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.