Empty gestures or substantive change? On the Nobel Prize in Literature and its discontents


A peace dove flies past a relief of Alfred Nobel after it was released in front of the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, on 8 October 2021. PHOTO/ALI ZARE/NTB/AFP via Getty Images

The fact that Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature is welcome news, especially as the Swedish Academy is historically known for lacking in diversity, as if intellectual creativity is largely confined to Western intellectual circles.

It is premature to suggest that the Academy has finally decided to break away from its ethnocentric past and genuinely embrace the incredible literature constantly originating from the Global South. One can be excused for appearing too cynical – after all, since its inception in 1901, over 80 per cent of those who have received the award hail from Europe and North America. In the last decade, Chinese novelist, Mo Yan, was the only non-Western author to receive the award in 2012.

This raises several grim possibilities:

First, the Academy does not believe that the Global South is making real intellectual, literary contributions to world culture and literature, and that only Western authors are capable of producing literature that is relatable and truly speaks to the human condition.

Second, the Academy and its judges have not done their due diligence in uncovering the literary brilliance that can be found in every nation throughout the Global South.

Third, the award is, essentially, political and is denied to authors and writers who attempt to correct fallacious colonial narratives, push for radical decolonisation – in politics, culture, literature and language – and do not adhere to the watered-down version of post-colonialism as championed by Western academic institutions of today.

Gurnah, I am sure, is most deserving of the award. However, what truly matters is not that an author of African origin has finally won the award after the Academy’s neglect of Africa for nearly 15 years. The last African novelist was a white British-Zimbabwean author, Doris Lessing (born to British parents in Iran, in 2007). What matters is that we – Western academia and audience, especially – truly engage with the writings of these great intellectuals.

If such awards merely serve as a simple nod and symbolic acknowledgment of how Western colonialism in Africa – and throughout the Global South – has resulted in irreversible harm to shattered, impoverished and colonised societies, then the gesture is an empty one. To be meaningful, post-colonial writers who adhere to what should have remained a radical form of anti-colonialism should become the heart and soul of the literary movement, not only in the Global South but throughout the world.

It does matter that Kenya’s celebrated author, novelist, poet and playwright Ng?g? wa Thiong’o is yet to win the Nobel prize in literature. The man who has challenged the world’s view on language and literature in his book ‘Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature’, is the very manifestation, not only of Africa’s literary genius but of the true organic intellectual. Thiong’o was once imprisoned in post-colonial Kenya for writing a play in G?k?y?, his mother tongue, and not in English.

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