The Laureate’s Curse? I Think Not

Tricia Adaobi Nwaubani has an op-ed piece in the December 11, 2010 edition of the New York Times in which she argues that “African literature is better off without another Nobel… at least for now”.  I’m stunned by the arguments that she uses to buttress her opinion.  Ms. Nwaubani is the author of the delightful, funny and edgy novel I Do Not Come to You by Chance, which I absolutely loved reading.

She states the following in the article:

A Nigerian publisher once told me that of the manuscripts she reads from aspiring writers, half echo Chinua Achebe and half try to adopt Wole Soyinka’s style. Mr. Achebe and Mr. Soyinka, who won the continent’s first Nobel in literature in 1986, are arguably the most celebrated black African writers, especially in terms of Western accolades. But their dominance causes problems in a region where the common attitude is, “If it already works, why bother to improve on it?”

Here, each successful seller of plantain chips spawns a thousand imitators selling identical chips; conformity is esteemed while individuality raises eyebrows; success is measured by how similar you are to those who have gone before you. These are probably not uniquely African flaws, but their effects are magnified on a continent whose floundering publishing industry has little money for experimentation and whose writers still have to move abroad to gain international recognition.

An Ngugi Nobel would have resulted in the new generation of aspiring writers dreaming of nothing higher than being hailed as “the next Ngugi”

Yes, Africans are fond of imitation.  Open a successful car-washing business and soon there will be 10 more of such establishments within 10 yards of your business.  Our educational systems, our current traditions and our leaders stifle and suppress expressions of creativity and difference. However, not recognizing or celebrating the achievements of an artist for fear that others will ape him or her is a warped argument, at best. We can neither blame nor punish people for being good at what they do.  Nwaubani’s own debut novel is among the freshest works to be published in Africa in recent years. Africa needs more of such books, and it would not be wrong if someone got it into their head to be the next Nwaubani.

She goes on to say that

…what African writing needs now is real variety and adventurousness — evolution, not emulation. Messrs. Ngugi, Achebe and Soyinka are certainly masters, but of an earnest and sober style. What about other styles?

Sober? Is she kidding?  Wole Soyinka is far from sober.  And what of Ngugi’s Wizard of the Crow, which successful mixes humor, satire and fantasy and is, in my opinion, one of the most entertaining books by an African author. Is sober the new word for old?

As a lover of humorous books, I’m often saddened that I can find hardly any by African authors. Fans of lighter literature or commercial fiction often make the same complaint. I know some young writers who are experimenting in these and other genres; an Ngugi award could have pushed them back to the old tried and tired ways.

Yes, undoubtedly, we need more genre writing in Africa.  We need to write and read science fiction, crime fiction and young adult literature.  We need to expose young readers to varied forms of fiction and non-fiction. But the need for more lighter and commercial fiction does not mean that we cease to write literary fiction.  No one can convince me that African writers have written enough novels of the “old tried and tired ways” as Nwaubani puts it.  Nwaubani needs to understand that she and other younger writers can, and are more than welcome to, seize a greater space for themselves within African literature.  There is more than enough space for everyone.  It is not about competing with the more established masters; it is and always has been about access and marketing of African books across the entire continent.  We do not need to throw out the old to make room for the young or the new, for Pete’s sake!

To her next paragraph:

I should say that Mr. Ngugi remains one of my literary sweethearts, and he’s hardly a conformist. Many fans have extolled his brave decision to write in his mother tongue, Kikuyu, instead of English. If he truly desires a Nobel, I can’t help but wish him one. But I shudder to imagine how many African writers would be inspired by the prize to copy him. Instead of acclaimed Nigerian writers, we would have acclaimed Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa writers. We suffer enough from tribal differences already. This is not the kind of variety we need.

Oh, Lord have mercy!  Ngugi did not choose to write in Gikuyu because he believes in tribalism.  He did so to confront and break down the boundaries that have been imposed on African languages.  The majority of African children begin their formal education in a second language, in a foreign and imposed language.  This situation is far from ideal.  We need to cherish our own languages just as we do the European languages which we have been compelled to speak and work in. That would not be emphasizing ethnic differences.  Perhaps then, even more Africans would choose to write.  Then one could conceive of an Africa in which a Ghanaian could learn to read and write in a Zimbabwean language.

Overall, I’m surprised at this article.  Nwaubani’s arguments are shallow and misguided.  She resorts to generalizations and is unaware of the increasing number of books being written in various African languages.  In any case, it not clear from her piece that Nwaubani has read much of Africa’s ‘old tried and tired’ fiction. I have problems with the Nobel Prize.  But I wanted Ngugi to win. I loved Wizard of the Crow. And if that book influenced Nnedi Okorafor when she was writing Who Fears Death, then possibly emulating or being influenced by Ngugi might lead to more fantasy fiction from Africa.  And I can’t complain about that. Certainly, it would not be a curse. Far from it. It would be a blessing indeed.

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20 comments

  1. Interesting reading here. I know nothingof this controversy, but I am a fan of Wizard of the Crow among several others. I am surprised to hear there are only two Nobel Winners from Africa. I can’t add anything of substance to the discussion, but thanks for posting this. I enjoyed reading it.

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  2. Great response, Kinna. I missed Nwaubani’s piece but suspect that she hasn’t read the huge variety of African writings available in different African countries – teenage fiction in Kenya, romances in Ghana and Nigeria. There is a lot of literature, particularly by women, that never gets picked up and introduced into the ‘canon’ because it’s deemed light and frivolous. Of course it would be great if an African writer won the Nobel prize again – in the meantime you’re helping enormously by starting new conservations about writing that’s often ignored. Well done!

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  3. I’ve read two other rebuttal’s to Adaobi’s piece and love how you set out your own points, so comprehensive. She started off well in asking for less imitation and more versatility in African writing but I also think she veered off course towards the end. Some of the best novels I read as a child were in Igbo language. I wish some of them were translated for a larger audience.

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  4. Your reply efficiently identifies why Nwaubani’s argument seems to set writers back, and you provide a compelling plea to instead drive creativity – it’s a substantial point you’ve made that Nwaubani’s work, when first published, was not of the norm at that time and was one of the “freshest” and different works that had been released. I enjoyed your post quite a bit and look forward to reading more.

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  5. Thanks for writing this response. While I agree to an extent that there is a lot of conformity in Nigeria especially when it comes to writing, I also wonder how ready we are for genre fiction. I write speculative fiction and I’m not yet published but it’s hard to get people to read/understand my work here which is why I’ve sort of resolved to putting my writing online.

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    • Would you like to leave me a line at {rehlik.ltd@gmail.com}. We would be able to discuss your writing and I might be able to hook you up with a publisher.

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  6. Thanks for this Kinna! Was there a reaction from other African readers and writers? I can’t help wonder is the article was done on purpose to shock. Some of her arguments are, like you said, at best “warped”.

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  7. A good response to a rather absurd article. I get goosebumps anytime I think a writer actually said this. What do we want? To be anglicized. I think it would do her much more good if she told the French and Spanish and Portuguese and Japanese and Russians and Chinese and Arabians that they better write in English.

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  8. Love this response Kinna. You highlight all the issues that I (and everyone!) seems to be having with her article. I was shocked especially about the language argument that she makes. I don’t understand how only writing in English is a good thing – please can we have more books written in all languages (and then translated of course!).

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  9. excellent response. I also think that if Nwaubani weren’t so busy “shuddering” at the thought of African Language literature, she would find the kind of genre fiction she laments the lack of, the funny, the thrilling, the romantic being done by contemporary writers writing in African languages. Ngugi (though he doesn’t exactly write genre fiction) is the most obvious. I haven’t read Wizard of the Crow yet, but the excerpts I heard him reading when he was on book tour a few years ago had the audience rolling on the floor. Less known are the hundreds of Hausa-language novelists in northern Nigerian with their huge following of Hausa readers. I, too, loved _I do not come to you by chance_, and I was disappointed and rather shocked by lack of thought in this piece.

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  10. I did see this bit ,seemed a strange argument ,I always think Africa has been grossly overlooked by the nobel prize committee ,whether winning or talent meant people copied the style is hard to say the two winners mention were the most succesful of there generation and like any upcoming generations the writes of a young age tend to copy or use there style as they start writing and usually get their own style along the wat as they write .as to who will be the next african Laureate that would be hard to say .but I hope it is sooner rather than later my self ,all the best stu

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