Empty gestures or substantial change? On the Nobel Prize for Literature and its dissatisfaction

The fact that Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah won the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature is good news, especially since the Swedish Academy is historically known for its lack of diversity, as if intellectual creativity is largely confined to intellectual circles. westerners.

It is premature to suggest that the Academy has finally decided to break with its ethnocentric past and truly embrace the incredible literature constantly emerging from the countries of the South. We can apologize for sounding too cynical – after all, since its inception in 1901, more than 80% of those who have received the award have come from Europe and North America. For the past decade, Chinese novelist Mo Yan was the only non-Western author to receive the award in 2012.

This raises several grim possibilities:

First, the Academy does not believe that the countries of the South make real intellectual and literary contributions to world culture and literature, and that only Western authors are able to produce literature which is relevant and which speaks truly of the human condition.

Second, the Academy and its judges failed to exercise due diligence in discovering the literary brilliance that can be found in all countries of the Global South.

Third, the award is fundamentally political and is denied to writers and writers who attempt to correct spurious colonial narratives, push for radical decolonization – in politics, culture, literature, and language – and do not adhere to the watered-down version of the post. -colonialism as defended by Western academic institutions today.

Gurnah, I’m sure, deserves this award the most. However, what really matters is not that one author of African descent ultimately won the award after neglecting Africa by the Academy for nearly fifteen years. The last African novelist was a white Anglo-Zimbabwean author, Doris Lessing (born to British parents in Iran, in 2007. What matters is that we – Western academics and the Western public, in particular – are really involved in them. writings of these great intellectuals.

If such rewards simply serve as a nod and symbolic recognition of how Western colonialism in Africa – and throughout the global South – has done irreversible damage to shattered, impoverished and colonized societies, then the gesture is void of sense. To be meaningful, postcolonial writers who embrace what should have remained a radical form of anti-colonialism should become the heart and soul of the literary movement, not only in the countries of the South, but throughout the world.

It is important that the famous Kenyan author, novelist, poet and playwright Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has not yet won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The man who questioned the world view on language and literature in his book “Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature”, is the very manifestation, not only of the literary genius of Africa, but from the true organic intellectual. Thiong’o was once imprisoned in post-colonial Kenya for writing a play in gĩkũyũ, his mother tongue, and not in English.

“The black intellectual tradition has given so much to the rest of the world, but it is often invisible,” he writes in his founding book. The reason behind the invisibility of the “black intellectual tradition” – among others – is that they write in languages ​​other than the dominant European languages.

However, it is not just the language, but what the language itself relays. When authors write in their native language, their target audience is their own people. They appeal to their grievances and priorities; they speak of their aspirations and their words are rooted in the collective history of their own nations. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, this has nothing to do with a Stockholm-based Academy, which was established decades before the official end of Western colonialism in Africa.

In his consequent book “The Damned of the Earth”, the black intellectual Frantz Fanon was one of the first revolutionary voices to address the question of intellectual decolonization.

“Imperialism leaves behind the seeds of rot that we must clinically detect and eliminate from our lands but also from our minds,” he wrote. This is not done for an award, academic recognition or literary honor. Instead, it is a prerequisite for the genuine liberation of Africa – and the rest of the global South – from its continued dependence on validation from the West.

For true decolonization to take place, radical language alone is hardly enough. What is needed is a systematic rewriting of history, from the point of view of the colonized, and the reconquest of every part of the literary narrative, starting with the very methodology of the research. According to Maori author Linda Tuhiwai Smith, modern research revolves around Western priorities.

“From the point of view of the colonized, a position from which I write and choose to favor, the term ‘research’ is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism. The word itself, “research”, is possibly one of the dirtiest words in the vocabulary of the Indigenous world, ”Tuhiwai Smith wrote in his landmark book,“ Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples ”.

History “is the story of the powerful and how they became powerful, and then how they use their power to keep them in positions in which they can continue to dominate others,” she wrote.

Sometimes conditional validations and limited concessions through rewards and other similar nods of approval can themselves be an attempt to “dominate others”.

At the end of the day, it’s not the rewards that matter, but what has been researched and written, and its impact in making the world a fairer place.

– Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and editor-in-chief of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is “These chains will be broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons ”(Clarity Press). Dr Baroud is a non-resident principal investigator at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) and also at the Afro-Middle East Center (AMEC). Its website is www.ramzybaroud.net

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