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Can the Nobel Prize 'revitalize' African lit?

October 8, 2021

Abdularazak Gurnah is the fourth author from sub-Saharan Africa to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Is the tide turning for African writers?

Abdulrazak Gurnah smiling in a garden.
Abdulrazak Gurnah, posing from his home in Canterbury, England, following the Nobel Prize announcementImage: Frank Augstein/AP Photo/picture alliance

Two writers from sub-Saharan Africa are honored with prestigious literary prizes this month.

Abdulrazak Gurnah, an author who was born in Zanzibar and has lived in Britain since the late 1960s, is this year's Nobel Prize for Literature laureate. His award brings the total number of laureates from sub-Saharan Africa to receive the prestigious prize to four.

And Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga receives the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade at the end of October.

For years, such awards were predominantly given to Western authors. Is a paradigm shift on the horizon?

"I think that the world is opening up to stories from the African continent — and it has been a long road," Dangarembga told DW.

Tsitsi Dangarembga: Woman smiles into camera, poster on a wall in the background
Tsitsi Dangarembga: 'It has been a long road'Image: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP Photo/picture alliance

Dangarembga's debut novel, Nervous Conditions, was published in Germany in the early 1990s, but it was more or less forgotten until Dangarembga curated the African Book Festival in 2019, and the book was reissued under a new title.

Gurnah's books took a similar turn. Five titles were translated into German, but currently the editions are out of print in bookstores.

Nobel could 'revitalize' African literature

"I believe that the awarding of this prize can revitalize African literature," said Kossi Efoui, a writer from Togo.

Many African authors who write in French or in African languages, for example, are not translated into English, he said, arguing that the West's limited recognition of African literature might also be because of a lack of accessibility.

"The Black Lives Matter movement has definitely created a lot of media attention for the perspectives of people of color around the world," Venice Trommer, who runs Interkontinental, a book store in Berlin that specializes in African literature and co-organizes the African Book Festival, told DW.

three books by Abdulrazak Gurnah
Gurnah's novels deal with "the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents"Image: AFP via Getty Images

 "There's been an awakening in the minds of a lot of white people who are just trying to be critical of themselves," Trommer said. "And they want to be informed and open to perspectives that are different from their own."

Trommer said she hadn't see a paradigm shift yet, but "it was definitely long overdue that we looked beyond the European and American horizons when awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature."Putting Tanzania and Zanzibar back on the map

Gurnah's Nobel Prize is a reason to celebration in his native   Zanzibar, an archipelago that is now an autonomous region of Tanzania

"This means a lot for Zanzibar's struggle for self-determination," the Zanzibar literary critic Ismail Jussa told DW. It helps put Zanzibar back on the world map, he said, adding that the committee has acknowledged that Gurnah's works have helped readers understand "the divisions brought by the colonialists, how hearts are torn apart between homes where people come from and the lives in exile where people have been forced to go."

Gurnah was 15 when Tanzania became independent. While Tanzania's President Julius Nyerere had a Socialist bent, Zanzibar's local ruler, Abeid Karume, targeted the Zanzibari Arabs.

Gurnah, who had Arab ancestors, fled to the UK.

His mother tongue is Swahili, but he writes in English and has taken British citizenship.

Like other authors recognized in Europe and the US, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Gurnah is familiar with and moves confidently in both the West and Africa.

'Better connections in the publishing world'

"Authors who live or have lived in the West naturally have better connections in publishing and have been published in European, American or even internationally in other linguistic contexts," Trommer said, adding that it is easier for them than for authors who live, work and write in Africa.

A man and a woman seated at a small table in front of shelves of books, Elnathan John and Olumide Popoola
Nigerian author Elnathan John and Olumide Popoola, a Nigerian-German writer and performance artist, at the Interkontinental bookstoreImage: Inter Kontinental

The economic and social conditions for authors in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are difficult,  Dangarembga said. They receive little support, she added.

"Another reason is that the stories of sub-Saharan Africa are stories that more often than not bring into question the global power structure that we live under today because of the way the world is built on imperialism, which included the slave trade, colonialism and the racism that exists today," she said.

It is not easy for "people who are the gatekeepers to literature in the world to appreciate those stories in the way that they might be appreciated if the balance of power was different," she said, calling that another reason why "fewer of these stories get through."

It remains to be seen whether books by African authors are on the rise.

Abdulrazak Gurnah's recognition, however, was not only a surprise — he did not appear anywhere ahead of the Nobel committee's announcement as a favorite for the Nobel Prize in Literature — but an important signal that it is time to open up to other narratives.


This article has been translated from German.