TThis has been a great year for African writing, ”announced Damon Galgut, accepting the Booker Award earlier this month for his multi-layered novel, The Promise, which tells the story of an Afrikaner family amid political turmoil. and social that followed the end of apartheid. . “I would like to accept this on behalf of all the stories told and untold, the listened and unheard writers from the extraordinary continent that I come from.”
It was not an exaggeration. Galgut’s victory at Booker comes at the end of a year in which many of the most important awards in the literary world have been collected by writers with origins and heritage in the countries of Africa. In June, David Diop’s second novel At Night All Blood Is Black, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis, won the International Booker Prize, its visceral story inspired by accounts of the experiences of Senegalese riflemen in World War I. In recent weeks, Senegal has once again taken center stage, as Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s La plus secrète mémoire des hommes (The Most Secret Remembrance of Men) won France’s Prix Goncourt, making its author the first writer in Africa. Saharan in doing so.
Last month, the Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Zanzibar-born novelist who came to Britain in 1968 after his country’s revolution, and who has explored themes of displacement and dislocation throughout 10 novels. . Gurnah’s work, which includes the novels Paradise, By the Sea and, more recently, Afterlives, has gained critical respect for the subtlety and power with which he examines what he calls the “tragic chaos” that has afflicted so many in the postcolonial period. was. Now, that work is likely to reach new readers.
Along with Galgut, fellow South African novelist Karen Jennings was also on Booker’s list this year for her novel An Island, about a lighthouse keeper’s encounter with a refugee. As with Gurnah, the award will radically expand its readership: An Island had a circulation of just 500 copies until Booker’s go-ahead, when thousands more were ordered. Meanwhile, Somali-British author Nadifa Mohamed was shortlisted for The Fortune Men, about a Somali sailor wrongly accused of murder in Wales, based on a real-life judicial error at Tiger Bay in Cardiff.
However, reading the runes of these triumphs is a task that requires caution and begins with important caveats. These are European awards, with all that this implies: their stories are intertwined with the valorization of the novel as a European creation, adopted and curated for centuries as, one might say, a bourgeois art form; If your self-appointed custodians are now concerned with recognizing your broader potential and expanding your parameters, who shapes that process and decides who is allowed to speak? Which readers are they targeting? And, speaking of both “African countries” and the “African diaspora”, which identities are privileged and which are marginalized?
Literary awards are the visible tip of an iceberg formed by the often long, diligent and anonymous careers of writers, the efforts of publishers and booksellers, and the creative ecologies of countries, languages and regions. As Ellah Wakatama, General Editor of Canongate Publishing and President of the AKO Caine Award for African Writing, points out this year’s victories: “This is not a moment that happened all of a sudden. It’s a time that happened because of a lot of work to open the spaces. “And that work will not be finished, he says,” until the point is reached where the writers are published in a sufficient volume so that they can compete for the Booker award as part of our culture, not as something strange and unique. “
The end point of an intricate process, awards are indicators of something – the constitution of the panels that grant them, changing tastes, responsiveness to different types of work – but that something is complex and not always immediately obvious. Speaking with the writers in question, two elements were repeated: that any discussion of a “phenomenon” must encompass the diversity of literary cultures with African heritage, and that this should be seen as the beginning of a conversation rather than its culmination. In Galgut’s words: “What I hope is that conversations like this focus people’s thinking on him in a particular way, so that it crystallizes in being noticed and taken into account.”
I ask Gurnah if she has the feeling that a larger world is beginning to hear stories that she has resisted in the past. “That could be so,” he replies. “I hope so, of course. But I think maybe it is the result of many things that have happened recently. Perhaps there is a greater sense of what is happening elsewhere; not just what is reported in the newspapers. I think there is a kind of counter narrative that is also happening; not so much reliance on established history, so to speak, or approved history. “He points out responses to events in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, countries that have experienced strong involvement from the United States and the United Kingdom:” All of them They have shown the ugliness of the policies and the cruelties that are inflicted on weak governments, I think also the Black Lives Matter movement and the business that has been going on in Britain for the last few months, the culture wars, the statues, etc. All of these things probably generate a kind of heightened awareness, but I very much doubt that they are what leads to literary awards. I’d like to think that the reason these awards have been awarded has a lot to do with the work these writers have done. produced “.
Gurnah is sharp, and also dryly funny, about the culture wars he alludes to, describing them as “pointless conversation between people who, it seems to me, mindlessly resist the things that are going to sweep them away anyway” (he tries to point out that the sweep is purely intellectual) and maintains that it does not give them too much mental space. “I have no problem with them fighting and arguing, it is their business, but the argument, it seems to me, has been lost for at least a century and a half. In the sense that there is no longer a moral position that such arguments can defend. And yet, to somehow continue, they have to find another little platform to stand on and scream the same old crap. So let them talk, it doesn’t bother me. “
However, it is clear that novelists are affected by the political and social climate in which they create their work and, in particular, by the way in which literary culture is viewed. For Galgut, the Booker jury’s recognition has yet to be echoed in South Africa; For example, he has not heard from the department of arts and culture, not an omission that is taken personally, but an indication of the respect that writers have in the country. If it arrives, it suspects that it will be a question of optics; a bright spark to tap into a bleak political landscape. “My more cynical side says that most politicians in South Africa don’t give a damn,” he says.
Like many writers, Galgut wishes to underline, as he did in his Booker acceptance speech, the need to support and strengthen literary culture through concrete practices, including addressing the prohibitive cost of books by eliminating VAT, a campaign that It has been undertaken in South Africa for some years. Although it may seem like a technical point, it is key to encouraging reading and writing, and to ensuring that literature is not seen as a hobby of the elite, which, as The Promise explores, often equates to the white population. “You have to create a culture where reading and writing are valued,” says Galgut, “before people are going to put in the many, many hours it takes to start doing this right. And that’s not a priority. “
Talking to Timothy Ogene, a poet, scholar, and author who grew up in Nigeria and now lives in the United States, brings new perspectives. His next satirical novel, Seesaw, is the story of a dark and failed Nigerian novelist who takes over a wealthy white American and takes him to Boston to “represent” his country. Like Galgut, Ogene is keenly aware of the richness and privilege inherent in Western literary ecology, from publication and distribution to award funding. But he also believes that recent awards highlight the diversity of voices from both Africa and the diaspora, drawing attention, for example, to the cultures of Asian and Arab Africans and the Indian Ocean. The question we should ask ourselves, he says, is what constitutes African writing: “We have had a very narrow definition, and that comes from the 1950s and 1960s, when the Chinua Achaebes and the Soyinkas began to emerge,” he argues. “You know, the national anti-colonial; those trends have become what we now see as African literature. But it’s starting to change, I think. Many contemporary writers who begin to explore various lines of ideas, how to be African, look at different epistemologies. “
Fundamental to creativity is agency; and agency includes the ability and power to resist external expectations and constraints. For Ogene, who says that he tries to go to “places that are not usually frequented by African writers”, and thus open up to “new ways of approaching race or identity or being African in the world”, the challenge is escape the binaries. “It is time to start to go beyond that and find connections that are not just ideological and political.”
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s Most Secret Memory of Men, which centers on a “forgotten” writer nicknamed “the Black Rimbaud”, who is discovered years later by a young Senegalese novelist, is a narrative driven by “the ambiguous reception of the African Negroes “. writers in the western literary field, ”he tells me. It is striking that his novel is based on a real writer, Yambo Ouologuem, a Malian novelist who, having been celebrated, accused of plagiarism and later abandoned, and whose work raises fascinating questions of authorship and authority.
For Sarr, his latest novel highlights the apparent “anomaly” of becoming the first sub-Saharan African writer to win the Prix Goncourt since its inception in 1903. It is an exclusion that raises “structural issues and issues of literary sociology tied to colonial domination and its consequences (racism, editorial contempt, ignorance, disinterest of the literary milieu and the French public in the production of novels from the [global] Francophone space of Francophone writers, particularly African) ”. While this anomaly may appear to have been “corrected” with this recent award, he says, “I think it would be a mistake to interpret it as a rare and precious stately grace.” If it is seen as an exception to the rule, that would mean that nothing has changed, that this award is a simple exemption from the rules and we will soon return to the previous order. “
Plurality and empathy are characteristics of this year’s award-winning novels. The crucial push for the future is to keep the spaces not only open, but also expanding. As Sarr says: “The Prix Goncourt is a tremendous stimulus for me in the construction of my work, but also for African writers, especially young people. The future is theirs… Above all, I don’t want to be an exception. I shouldn’t be. I am not.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism