The year 2021 has been, without doubt, an awesome one for African literature. From new book alerts to successful tours, film adaptations, and literary awards, African authors have had reasons to smile. In a single year, writers from various parts of the continent, in a consecutive string of firsts, have earned the world’s most prestigious literary honors, often from shortlists that included fellow Africans.
At Brittle Paper, we are of the opinion that African literature matters, and are worthy of as much serious attention and engagement as any other. We’ve always believed that African literature can hold its own in any turf, and these writers, whom we are inexplicably proud of, prove this fact.
We’ve had fun making announcements, bringing news of these many wins to our readers. As we approach a countdown to the year, Brittle Paper thought to look back on the major wins (specifically literary awards) by African writers for the year 2021. The awards are highlighted below in no particular order.
The 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, unarguably the greatest honor for a writer in our world today, could have gone to any of the stellar line-ups of speculated choices in the months leading up to the prize. And so imagine our delight when it was announced that Tanzanian author Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose impressive body of work over the years has garnered moderate acclaim, was winner of the Nobel Prize for “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugees in the gulf between cultures and continents.” The decision sparked untold joy within the African literary community, with an outpouring of goodwill from over 103 African writers including former Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka.
The 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction, the highest literary honor for a single novel written and published in English, was awarded to the South African author Damon Galgut for his novel The Promise, a sweeping intergenerational epic expertly exploring themes of race, loyalty, trust and betrayal. The Promise had shown a clear lead in the weeks gearing up to the winner announcement , and yet we couldn’t be more thrilled when Galgut’s name was announced as winner from the podium via a live broadcast. It was the second win for an African in recent history and Galgut himself, a previous two-time nominee, captured the collective African euphoria in a heartwarming acceptance speech in which he dedicated the award to the continent and urged readers to seek out African literature.
Prix Goncourt Prize
The 2021 Prix Goncourt Prize, one of the most prestigious literary prizes for Francophone literature, was awarded to 31-year old Senegalese writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr for his novel La plus secrète mémoire des hommes (The Most Secret Memory of Men). The significance of Mbougar’s win is further illustrated in the fact that he is the first winner from Sub-Saharan Africa and the first Black winner in a century.
Neustadt International Prize
The 2022 Neustadt International Prize, fondly dubbed the “American Nobel” was awarded to Senegalese author Boubacar Boris Diop, the second African in the Prize’s history. Like the Nobel, the Neustadt Prize is awarded on the basis of a writer’s full body of work. The major determining novel for Boubacar was Murambi: The Book of Bones, a multi-voiced account of the Rwandan genocide written in Diop’s quaint style. In addition to a $50,000 cash award, Boubacar received a silver replica of an eagle feather and a certificate.
Peace Prize of the German Book Trade
The 2021 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade was awarded to Zimbabwean writer and activist Tsitsi Dangaremgba in recognition of her contributions to literature and promotion of civil liberties. She was the first African woman to receive the honor, joining the league of previous honorees including Chinua Achebe and Margaret Atwood. In her acceptance speech, which was delivered at the award ceremony in Frankfurt, Dangaremgba called for the use of language to deconstruct hierarchical modes of thinking in terms of sex, gender, race, nationality etc. She also advocated for a more active engagement with African literature.
The Camões Award for Portuguese Literature
The Camões Award for Portuguese Literature, the richest and most prestigious award for Lusophone literature, was awarded to pioneering Mozambican author Paulina Chiziane for her entire body of work. She is the first woman to achieve this feat. She described the recognition as “humbling,” dedicating it to fellow Mozambicans for whom she believes her written stories were “our collective memory.” She received over €100,000 for her win.
Pen Pinter Prize/International Writer of Courage
Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangaremgba was named winner of the 2021 Pen Pinter Prize, which honors a single writer of outstanding literary merit resident in the UK, Ireland, former and present Commonwealth territories whose work casts an “unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world and shows a ‘fierce intellectual determination… to define the real truth of our lives and our societies.” As is customary with the award, Dangaremgba was required to select a co-winner, an International Writer of Courage who is “active in defense of freedom of expression, often at great risk to their own safety and liberty.” Her choice was a very deserving Ugandan activist and novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, who had suffered political persecution in the hands of the Ugandan government for his active critic of the authoritative government.
Daytime Emmy Award
Oscar-winning actress and author Lupita Nyong’o was awarded a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Limited Performance in a Children’s Program, courtesy of her debut children’s book Sulwe which was featured in a Netflix program intended to spark conversations on race, equality, justice etc. Lupita’s book centers a young girl grappling with issues of colorism and identity, and the lengths she goes to forge her own path.
International Booker Prize
2021 would go down in history as the first time both the Booker Prize, for literature in English, and the International Booker Prize, for literature not in English, were awarded to Africans. For the latter, Senegalese novelist and academic David Diop clinched the honor for his powerful second novel At Night All Blood is Black, an intricate portrait of the wartime experiences of Senegalese soldiers fighting on the side of colonial France in WW1. Diop split the £50,000 cash award with the novel’s translator Anna Moschovakis.
Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga was announced winner of the 2021 Jhalak Prize which seeks to honor writings by UK-based women of color. Jennifer’s winning novel, The First Woman, was described as a “powerful feminist rendition of Uganda’s origin tales.” She received a cash award of £1,000.
These wins are in addition to brilliant fellowship awards, multi-figure book and film deals, and continent-wide tours. We couldn’t be any prouder of these African authors and we hope the trend continues.
May African literature win!