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Kazuo Ishiguro wins the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. I have since read all the think-pieces and seen all the videos. He is such an adorable man. All the stuff he said about thinking it was a hoax until his publisher called him and the BBC called him. How charming. I like Ighiguro a whole lot. His body of work is expansive: 9 novels, 6 short fiction, and an assortment of other things. He is a talented writer. He does mind-blowing things with the form and aesthetics of storytelling. His monumentality in the recent history of global literature is undeniable. In a different world where Ngugi wa Thiong’o were not in the running, I would nod and smile and be quite delighted at his winning the Nobel prize for literature. But I’m not. Instead I’m sitting here at a neighborhood Chicago diner, drinking really awful coffee and writing this little note to say how sad I am that Ngugi did not win.

If you feel the same way, you should know that it is okay. You don’t have to act as though Ishiguro winning is the same thing as Ngugi winning. You don’t have to pretend that Isiguro’s win is what you’d hoped for. You don’t have to write on Facebook that the news of Isiguro’s win has got you dancing with joy. You don’t have to leave one of those sappy messages on Twitter about how you’ve read all of Ishiguro’s novels and met him at book readings and counted yourself infinitely blessed that one of your literary heroes had been inducted into the highest hall of literary fame. Hiding your disappointment at Ngugi’s loss does not make you any more cosmopolitan than the next man.

We all love Ishiguro. We have all read his books. But we also know where our allegiance lies. We know the people who braved all manner of dangers to give a continent a voice. Ngugi started writing in the ‘60s when the idea of an African writer was still, in some part of the so-called civilized world, considered to be a rare and illegitimate oddity. At a time when the novel as a form was so impoverished that it could not imagine lives and spaces outside of the western world, Ngugi and his companions came to teach the world how to tell stories about Africans without reducing them to mere narrative prop. They exposed the deficiencies of the classic novel form. They changed the way characters were shaped, the way fictional worlds were assembled. They re-animated worn-out idioms of western storytelling and gave the novel new life. They essentially re-configured the novel so that it could be used to imagine African life. Ngugi is not just a talented writer and a monumental figure of contemporary literature. Ngugi helped invent a literary form. He helped establish the norms and practices of what we today call The African Novel. In so doing, he helped inaugurate a new literary tradition. So, yes, Ishiguro is okay and we love him deeply, but he has nothing on Ngugi.

That is why feeling sad about Ngugi not winning does not make you parochial or small-minded. Sadness is not always a private feeling. It is a political act in so far as it fulfills the one cardinal rule of politics: taking sides. Every literary prize is political. The sadness you feel when Ngugi isn’t awarded the prize is you picking a side. It is you saying “Look, I don’t care how weird and nonsensical the Nobel committee’s choice might be—e.g. Bob Dylan—or how appropriate it might seem—e.g. Ishiguro—I am committed to the powerful and utterly inspiring idea of Ngugi winning. So, no, there is no shame in rooting for Ngugi and then feeling a little more than a twinge of sadness that he did not win.

Implicit in your sadness about Ngugi not winning is the realization that he represents something bigger than himself, something constitutive of your own literary experience and the global literary institution, and that each time the Nobel committee passes him over, they exhibit their own small-mindedness, their own failure to see Ngugi as one of the founding principles of the contemporary literature establishment.

Yeah, Thursday was a bit dreary for me. But that’s okay. I’m already looking forward to the next award season when I will once again pull my tireless hope out of the closet, give it a good dusting, and begin yet another cycle of conviction in Ngugi’s win. To that end, I want to hold on to my sadness as an act of faith.

One day, he will win and my sadness will be transfigured into laughter.  If he never wins, I will find joy in the knowledge that I stayed faithful to my belief in his uncommon monumentality.


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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.

3 Responses to “Why It’s Okay to Be Sad That Ngugi Didn’t Win the 2017 Nobel Prize” Subscribe

  1. BarBeachBoy 2017/10/09 at 11:26 #

    I used Ngugi’s intro to WNC to educate a group of former British Army brats on just what the history of Kenya/Churchill’s Empire was all about; in two pages written 50 years ago he shut their “UKIP butts up”. The imagery of a man tending plants grown on land that used to be his, the ownership – by way of care – for what was now another’s property, shit!

  2. Lanre Bamidele 2017/10/11 at 05:05 #

    I felt sad that Ngugi, nay Africa, did not win the prize. The politics of the prize made me sad for Africa missing it. I am sad about the loss because of my personal conviction and belief in Ngugi’s artistry in giving the world a true form of what the African novel is. I begin to ask my self why for ” Wizard of the Crow” alone the jurists on the Nobel prize looked the other way this time again. I am hopeful that Ngugi will make the Prize soon. I rest my hope on the Yoruba saying that ” if we have not died we shall eat meat that is as big as an elephant’ meat.

  3. Dumebi Onwordi 2017/10/12 at 08:22 #

    Reaction to Ngugi’s – Africa’s – ‘failure’ to win the Nobel Prize for Literature 2017 is well-founded indignation. His literary life and contributions, it has to be said, fill the continent in a way we are taught that literature should fill people’s lives. Talking about lives, the most inspiring objective for the Nobel Prize is predicated on endeavors adjudged to be “for the greatest benefit to mankind”. Ngugi’s works have long settled into the African literary narrative and to always keep vigil on Ngugi’s prospects of winning the prize appears now to defeat the cardinal parameter for winning. Each time a writer like Ngugi fails to win, the spirit and essence of the Nobel Prize are, one makes bold to say, diminished!

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