Two things. First, we have been treated to all too loud lamentations that our very own Ngugi wa Thiong’o missed out on the Nobel Prize for Literature last month and, by inference, we are hurtling towards the conclusion that he will always be the bridesmaid, never the bride.
My own view is that it would be great news for black Africa, and for Kenya especially, if Ngugi were to be declared winner of the world’s most prestigious literary prize. It would be telling the rest of us, as did Lupita Nyong’o’s winning of the Oscar last year, that our creative dreams are valid.
RECOGNISED AT HOME
In some way, however, if truth be told, we have been there before although we still yearn for the validation that comes when one of us conquers the rest of the world.
The only problem with this narrative is that Kenya is yet to honour Ngugi at home. No, I am not talking about the government.
A writer’s greatest recognition comes from the publishing industry. The argument I would like to advance is that nearly all the authors who have won the Nobel Prize have first been recognised at home.
Take, for instance, Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer, who won the prize in 2006. Although he was a controversial character in his home country and, like Ngugi, he had run-ins with the government on account of his creative work and intellectual freedom, he had won several awards there, including the Milliyet Press Novel Contest in 1979, the Orhan Kemal Novel Prize in 1983 and the Madarali Novel Prize a year later.
Decades later, after his reputation was well-established at home, he won many honours across Europe, including in 2008, when the German publishing industry bestowed on him the highest honour for a creative writer in that country.
Alice Munro, who won the Nobel last year, has won many awards in her own home country, Canada. In 1968, 1978 and 1986, she won the Governor General’s Award and also, the Giller Prize, twice (in 1998 and 2004).
According to Wikipedia, she was also the recipient of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s 1996 Marian Engel Award, as well as the 2004 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. In 1998, she won the National Book Critics Circle Award in the US and in 2009, she won the Man Booker International Prize in the UK and later a Commonwealth regional prize.
Patrick Modiano, who won the Nobel Prize this year, was considered a surprise by the rest of the world. At home, however, a cursory search indicates that he has been recognised as a writer for over four decades, having won the 1972 Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française, the 1978 Prix Goncourt and the 2010 Prix mondial Cino Del Duca from the Institut de France for lifetime achievement. Two years before he won the Nobel, he was awarded the 2012 Austrian State Prize for European Literature, meaning that his influence had already transcended borders.
Can the same be said about Ngugi? Has the publishing fraternity in Kenya recognised his contribution to literature since he first started writing in the early 1960s?
Kenya has two literary awards; the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature and the Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize, which alternate from year to year.
I do not remember Ngugi winning any of the prizes. And because there is no pan-African prize, it means that the continent is yet to honour Ngugi, or any of its illustrious writers, in any way.
So why do Kenyans and Africans gang up to cry foul every time an African writer fails to win the Nobel? What have Kenya and Africa done to recognise Ngugi’s talent, moral, cultural and intellectual vision and his contribution to what Karl Marx called “the superstructure”, the intellectual foundation on which a society is built.
Second. It appears that either bookmakers have greater faith in Ngugi than those who purport to be fighting in his corner or they have a personal interest in making him appear like a hot favourite every year.
This perception is not helped by the announcements that have come from the Swedish Academy, which gives out the Nobel honours.
This year, one of the judges appeared to give credence to the betting industry when he said that there was more creativity among African and Asian writers compared to their European counterparts.
He even suggested that universities and other organisations should stop giving grants to European writers to stop shielding them from social realities and hardships, a trend he said, was blunting their creativity by alienating them from their societies.
Coming just days to the announcement of the prize, this could have been interpreted to mean that the award would either go to Africa or Asia.
Considering that Chinese writer Mo Yan had won the award in 2012, it left too much room for conjecture.
On the one hand, you had a judge saying they were impressed by the works coming from Africa and on the other, you had bookmakers saying the odds were in Ngugi’s favour. As a result, the hopes of the continent, and of black people worldwide, were raised on the basis of these two false premises.
In a nutshell, if we desire to honour Ngugi, let us not take our cues from bookmakers.
Let us honour him first at home and let us read his books so that in the event that he is declared a winner, we can have something tangible to say about his contribution to humanity, to the creative economy and to the marketplace of ideas.