Johanna Hanink: Nobel neglects black Africans

BY
BY JOHANNA HANINK: STATE OF THE ARTS

Published October 27, 2003

On Oct. 2, the Nobel Academy announced
that South African author J.M. Coetzee had won this year’s
coveted Nobel Prize in Literature. According to the BBC,
“Coetzee becomes the fourth African writer since 1980 to win
the prestigious award.” Through a minimal amount of research,
however, I confirmed my suspicions that Coetzee is only the third
sub-Saharan African but the second white South African to have won,
not since 1980 (a completely arbitrary date for the BBC to have
chosen as Czeslaw Milosz, of Poland and the U.S.A., took the prize
that year), but since the prize’s 1901 inception.

Janna Hutz

That leaves us with one black African prizewinner in 102 years,
the Nigerian Wole Soyinka, “who,” according to the
Swedish Academy’s citation, “in a wide cultural
perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of
existence.”

The reclusive Coetzee, leading out self-imposed exile from South
Africa (after a clash with the African National Congress over his
novel “Disgrace”) as a visiting professor at the
University of Chicago, portrays in his literature (of which the
most famous piece is perhaps “The Life and Times of Michael
K,” 1983) a bleak picture of post-apartheid South Africa that
has been considered to reflect the universal “human
condition.”

Of the news of Coetzee’s selection, South African
President (and ANC leader) Thabo Mbeki said, “On behalf of
the South African nation, and indeed the continent of Africa, we
salute our latest Nobel laureate and bask with him in the glory
radiating from this recognition.” Coetzee’s friend, the
other South African Nobel Laureate in literature, Nadine Gordimer,
was quoted in the Guardian as saying, “It’s an honor
for the country and of course it does give some indication of how
South African literature has developed, particularly under the
difficult conditions we have (had).”

South African literature has indeed developed. But in the
post-colonial era, so too has Kenyan literature, and Senegalese
literature, and Nigerian literature and Ghanaian literature

Coetzee’s corpus represents a major contribution to world
literature, and his work, in my opinion, is certainly Nobel worthy
— as is the work of any of the other shortlisted candidates.
However, his award serves as a gentle yet sad reminder that, while
in the west we now recognize the work of many South American and
Asian writers, we have yet to give African literature —
specifically the literature of sub-Saharan black Africans —
the recognition that so much of it deserves.

This year, the most popular piece of African literature was an
account by Alexandra Fuller of her childhood in a Zimbabwe that
shifted from British colonialism to African rule before her (very
unwilling) family’s eyes. “Let’s Don’t Go
to the Dog’s Tonight: An African Childhood,” like Peter
Godwin’s “Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa,” is a
remarkable first-hand account of the end of white-rule in what was
then called Rhodesia. And yet, Fuller’s (beautifully written)
novel fits into our bent paradigm of what, exactly, is good African
literature. It seems that in the Anglophone west, we, very
regrettably, haven’t yet learned to trust or appreciate the
skill of the thousands of active black African authors.

The white population, of the United States especially, still
seems captivated by the accounts of other white people’s time
in sub-Saharan Africa. In our literary tastes we behave with the
manners of colonio-imperialists, listening with wide-eyed zeal to
stories of people like “us’” adventures among
people like “them.” If the Nobel Committee has not yet
found real time for the literature of black Africans, it’s
time that American bookstores, bestsellers lists and most
importantly, people, do.