What truly matters is not that an author of African origin has finally won the award [Nobel Prize] after the Academy’s neglect of Africa for nearly fifteen years. The last African novelist was a white British-Zimbabwean author, Doris Lessing (born to British parents in Iran, in 2007). What matters is that we – Western academia and audience, especially – truly engage with the writings of these great intellectuals.
If such awards merely serve as a simple nod and symbolic acknowledgment of how Western colonialism in Africa – and throughout the Global South – has resulted in irreversible harm to shattered, impoverished and colonized societies, then the gesture is an empty one. To be meaningful, post-colonial writers who adhere to what should have remained a radical form of anti-colonialism should become the heart and soul of the literary movement, not only in the Global South but throughout the world.
It does matter that Kenya’s celebrated author, novelist, poet and playwright Ngugi wa Thiong’o is yet to win the Nobel prize in literature. The man who has challenged the world’s view on language and literature in his book ‘Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature’, is the very manifestation, not only of Africa’s literary genius but of the true organic intellectual. Thiong’o was once imprisoned in post-colonial Kenya for writing a play in Gikuyu, his mother tongue, and not in English.
“Black intellectual tradition has given so much to the rest of the world, but this is often invisible,” he wrote in his seminal book. The reason behind the invisibility of the ‘Black intellectual tradition’ – among others – is that they write in languages other than dominant European languages.
However, it is not just the language, but what the language itself relays. When authors write in their mother tongue, their target audience is their own people. They appeal to their grievances and priorities; they speak of their aspirations, and their words are rooted in the collective history of their own nations. Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, this is of no relevance to a Stockholm-based Academy, which was established decades before the formal end of Western colonialism in Africa.
In his consequential book ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, Black intellectual Frantz Fanon was one of the early revolutionary voices to address the issue of intellectual decolonization.
“Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well,” he wrote.
Excerpted: ‘Empty Gestures or Substantive Change? On the Nobel Prize in Literature and Its Discontents’