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The Nobel Prize fever has come and gone. We rooted for Ngugi wa Thiongo. He didn’t win. Only God knows by what arcane, mystical calculations the Nobel Committee decides on who gets the laureate for literature.

But in the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about all the well-wishing, the hoping, the praying leading up to the announcement and the disappointment that swept through the African literary corner of Twitter. And I realize that there is a bit of an obsession with the Nobel Prize in the African literary community.

That’s not such a bad thing, right? After all, the Nobel Prize is huge. It is also nice to root for a writer like Ngugi—someone we genuinely love and someone who has given so much to the literary world.

But then I’m also reminded of Wole Soyinka’s criticism targeted at some of Achebe’s fans who focused so much on Achebe winning the Nobel that they failed to see what was truly great about the man and his work. It was as if there was something missing in Achebe’s career. As though Achebe is great but not quite great enough because he was passed on by the Nobel committee.

I’m hoping that’s not the general attitude towards the prize in the African literary space. I hope we don’t see it as THE measure of all that is good and great about African literature.

If you ask me what makes an author truly great. I’d say institutions, not the Nobel. The institutions built around an author’s life and work does more for the longevity of his or her legacy than any literary prize.

But think of the literary greats, people whose names have become synonymous with literature itself—Shakespeare, Dickens, Virginia Woolf. They are considered great today not because of the prizes they won but because of the amazing work done by an army of readers, scholars, booksellers, publishers, artists, filmmakers willing to invest in their work. Their work is passed on from generation to generation through different media and across various global markets and institutions.

How many institutions, libraries, literary journals, conferences, film projects, art works, musical works are dedicated to or inspired by Achebe’s work?

If the greatness of African authors mean anything to us, we need to invest the money and intellectual commitment needed promote their work.

Instead of waiting for the Nobel committee to confirm to us something we already know—that Ngugi is a world-class, amazing, awesome, significant, and powerful literary/political figure—let us begin to build him a lasting legacy.


Post image by Jeremy Weate via Flickr. 

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

6 Responses to “A Little Note On Ngugi, Achebe, And My Post-Nobel Prize Blues” Subscribe

  1. Obi 2014/10/27 at 04:36 #

    If your 8th paragraph about what has been dedicated to Achebe means what I think it means, then you’ve overlooked that there are many annual conferences in honour of not just Achebe the Man but his novels: one held this year in UNN on Arrow of God, one held there in 2012 as well as in 1990, many commemorate the anniversaries of his novels across Nigerian universities. There is also a Chinua Achebe centre at Bard College, New York where Binyavanga was director. Perhaps I misunderstand you here.

  2. Umar 2014/10/28 at 10:24 #

    Excellent, blunt , edifying.

  3. Ladipo 2014/12/02 at 04:02 #

    This constant talk about ngugi and nobel prize is not necessary and if we do not put a stop to it now, we will drag it on with other African writers. wa thiongo is Africa’s literary gift to the world. we do not need a nobel prize to confirm his greatness. I love this write up. it is a good one.

  4. semper 2014/12/06 at 04:48 #

    It seems to me the writers makes their own legacy. We, as readers, can cherish the legacy or forget the legacy.

  5. Ugonabo 2017/10/25 at 15:35 #

    great insight,how I wish the emerging African literati would embody such ideals.


  1. a little note on ngugu, achebe | semper aliquid novi africam adferre - 2014/12/06

    […] Imagine that Ngugu had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. How articles would have been written and read? But he did not win and still many articles were written. Many writers have not won, not just in Africa but on other continents as well. Here is another article on not winning.  […]

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