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Africa’s Leading Literary Powerhouse – South Africa or Nigeria?

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David Njoku


African prize-winning authors

Summer 2012 and the eyes of the world turn to the city of London, England. People across the globe sit in beer parlours, shebeens, pubs, washing unhealthy snacks down with tankards of beer and cheering as the healthiest specimens of our nations run, jump and swim faster, higher, stronger.

But why stop at sportsmen? Why not pitch our countries’ plumbers against the world’s, our street-corner hookers, our brain surgeons? Why don’t Liberians sneer at Sierra Leoneans: “The barefoot kids hawking peanuts in your Kroo Bay slums are nothing compared to the former child soldiers weaving through traffic selling groundnuts in the misery of our West Point”? And why not stand our writing ‘athletes’ up against each other in a sort of literary Olympic Games and see which nation ends up on the podium?

And the last was just what we did. The rules: We sourced our data by analysing the winners of major international literary prizes, filleting out all African winners and noting their country of origin. We limited our scope – and therefore our resultset – to awards for English language literature, with a deliberate bias towards prose fiction. Where a writer has dual nationality, as in the case of Zimbabwean-British author Doris Lessing, we favoured the African nation; with Mauritian-South African novelist, Lindsay Collen, we plumped for Mauritius, as this is the country she identifies with.

The following awards were prestigious enough to make it onto our list: the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Booker Prize, the International Booker Prize, the Pulitzer Prize and the Costa/Whitbread Prize (neither of which has had any African winners), the Caine Prize, the Orange Prize, and the various flavours of the Commonwealth Prize.

Divvying up the spoils of these awards by nation certain facts became immediately obvious. South Africa and Nigeria are the 800 pound gorillas of the English-speaking African literary world. Between them they account for two-thirds of the prizes won by Africa. South Africa, though, clearly takes the gold medal, leading Nigeria by 5 awards (including double the number of Nobel prizes). Zimbabwe takes the bronze medal, limping in a distant third.

There may be a conversation to be had about the racial split of southern Africa’s winners. (They are disproportionally white.) Or maybe not: an African is an African is an African.

Analysing the awards by date throws new light on the health of literature in the various countries. Nigeria is currently enjoying a rich renaissance, kicked off by Helon Habila’s triumph at the 2001 Caine Prize. Its near neighbour, Ghana, on the other hand, is caught in the jaws of a terrible slump; the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Benjamin Kwakye’s The Sun by Night won in 2006 is the nation’s only showing in close to 15 years. And if Ghana is in a bad way, Egypt is even worse; Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz is their only international prize winner. And Naguib Mahfouz died in 2006.

Mahfouz isn’t Africa’s only Nobel laureate; Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka preceded him in 1986, Zimbabwe’s Doris Lessing won it in 2007, and in between it was won by South Africa’s literary giants, Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee.

JM Coetzee is, to borrow an ugly American phrase, Africa’s “most winningest” writer, our Usain Bolt: Booker Prize followed by Commonwealth Prize followed by Booker again and followed by Commonwealth again. Oh, and of course there’s that Nobel Prize.

Dicing the data by author throws a different hue on our leading countries: JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer cast huge shadows over the South African scene; Nigeria is a little more democratic – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Helon Habila are undoubtedly the leaders of the new Nigerian pack, but the pack is not far behind.

Viewing the data in this way also reveals the huge flaw in our experiment: where are those grandees of Nigerian literature, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe? Between them, they have a Nobel Prize and an International Booker respectively, but authors such as Karen King-Aribisala loom larger than them with her clutch of Commonwealth Prizes. Ms King-Aribisala is undoubtedly a gifted author, but few would argue that she should eclipse Soyinka and Achebe so easily. Perhaps our analysis would have benefited from weighting being assigned to awards, showing that the Nobel is worth more than the Caine? Everyone knows Usain Bolt won the 200m at the Beijing Olympics – but who remembers who won gold in the 20km walking race? (It was Russia’s Valeriy Borchin. No, I’ve never heard of him either.)

Literary prizes won by African countries

Despite this flaw, we should not throw our results away; they give us a good picture of the health of African literature and of the way literature fits into the larger political and historical jigsaw puzzle. South Africa leads the way and has done so since the end of Apartheid.  And the revival of Nigerian literature coincides almost exactly with the rebirth of democracy in that country. Zimbabwe is also experiencing a second wind, despite (or because of?) its financial and political problems.

And the future? Nigeria seems to be on course to overtake South Africa as Africa’s literary powerhouse. And perhaps Kenyan literature will experience a “Binyavanga bounce” the same way Nigeria had a “Helon boost” a decade ago. And maybe – hopefully – Ghana will rescue itself from the quagmire it has been trapped in for so long.

We will look at the data again in five or 10 years and let you know.


The Bullet Pen


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