Nobel Prize: The life and times of African laureates

Monday September 20 2010

Kenya's Prof Wangari Maathai is one of the past winners of the coveted Nobel Prize. File Photo

Kenya's Prof Wangari Maathai is one of the past winners of the coveted Nobel Prize. File Photo 

By Ciugu Mwagiru

As the clock ticks towards the announcement of this year’s winners of the various Nobel prizes, which have traditionally been made in early October, the dates for the naming of the winner of the Physiology or Medicine, Physics, Chemistry Peace and Economic Sciences prizes have already been announced as October 5, 6, 8, and 11 respectively.

Traditionally, the Swedish Academy will set the date for its announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature later.

While chances of an African winning a Nobel prize in most of the categories appear extremely remote, the Nobel Literature prize has in recent times invariably elicited a lot of interest in Africa, as has the Peace prize, which has in the past been awarded to former South African president and world icon Nelson Mandela and Kenyan environmentalist Prof Wangari Maathai.

There have been debates as to whether one day an African would ever win a Nobel prize say in Physics or Medicine. The reality is that it hasn’t happened yet.

The much coveted and lucrative Literature prize, whose cash award to last year’s winner, German poet Herta Müller, was 10,000,000 Swedish kronors ($1.4 million), has over the past 24 years been awarded to four African writers.

That was in 1986, when Nigerian poet, playwright, novelist and maverick political activist Wole Soyinka won it.

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Two years later in 1988, it was awarded to Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz. And in 1991 the prize was awarded to the prolific South African Nadine Gordimer, making her the only African woman to have been awarded the prize.

Recently, in 2003, it was awarded to yet another South African writer, the serial award winner John Maxwell Coetzee.

Soyinka’s win was significant in that he was the the first African writer to be awarded the prize and at only 52 years of age. And for Gordimer, the gender was more significant.

Observers would consider the span of time during which these African writers have won the prize as relatively short.

It might even be argued that it was the golden age of African literature, and other writers from the continent will consequently be given little chance of winning this year.

That is also likely to be the case with regard to black writers in the Diaspora, notwithstanding the fact that two of them, the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott and the African American writer Toni Morrison, captured world attention when they won it in two successive years, 1992 and 1993 respectively.

Whatever the outcome this year, the four African writers who have won the Nobel prize for Literature so far have been formidable influences in and out of the literary world.

Soyinka, for instance, has been an unwavering critic of the excesses of the mostly military leaders of his native Nigeria.

His two most outstanding non-literary works, The Man Died and You Must Set Forth at Dawn, attests to the unwavering vigour with which he has dedicated himself to fighting injustice at home and elsewhere, and are morbid chronicles of the price he has had to pay for it.

His recent announcement that he will run for his country’s presidency in the 2011 elections is further testimony to the impatience and contempt with which he holds past and present political leadership in Nigeria.

As for Gordimer, the daughter of Jewish immigrants — a watchmaker father from Lithuania and a mother from London — her formative years in apartheid South Africa saw her totally immersed in that country’s liberation politics.

Her political identity was clear because of her total commitment to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

She joined the African National Congress even after it had been banned by the apartheid authorities, and at a time when she had made a name for herself as a world renowned writer. Her political stance saw some of her books banned in South Africa.

A prodigious writer, she had won many important literary awards years before the Nobel Literature prize came along.

Coetzee on the other hand, who won the prize 12 years after Gordimer, may not have been as openly political as she was, and in many ways may certainly not have been able to hold a candle to her.

That notwithstanding, he showed his mettle as a writer, particularly when he became the first author to win the prestigious Booker Prize twice, for Life and Times of Michael K in 1984, and in 1999 with Disgrace.

When four years later he was awarded the Nobel Literature prize, his reputation as a writer already preceeded him.

Suddenly he overshadowed Nigerian Ben Okri, who had won the Booker with The Famished Road, and Chinua Achebe, whose publishers had been more than contented to have his Anthills of the Savannah merely shortlisted.

Colourful life

Of all the African laureates, Mahfouz may not have been as colourful a writer, or even as a person, he was however, extremely prolific, having written more than 50 novels and over 350 short stories, in addition to five plays and dozens of movie scripts.

Unmarried until the age of 43, he gave his all to a literary career that spanned over seven decades.

An avowed atheist, Mahfouz was strongly opposed to religious or any other intolerance.

Indeed, he made many enemies when he defended Salman Rushdie after the latter was condemned to death through a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, following the publication of the controversial Satanic Verses, which raised a furore in the Muslim world, particularly after Rushdie was awarded the Booker Prize for it.

Paradoxically, Mahfouz actually criticised Rushdie’s book, describing it as an insult to Islam.

But ironically he was himself on the hit list of Islamic fundamentalists up to the end of his life, and had to spend his last years protected by bodyguards.

That precaution had become particularly crucial after fundamentalists in 1994 nearly succeeded in assassinating him by stabbing him in the neck outside is Cairo home.

That attack caused serious damage that the then 82-year-old writer was never to fully recover from. By the time he died in August 2006, Mahfouz had suffered serious ill health, and was nearly blind.

Apart from the four typically African laureates, the Nobel Literature prize has been won by two other renowned writers with strong African backgrounds.

These are Albert Camus, who was named the 1957 laureate, when he was 44 years old, becoming the youngest writer to win the prize, and Doris Lessing, who received it in 2007 in her 88 birthday, making her one of the oldest writers to win it.

Camus’ African connection lies in the fact that he was born and brought up in French colonial Algeria, effectively making him a “pied noir” (Black Foot), as Frenchmen of Algerian origin were known.

His country of birth was actually the setting for two of his most acclaimed novels, L’étranger (The Stranger) and La Peste (The Plague).

African connection

On the other hand Lessing, was born Doris May Taylor on October 22, 1919, in Persia (today’s Iran).

Her family moved to the then Southern Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe), where her banker father had bought a farm, in 1925, and she spent much of what she called an unhappy childhood there.

Twice married and divorced, she only returned to her native England in 1949, as an adult.

So strong were Lessing’s African roots, that one of her early books, The Grass is Singing, first published in Britain in 1949, was later included in the famous African Writers Series.
Inspired by Lessing’s African childhood, as was her collection titled African Stories (1957), the novel was about the relationship between a white farmer’s wife and her African servant, and was reasonably well received.

The major success of such later works as The Golden Notebook, lauded as a pioneering feminist novel, was all the more poignant given that Lessing was practically self-educated, having dropped out of high school because of a nagging eye problem.

Of the four Nobel Literature prize winners considered to be African, three of them, Soyinka, Gordimer and Coetzee wrote (and still do) in English.
Mahfouz wrote in his native Arabic, raising questions in some quarters about whether, as an Egyptian producing his oeuvre in Arabic, he should not be considered an Arab writer rather than an African one.