ​​are fundamentally plural, and all languages ​​evolve; English is no different. I don’t think it’s up to me to say how a writer should or should not “transmit his African experience”. It’s basically a matter of art. Yes, it is mediated by infrastructural and economic factors. And indeed, we should not downplay the importance of areas such as education, which can shape the languages ​​in which writers feel capable of writing. But, there are so many writers today saying that we can be more radical in how we think and work in different ways. The most famous here, of course, is Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, whose creative writing is composed and written first in Gĩkũyũ and then translated into other languages, but also other figures like Boubacar Boris Diop, who writes himself in Wolof and whose publishing house was transformative in advocating for translation in and out of the language, or Richard Ali A. Mutu, who wrote in Lingala and published the first Lingala novel to be translated into English. The works of these people, among many other literary activists including Zukiswa Wanner, Edwige Dro, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, Munyao Kilolo and so many others, show that English is not the only path. Likewise, their work shows the importance of developing infrastructures and decentred English translation, or at least offering alternatives to writers.

Also, how problematic is it to treat African writing in English as a single domain, just as monolithic depictions of Africa in mainstream media are frowned upon?

Of course it is problematic. What we mean by “African experience” is not monolithic. A novel set, for example, in southwestern Cameroon, Ghana or Liberia, will be radically different in terms of cultural intersections and framings from a novel set in Kenya, Uganda or South Sudan. South. Africa is not a country; it’s the second largest continent in the world and home to a myriad of languages, cultures and experiences, so of course literary writing is going to reflect that diversity.

Some modern African writers you would like to recommend?

This is a difficult question! There are so many excellent writers. Writers whose work I have enjoyed lately include Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor [I am obsessed with her book, The Dragonfly Sea] and Akwaeke Emezi. I love Zukiswa Wanner’s travel diary, working hard. There are really too many to count, to be honest!

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