Wole Soyinka won it. That is the Nobel Prize for Literature. That was great for Africa for the very reason that breaking into that cultural brick wall is another outcome of the African struggle. Then Nadine Gordimer won it too. Hers expanded the African share of the prize. Since then, the continent’s next ‘candidate’ for the Prize has still not won it. Ngugi Wa Thiongo is that candidate in the sense being the one whose announcement as winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature would certainly enjoy universal reception across Africa – from the politicians to academics, from activists to culturalists. But that announcement has refused to come. Why? What might the ‘philosophers of the literary’ at the Swedish Academy have been up to?
Chinweizu, the feisty Nigerian critic, argued in his 1986 critique of the Nobel Prize for Literature that it is a whole subjective exercise. The subjectivity of the criteria by which a writer is adjudged winner, he said, distinguished the prize from winning a soccer competition. By this, Chinweizu was saying that what decides the winner is the cultural imagination of the literary in the world of the Nobel Committee for Literature. Written in the context of Soyinka’s Nobel Prize, his argument might have seemed an attack on Soyinka rather than the Nobel’s theory and practice of the literary. But the point he was trying to make never seems to go away. When a particular African writer thought to be a good fit winner of the prize is not getting it, there is a tendency to think that it has something to do with his being an African, so culturally defined out of the literary that not winning must be on the basis of unfair assessment of the quality and the totality of the works involved. Or it is that the totality of the work must have been found to have, ideologically, been an attack on the West.
Chinua Achebe did not get to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in his life time. Many believe the reason is because of the overarching anti-colonial frame of reference that underpins the totality of his works. Could this be the case with Ngugi not winning the Nobel Prize for Literature or could there be other factors at work? Many agree that there is coherence in the totality of his works, a particular narrative of the African condition and, therefore, some message for humankind.
Bayero University, Kano’s Ibrahim Bello Kano, a professor of contemporary literary theory, offers three guesses about why Ngugi has not arrived home with the game. In fact, he is not surprised that Ngugi has not won the prize. His first guess is that apart from Jean Paul Satre, no radical or writer with leftist hint has won the prize. In the case of Ngugi, he has Marxist hints who suggested that peasants, not even workers, could make history. Above all, he has blamed the West for Africa’s trepidation, from colonialism to plunder. His second guess is that the Greco-Roman definition of Literature or the literary in terms of the sublimity of the spirit or the Aristotelian notion of what makes art to be art would automatically exclude an Ngugi and even most African writers. Much of African Literature is protest literature – attack on colonialism, on structural adjustment programme, on corruption and the hopeless state, etc. This, he said, has been the dominant tendency since Achebe set the agenda in 1958 with Things Fall Apart and the other works that followed. “That is our attitude. We think that content is more important than mastery or deployment of aesthetics or form. It is an attitude that goes deep in Africa. But I was arguing with a Canadian and my summary of what he thought is that African Literature is not Literature because of the protest motif. They see propaganda in that”. There is a third point he brings to the discussion and which is whether there are African critics who have done their homework in recommending Ngugi. His fear is that most of the old literary critics in the West are likely to be conservative and opposed to poststructuralist or high modernism that would register more strikingly about what is literary today. And if such people are the ones recommending an Ngugi, then there is problem already even as he estimates Ngugi to be one of the world’s foremost writers.
If his guesses are part of the problem as far as Ngugi winning the Nobel is concerned, then how did Soyinka get it. Soyinka, he said, explored the African condition too but from the Greco-Roman categories. IBK says he used those categories to explore the African condition. He thus suggests that Soyinka beat the Nobel establishment in their own game. But not Ngugi who defined the literary from the standpoint of a political vision. Thus unlike Bob Dylan who won the prize this year, “Ngugi could not hide behind his art”. Like most African writers, he displays his window on his sleeves. Dylan, says IBK, has come from poetic exploration of complex issues. In his argument, that is the difference between Garcia Marquez or Pablo Neruda whose art were political but sophisticated. In other words, the Nobel establishment wants high art rather than popular fiction that can be appropriated for political struggle.
If you are an artist, properly speaking, only if you operate on Greco-Roman categories, then what should be the attitude of the Africans since they are not products of the Greco-Roman tradition? For, that brings back in Chinweizu’s argument about the subjectivity of the criteria for winning the Nobel Prize on Literature. How wide is the notion of Humanity in the Nobel establishment? IBK reminds us of Thomas Mafolo’s Chaka which he says the colonial authority refused to believe was authored by an African and they had to quietly denigrate it to the point that he is sure it is not a prescribed text in any university in West Africa. The lesson he draws from Mofolo’s work is that if people write with great craftsmanship, write to new themes by moving from old, realist novels, such works would be recognized in time.
In the spirit of letting the Other speak, shouldn’t the Nobel Committee be more accommodating, IBK was asked. The expression, ‘letting the Other speak’ got him stirring. “I like your expression”, he told the interviewer repeatedly. “That’s excellent” he says and proceeds to point out the imperative for the Nobel Committee to look wider, something he thinks they have started doing by extending the prize to East Europeans, the Turkish and to Gordimer. “I like that expression. In that spirit, there is need to abandon the Greco-Roman categories which would not do for India, Latin America and other cultures. I agree with you entirely. There are many scholars across the world who would value something else”. But then, he doubts his own optimism, drawing attention, for example, to the costume worn by the key person who announces the prize and if the Florentine costume reminiscent of the Shakespearean ambit is not signposting obliviousness to any and everything as to consider letting Others speak. All he is sure of is that an African writer would have to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His shocker is that, as much as he positions Ngugi on the same level with all other powerful, compelling writers the world has known, the next African Nobelist might not be him. His argument goes like this: if Achebe were still alive, he would most likely have gotten it before any other. Why? Because those who denied him the prize might be regretting now when they see the dramatic concession he made on page 148 of his last book, There was a Country. Go and read it. There he said “British territories were expertly ran”. Saying that after Things Fall Apart and all his other novels and essays is like a recant if not a self-rebuke. So, those who denied him the Nobel would be asking themselves, why did we need to do that anymore. Ngugi is a great writer and African critics must have tried to nominate him but they would be a minority in the collection of literary players who do the scoring and the decision. Beyond that, there are those who must have been look out for other African writers.
As to what such a situation would have to do with Ngugi winning the prize, IBK says he thinks Ayi Kweih Armah or Meja Mwangi might get it before Ngugi. He grades these two as being at the heart of contemporary African Literature, contrasting them to Ngugi whose political passion has given his art away, in IBK’s view. Meja Mwangi, he rates as a level headed artist, based especially on his Kill Me Quick and Going Down the River Road. “To come back to your point about letting the Other speak, Mwangi writes from naturalism, with a vividity and a bit of high modernism”. From this position, his list of plausible winners comes to Ayi Kwei Armah; Meja Mwangi and Ngugi in that order. Conceding though that Ngugi’s River Between and The Grains of Wheat are great works, IBK says Petals of Blood, for instance, is ruined by the overt, open propaganda for peasants while his play – I Will Marry When I want – is such an open attack on the Kenyan establishment that questions its artistic stature.
Whether one agrees with IBK or not, the African claim on the Nobel Prize cannot be understood outside the debate between message or content and diction, the very question of what is art and who defines it for who. In the case of the Nobel Prize, it is power that decides it. There are no such objective criteria that wins the prize. If the Committee wants to take another look at the criteria today, it is not going to be based on one person, one vote but on the wisdom of what the rather rebellious Chinweizu would call the conclave in Stockholm. But, unlike Chinweizu, the correct attitude would not be to say, the Nobel Prize in Literature is a Western thing, winning it does not make anyone the Ogbuefi or Asiwaju or emir of African Literature. Of course, it does and more so for the African. For any African to still be able to win a prize determined essentially by Chinese, European, North American cultural standards everything the African has gone through in History is the kind of demonstration of the African genius we should want to see. It is that never say die that has sustained the African individuality to neutralise the odds and stand there with his Others. In that sense, the Nobel Prize is important. And the insistence that Others must be heard on that platform from their own point of departure in History is a fundamental democratic struggle. The struggle for inclusiveness cannot be restricted to formal, bureaucratic institutions. It must stretch to the arena that Professor Richard Peet has beautifully conceptualised as the academic – institutional – media (AIM) complexes that underpin his equally interesting phrase, ‘the Geography of Hegemony’ in the contemporary world.