From Soyinka to Gurnah, Nobel Laureate 2021, African Stories in World Literature

Talk to The Guardian after winning the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah said: “I could do with more readers. Gurnah, who has published 10 novels, several short stories and essays, began writing in English as a 21-year-old refugee in England; he was forced to flee the island of Zanzibar after the revolution which overthrew the monarchy. A distinguished scholar and critic, his work has been recognized for an “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 is Things are falling apart, which takes place in Nigeria, could have been our introduction to African literature in English, Gurnah’s victory reminds us once again to pay attention to the diversity of literary narratives emerging from the continent. For now, you can check out Soyinka’s latest article, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on the Planet, which comes almost 50 years after her last novel.

In an interview with THE WEEK, Madhu Krishnan, Professor of African, World and Comparative Literatures 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, Audiences and Networks of Practice”.

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

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

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] The 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 bigger question is how long this increase in interest lasts. It has been well documented that large earnings have an immediate net positive 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 adopt a more deliberately radical aesthetic or ideology. I would also dispute the idea that [professor] Gurnah is himself “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 question of perspective and scale. Within certain ecologies, something that, say, the global literary market considers “unknown” or “peripheral” might have a lot more buy and relevance, and a larger audience. So we have to be careful when we speak in these terms of who we are focusing on and from whose perspective we are speaking. I would like to report this piece in Brittle paper, which gathered 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 am not sure that this has changed the reception of African literary narratives. It might be more accurate to say that [professor] Soyinka’s victory gave some intellectual and social capital to African literature, as a market category, but it could be argued that this was a process that had already started decades ago, with the canonization of writers like Chinua Achebe, among others. Perhaps the most important thing about [professor] Soyinka’s victory was how his work refuted some of the more peculiar ways African literatures are read. I am thinking here of the way in which, admittedly in the 1980s, but fortunately less frequently today, African literatures were read as sociological or anthropological data, rather than as artistic or literary works. Of course, African literary writing, like all writing, overlaps with politics, and [professor] Soyinka’s work is deeply involved; at the same time, its explicit modernity and highly polished aesthetic compel readers to think more deeply about the art of African writing, one might say.

How relevant is the language question to 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 that the language question is a question which is divided into 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 surpasses other languages. So there is a question of infrastructure and economics to think about, which is one thing. The other question, however, concerns the language of expression. First, I would argue that it is dangerous to see English as anything other than an African language, if an African writer chooses to write in that language. Why shouldn’t an African writer have English as much as a British writer or an American writer? Certainly, a myriad of African writers have shown how they can take English and turn it into a language of their own, shape it and push its limits. 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 “convey his African experience”. It is fundamentally a question of art. Yes, it is mediated by infrastructural and economic factors. And indeed, we should not minimize the importance of areas such as education, which can shape the languages ​​in which writers feel able to write. But, there are so many writers today who say that we can be more radical in our thinking and work in different ways. The most famous here, of course, is Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, whose creative writing is first composed and written 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 into and out of the language, or Richard Ali A. Mutu, who writes 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 many others, show that English is not the only way. Likewise, their work shows the importance of developing infrastructure and translation by decentralizing English, 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 descriptions of Africa in mainstream media are frowned upon?

Of course, this is problematic. What we mean by “African experience” is not monolithic. A novel that takes place, for example, in southwest Cameroon, Ghana or Liberia will be radically different in terms of cultural intersections and framing of a novel set in Kenya, Uganda or South Sudan. . 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 the literary writing is going to reflect that diversity.

Some modern African writers that you would like to recommend?

This is a difficult question! There are so many great writers. Some of the 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 travelogue, Working hard. There are really too many to count, to be honest!

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