With the Announcement, the Grousing Begins

Why Ngugi wa Thiong'o should have won the Nobel Prize

But 50 years after that momentous conference, the reasons for inviting the Kenyan author to accompany at least one of his Nigerian colleagues into the Nobel hall of fame are compelling.

Soyinka and Ngugi both lived through colonialism as children, were shaped by the promise of decolonisation, protested their subsequent political disillusionment and paid dearly for their writing in prison. Both were deeply committed to public engagement through performances of their plays; both have written movingly about the consequences of their beliefs. But what separates Ngugi from his Nobel predecessor is his brave and polemical decision to write in his first language, Gikuyu.

Ngugi renounced writing in English in July 1977 at the Nairobi launch of Petals of Blood, saying that he wished to express himself in a language that his mother and ordinary people could understand. The announcement didn't come out of the blue. He had previously campaigned to change the name of his academic home at the University of Nairobi from the "department of English" to the "department of literature" – a deeply political move still relevant, inspiring and indeed uncomfortable for literature scholars around the world today.

All of which has exactly what to do with why you should win a prize in literature?  Coming from a colonial state is suddenly a qualification?  Changing department names?  Nonsense like this is why the award has become a three ring circus more that a sober evaluation of merit.  To given them credit, the article does go on to make a case for offering an award for literature.  And I certainly can't speak to the merits, having only perused (and not read completely) a single volume of the gentleman-in-question's work.

Oh, and here's another reason to award the prize:

Of course there is only one Ngugi, and other African writers with such political and commercial traction are few and far between. But if the Nobel committee had chosen to honour him this year it would have renewed the African literary community's belief in the possibility, and indeed necessity, of change. Naguib Mafouz won the Nobel for his work in Arabic in 1988. If Ngugi had won he would have been the first author writing primarily in an indigenous sub-Saharan African language to win the prize. It would have been a reminder to us all of his resistance to the hegemony of European languages. "English" departments across the world might have sat up to take note.

While it is attractive to speculate in this way, I don't see how Mahfouz, Oe, Xingjian, and Kawabata contribute to the "hegemony of European languages."  Excuse me--the award is offered by a group of Europeans--Swedes, to be exact, and if they chose to never give the prize to anyone outside of Scandanavia, they would be perfectly within their rights.  The propensity to properly resist the perceived hegemony must come not by an extrinsic award, which is greeted by most with a deep so-what shrug--but by promoting the intrinsic worth works of those who deal with the themes and central issues of non-hegemonic nations--Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Maaza Mengista, Uwem Akpan, Petina Gappah--to mention a few from Africa, and many more the world over.

Overcoming hegemony is not a reason for awarding a prize--but from all accounts, Ngugi certainly had all the requisite characteristics of one to whom the award should go for his accomplishments in literature.  I know that I have been inspired to take up his work again and give it a more thorough reading that I had done.  And the publicity and odds-making around the Nobel Prize served a good and sufficient purpose if only for this.


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