A good year for literature from Africa

03Once again, the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative is echoing louder this year, especially in the creative industry with literature on the front-row seat.

With three of the world’s highest literature awards won by African writers, a rare feat in a long while, the continent is witnessing a harvest of awards in literature, making the year 2021 unprecedented.

From Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, Senegalese novelist, who won the Prix Goncourt, France’s oldest and most prestigious literary prize; Damon Galgut, South African author, who won the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction at the third attempt for his novel ‘The Promise’ and to Abdulrazak Gurnah, Tanzanian novelist, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the year 2021 is truly good for literature from Africa.

Beyond the awards’ recognitions, the prize money is a good reward for the writers’ creative efforts, boost to aspiring writers, while huge awareness is being created for the continent globally and for good reasons. Moreover, all the three winnings are unique feats by all standards, and all from Sub-Saharan Africa.

For the French Prix Goncourt, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, the 31-year-old Senegalese writer, made history as the youngest winner in the prize’s history since 1976, the first writer from sub-Saharan Africa to be awarded the prize, and the first black winner since René Maran in 1921, exactly a century ago.

Of course, the panel of judges judged Sarr’s novel, ‘The Most Secret Memory of Men’, the winner for its ‘stunning energy’ and ‘electrifying storyline’, hence the novel was selected winner on the first round of reading.

On the part of Damon Galgut, it is ‘victory at last’.

The South African accomplished author truly persevered, having been shortlisted for Booker Prize in 2003 and in 2010 without winning.

Read Also: Gurnah becomes East African first Nobe

African literature

Again, ‘The Promise’, his ninth book, had been British bookmakers’ runaway favourite to win the six writers shortlisted for the prize this year. The novel follows the decline of one South African family over four decades from the apartheid era to the present day and it was incredibly told.

Attesting to the creative ingenuity of the author, Maya Jasanoff, a historian who chaired the judging panel for the Booker Prize this year, said The Promise was a profound, forceful and succinct book that “combines an extraordinary story, rich themes – the history of the last 40 years in South Africa – in an incredibly well-wrought package”.

It is a great honour and awareness for Africa because the prize is widely regarded as the most prestigious literary award in the world

The intrigue is that at the award ceremony, Damon Galgut, the author, still doubted he was going to win having lost in 2003 and 2010 prizes.

“I am not used to winning things,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme after his victory. “And I just assumed that would be the case last night. Perhaps nobody was more amazed than me when things went my way.”

“The thing that motivated the whole experience of writing for me was this idea of losing your place in the world,” he said.

However, the biggest honour for African literature this year is the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Abdulrazak Gurnah, a Tanzanian novelist based in the UK.

It is a great honour and awareness for Africa because the prize is widely regarded as the most prestigious literary award in the world.

In his 10 novels, the 72-year old novelist has consistently and with great compassion addressed and created awareness on topical issues in Africa, using East Africa as his case study. Hence, the Nobel Prize was in recognition of “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”

Speaking on the development, Toni Kan Onwordi, a Nigerian writer, was excited that Africans won the major prizes in literature across the world this year.

Toni Kan, the author of ‘Nights of a Creaking Bed’, noted further that the winnings will spur African writers both emerging and established to aspire for greater heights as Gurnah won the Nobel Prize at 72 years.

“It is a huge awareness for literature from Africa, awareness on our culture, our issues and also feats that are changing the narrative for the continent”, he said.

In the same vein, Adjo Adekorafo, a Ghanaian writer, who is based in Vancouver, Canada, said the multiple awards this year for literature from Africa have turned on the volume for Africa in terms of awareness, quality, feats, and recognitions.

He noted that Gurnah’s selection was long overdue and corrective after years of awarding more European and American Nobel laureates.

As he rightly observed, Gurnah is the first African to win the award in more than a decade, preceded by Wole Soyinka of Nigeria in 1986; Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt, who won in 1988; Nadine Gordimer of South African, who won in 1991 and John Maxwell Coetzee in 2003. The British-Zimbabwean novelist Doris Lessing won in 2007.

Adekorafo’s observation followed the heated speculation in the run-up to this year’s award, as many called out the literature prize for lacking diversity among its winners as 95 of the 117 past Nobel laureates were from Europe or North America, and that only 16 winners had been women.

Observers feared that if the prize continues with the huge lack in diversity, many will opt out of it, while its credibility will suffer.

Also speaking on the feats for African literature, Damon Galgut, the winner of 2021 Booker Prize, said all the three winnings point to the fact that more attention was being paid to African literature across the globe now.

“The fact that the Nobel Prize winner this year came from Africa, the fact that the Booker has gone to an African, would suggest that the volume is going up in Africa,” he said.

“I hope that is a process that will continue and that people will take African writing a little more seriously, because there is a lot of great writing coming from us.”

Meanwhile, Sarah Bongani, a South African investment banker and sponsor of two book clubs in the Gauteng Province, South Africa, noted that beyond the global attention on Africa now and recognitions for the winning authors, the prizes won by the three African writers are good financial empowerments and boost to young people to rethink career in the creative industry.

“The prize money for the Nobel Prize is kr 9,000,000, about $1,043,751; the Booker Prize is £50,000, about $69,000, while surprisingly, The Prix Goncourt is worth just €10 but guarantees massive book sales. Previous winners have seen novels rack up sales of 400,000 copies. Imagine, Hervé Le Tellier, last year’s winner of The Prix Goncourt, sold more than a million copies. These are sustainable empowerment”, she commented.

She also disclosed that age is no longer a consideration for winning international awards as Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, won at 31 years with his first novel; Damon Galgut won at 57 after three attempts at Booker Prize, while Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize at 72 years, the first Black writer to receive the prize since Toni Morrison in 1993.

Meanwhile, the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), and other literary associations on the continent are commending all the three African literary greats for making the continent proud, but urged other African authors to work harder to make winning international prizes commonplace for Africans.

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