Chika Unigwe is in Enugu, Nigeria geboren. Ze schrijft boeken over alles en nog wat.
African literature doesn’t need the Nobel Prize to make it valid
In 2021, the Nobel Prize for literature went to Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, and writer Chika Unigwe is happy that African writing is increasingly in the spotlight. African literature does not need the Nobel Prize to be validated, she believes, but it is good to see influential bodies like the Swedish Academy recognizing works from the continent.
In the wake of the George Floyd protests that rocked the US (and several parts of the world last summer) and all the conversations in the US about race and social justice, many well-meaning progressives put out lists of “must read books” — all by Black authors — to understand the “Black experience.”
This literary activism was hailed by many on the left as both crucial and a sign of progress. It is ridiculous to think that a white American would need to read, say Namwali Serpell’s brilliant Old Drift set in Zambia to understand the racial politics of the United States and to develop some empathy for oppressed Black lives. Or read Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half about colorism in a made-up Black community to understand police brutality.
It would be unthinkable for anyone to put up a list of contemporary novels by (white) American and European writers and present them as ‘books to read to understand the European psyche.’
While it is tempting to say that anything that sells books is a good thing, even lazily drawn lists such as those distributed last summer, it is important to understand the unconscious bias of these “othering” lists that treat writing from a certain demography as little more than pedagogical texts.
As an African writer who’s lived in the Global North for many years, this bias is one I am sometimes confronted with when I give readings. And one I hope that the growing visibility of African writing on the global stage would render redundant.
Sales figures and biases
And there is a growing visibility. Before the Zanzibari writer Abdulrazak Gurnah won the much coveted Nobel Prize for Literature this year – making him the first black African writer to win it in 35 years when the Nigerian Wole Soyinka won it – African writers have been having commercial successes in the west (and therefore the world).
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a recognizable name to readers and teachers of writing globally. Akwaeke Emezi was on a recent cover of Time Magazine. Imbolo Mbue got a million dollar advance for her debut a couple of years ago.
On their shoulders rested the humongous burden of explaining a continent’s cultures and politics and people.
Nnedi Okorafor is collaborating with Viola Davis on the screenplay of Octavia Butler’s Seed and her Who Fears Death is set to come on HBO. Uwem Akpan was on Oprah some years ago.
And yet, months after Gurnah’s win, at a period when we can confidently claim the ubiquity of books by African writers in the West, the Nobel Prize laureate’s books are difficult to find. For years, many of them have been out of print because of their relatively poor sales.
I believe that there is a link between the poor sales of a brilliant African writer’s books (I know because I have read more than a few of his novels) and the kind of bias that is behind even well-intentioned lists: no matter how brilliant the writing is, African writing is not meant for popular consumption. One could not just pick up one and read for the sheer joy of being entertained by a glorious imagination and fantastic writing.
Gurnah himself has spoken of his early difficulty finding a publisher because his writing inhabited a no-man’s land between recognizably “African” (read: no lions, no sage old men, no warriors fighting colonization) and European.
As popular as Ben Okri became after winning the Booker Prize as a young writer years ago for The Famished Road ( replete with African magical realism) , his In Arcadia, which I consider one of his best, has struggled to find a readership (possibly because of its very European texture). Yet, one must be grateful for small mercies.
Studying Africa in books
In the early years of African literature, commercial publishers and bookstores paid little to no attention to writing from the continent. African writers were published mostly by academic publishers or by publishers dedicated to African books like the Heineman African Series. They were not found in bookstores. These were books meant to be studied in schools.
In many colleges today, African literature is still read as part of African history in a way that European and American literature isn’t.
Very little aesthetic imagination went into their covers because their main (I daresay only) duty was to educate rather than to please. On their shoulders rested the humongous burden of explaining a continent’s cultures and politics and people. They were expected to explain the humanity of the African to the west.
(Western) readers read them through an anthropological lens rather than for fun. Every American I know, for example, who has read Chinua Achebe, read him at school. Their introduction to it wasn’t as a novel to be enjoyed the way they did his European and American contemporaries, but a text to write exams about, a text to be educated by.
Any discussion of Okonkwo, Achebe’s protagonist in Things Fall Apart that doesn’t center him as the noble African man fighting colonization and being consumed by it isn’t regarded as valid.
In many colleges today, African literature is still read as part of African history in a way that European and American literature isn’t. Students study Nigeria while reading Olisakwe’s radically feminist Ogadinma for instance.
Relief and Hope
So while the global literary landscape has changed, as more African writers are published by commercial presses in the West, and winning international prizes, their books on airport book stands, as African writing is moving steadily away from the margins to the center, there still seems to be a residual resistance to accord it the same level of respect as a work of art that European and American writing gets.
This resistance is what a prize like the Nobel, I hope, chips away at and eventually obliterates.
Hearty congratulations to Abdulrazak Gurnah. And a hearty congratulations to African writing.
To be sure, African literature doesn’t need the Nobel Prize to make it valid, but it is good to see writing from the continent acknowledged by a space as influential as the Swedish Academy.
Much of the joy of Africans when Gurnah was announced, had to do with this acknowledgement. When Soyinka said of Gurnah’s win that the Nobel ‘has come back home’, it is both a sigh of relief and a hope that the rest of the world will catch on.
It is immensely gratifying to see a writer so deserving of a wider audience, a writer who has remained committed to his vision of his art, get the level of recognition that a prize of the Nobel’s stature confers. Hearty congratulations to Abdulrazak Gurnah. And a hearty congratulations to African writing.
Well done to the Nobel committee. You did right!