It has been 33 years since the last BLACK African won a Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 1986, Wole Soyinka deservedly won the Nobel, for his wide cultural perspective and “who with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence.”
There are those who think that Chinua Achebe deserved the award more, and some have pointed to the criticism Achebe levelled against Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the basis of denying him the award. Maybe true. Maybe false. We will never know.
Four other Africans have won the Nobel for Literature, but they are not black. In 1988, the Egyptian, Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel for the rich nuance of his work, which the committee said was “clear-sightedly realistically, now evocatively ambiguous- has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind.
Whereas we celebrate the Arabic and Egyptian heritage of Mahfouz and his works all the more awesome, but there is still a big divide between the Arabic/Muslim North and the Christian/Animist South. Even in colour terms, Arabs are lighter. The quest still is for a black African from the Sun-Saharan to win it.
In 1991, Nadine Gordimer, a South African, one of the foremost anti-apartheid voices won the Prize, making her the first African woman to win the Prize in any category. But Gordimer though born in South Africa was of Jewish descent, the father having migrated from Lithuania to South Africa. The citation for her award read, “Who through her magnificent epic writing has-in the words Alfred Nobel-been of very great benefit to humanity.
John M Coetzee won the 2003 Nobel, another South African won the Prize, because, in his numerous guises, he portrayed the surprising involvement of the outsider. Coetzee, who is an Afrikaner who was born in Africa, was one of the intellectuals involved in the anti-apartheid struggle.
The last “African” to win the Nobel was the British-Zimbabwe, Doris Lessing. Lessing was born in Iran, before her parents immigrated to South Rhodesia (future Zimbabwe). Her award justification was: “that epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary, power, has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny.”
1. Ngugi wa Thiong’o
Today, we suspect another African may win, and there is no more deserving African than Ngugi wa Thiong’o. He is the most distinguished man of letters, who prose is magnetic, personal, earthy and whose intellectual prowess shines best in his essays that while we don’t agree with everything, he makes us think and interrogate the relationship we have with our tormentors.
The justification for awarding will be his consistent output, the ill-fated campaign to use indigenous languages which hold the key to opening our imagination and unlock tremendous potential, but also the artistry in his work that humanizes those he champions their rights.
2. Gerald Murnane
New York Times named him in 2018 as the most likely to win the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature, before it was cancelled and postponed to this year. Gerald Murnane writes a unique version of fiction that is part biography, part abstractions, and most of his books notoriously have no regular storyline, and some are essays that can be grouped as short fiction.
J.M Coetzee, the 2003, Nobel Laureate who moved to Adelaide Australia in 2002 and became a citizen of Australia in 2006, said of Murnane (in his essay on Murnane’s works), “The emotional conviction behind the later parts of Inland is so intense, the somber lyricism so moving, the intelligence behind the chiseled sentences so undeniable, that we suppress the impulse to smile…”
He is poised to win for two reasons; his work is peppered with the quality of magnificent intelligence, and abstract enough to provoke deep existential thinking. The second reason, if there is such a thing as balancing out, is that Murnane is Australia and the last Australian to win a Nobel was Patrick White who won in 1973. It can be a reminder that Australia is part of the Western hemisphere.
3. Margret Atwood
One of the bookmarkers favourite, but the award has eluded the Canadian prodigious writer known for her works such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Surfacing, The Cat’s Eye and many more works of short fiction and essays. She has won every award in America, Canada and Europe. But the Nobel remains a distant dream. But she is a favourite for tomorrow, because, if you are giving out two Nobels, one better belong to a woman.
4. Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy seems one of those writers, whose prose and ideas should have long attracted a Nobel, but at 86, he still has a moment, unlike Philip Roth another write on the wish list of many who missed out in the end. The only drawback for McCarthy, the world is still reeling from Bob Dylan’s 2016 surprise winning, and this time round, another language, say Russian, Or Chinese, may win.
5. Lydia Davies
High unlikely. But Davies who is the master of flash fiction, where a story is told sparingly, sometimes in a sentence or two, she examines how sexes relate in a humorous way. Her winning will be an indicator that the committee at least cares into the varied ways in which we can tell story, but still entertain, inform and educate.
6. Haruki Murakami
Nobody really knows why they just can’t give it to him. Is it because his fiction is sometimes considered to be popular like that of MargetAtwood, and the Nobel Committee really abhors authors who have accomplished considerable fame and financial gain.
Other notable Mentions
7. Meja Mwangi
Probably, not known outside Kenya, but no writer ever captured the ills of urbanization, dislocation, disillusionment in urban landscape of Kenya, and which can be anywhere in Africa like Mwangi.
8. Tobias Wolff
America’s living master of the short story and memoirist is a good candidate too, few authors have their short stories anthologized in other collections like Wolff.
9. Don DeLillo
Another master storyteller who has influenced so many writers and whose works are considered masterpieces.
Others expected include:
10. Lyudmila Ulitskaya: Russian novelist and short story writer.
11. Peter Nadas: Hungarian playwright and essayist.
12. Adunis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber): Syrian poet, essayist, and translator. Likely to win, especially in the charged atmosphere Syrian has operated under, writers from such places are often considered. Think of Chile and Russia under communism.
13. Yu Hua: Chinese master of fiction. But he is young and can wait for many years.
14. Mircea Cărtărescu: a much-awarded Romanian novelist, poet, short-story writer, literary critic, and essayist.
15. Ko Un: South Korea’s most translated poet. He has been in the Nobel horizon for some time, especially because of his activism that has earned him time in jail many times.
16. Milan Kundera: Czech born French writer, now 90, and definitely a good candidate, if not long overdue.
All these predictions could be wrong and we may end up with some Peruvian poet who is not known outside Peru may win. Or some Albanian playwright nobody knows or we will ever care to know may walk away with it.