Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Tsitsi Dangarembga for the Nobel
September 25, 2020
Each year around this time, the Nobel Prize committee prepares to announce this year’s laureates in the various fields for which prizes are awarded. Given my field in academia—English—and areas of specialization—historical rhetoric about Africa primarily, and cotemporary African Literature secondarily—I take a keen interest at the beginning of October in who will win the Nobel in Literature. I will add that much of that interest stems from the fact that the Nobel committee has operated with an implicit bias throughout its century-plus history with regards to Africa and its literature. For example, of the Nobel Laureates in Literature, the only black African recipient is Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka (whose seminal play Death and the King’s Horseman I highly recommend be read by you and everyone you know immediately, this weekend if possible!). It’s not that Africa doesn’t have other recipients: Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt, J.M. Coetzee of South Africa, Nadine Gordimer of South Africa, Doris Lessing of Zimbabwe, Albert Camus (born in Algeria). And it certainly is the case that Africa has an enormous and historic community of writers and culture of letters across all categories of race and identity.
Because this is a good week to contemplate and confront bias (I am, after all, a Louisvillian), here, now, I make my own nominations to the Nobel Committee for their Literature category, my public letter to them suggesting a path more representative of global greatness in contemporary literary production.
While it is too late to nominate the godfather of African Literature, Nigerian Chinua Achebe (the prize is only awarded the living) and equally sadly too late to award the great Senegalese novelist and film director Sembene Ousmane, I hereby nominate Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o, author of, among numerous other texts, Weep Not Child, Decolonizing the Mind, and I Will Marry When I Want. It’s certainly impossible to imagine an author more deserving, when the criteria of a lifetime contribution to literature is weighed; Ngugi’s writings and lectures on linguistic colonialism and imperialism are gospel in the world of post-colonial theory. I nominate Ghanaian Ama Ata Aidoo, one of the finest playwrights, novelists, and short story writers as well as elder intellectuals the continent has produced and whose play Dilemma of Ghost characterized the tension within the Black Atlantic such that it was ranked one of the top ten most important works of African Literature of the 20th Century. I nominate Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga, whose first work in a trilogy, Nervous Conditions,placed her firmly at the vanguard of the new generation of post-colonial contemporary African writers and whose third and final installment, This Mournable Body, published in 2018 was last week shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, increasingly referred to as the Nobel for the rest of the world. Dangarembga, whose days over the last months have alternated between being arrested and jailed for protesting government corruption in Zimbabwe and being nominated, long-listed, and now shortlisted for the Booker, is the consummate activist, scholar, author, creator, and public intellectual, and you can hear an interview with her from earlier this week on NPR. It’s time the Nobel committee starts looking at a continent with black literary traditions dating back over a thousand years much more actively. It’s time the Nobel committee starts looking at itself, looking at its own biases, and starts unpacking them and seeking better ways forward. And it’s time we all do the same, or keep doing it if we’ve been working at it already. I’m crossing my fingers for Dangarembga, and for all of us!