The literary event of the last week has to be not so much the op-ed piece written by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani for the New York Times, but the reactions to it, of which there are many, the tones of which have been of the almost universally aghast kind.
My own reading of Nwaubani’s ‘In Africa, the Laureate’s Curse’ was predictably complicated. I am a great admirer of Mario Vargas Llosa (a worthy 2010 laureate) and many other Latin American writers, people in whose works I’ve found a world closest to that of the Yoruba, from among whom I’ve sprung.
That said, I wanted Ngugi to win the Nobel, it meant a lot to me. He has written great, visionary works. He’s an ideological writer, and without ideological grounding, a writer is just piffle, in my view. He has also demonstrated great courage over many decades and suffered terribly for his art and convictions. Ngugi’s ‘Decolonizing the Mind’ is one of the great theoretical works of African literature, or any literature for that matter. After reading it, you cannot be indifferent; you must take a stand, either you are for or against. I have always had great sympathy for Ngugi’s insistence that we should write in our mother tongues, controversial though the larger body of African writers say it is. And one cannot take from Ngugi the fact that he has put his writing post-1986 where his mouth is: writing first in Gikuyu then translating into English (he’s written his latest memoirs in English, but that is a matter for another day).
Ngugi has produced indestructible works in many genres: drama, novel, essay. ‘The Trial of Dedan Kimathi’ was a memorable playtext in my secondary school days. And what of ‘Weep Not Child’, which apart from introducing Njoroge and co, made me want to discover Walt Whitman’s ‘On The Beach At Night’ for myself? These are among the foundational works of my formative years. We used to chant the titles of Ngugi’s books as though they were mantras. I once thought that if I ever saw Ngugi, it would be like seeing man on the face of the moon. Great, almost mythical writer, who one later had the privilege of seeing in the flesh; and to see the radical writer so human, so aged, almost frail (from the detentions and cigarette torture burns). A beautiful mind surpasses the limitations of the physical body.
And to later discover 'A Grain of Wheat', ‘Petals of Blood’, ‘The River Between’ and of course, ‘Decolonizing The Mind’. Had Ms Nwaubani read enough Ngugi, she would never have written the following: ‘There’s actually reason to celebrate Mr. Ngugi’s loss.” There’s nothing to celebrate about Ngugi missing out on the Nobel, and it’s difficult to see how the prize going to someone else becomes a “loss” for Ngugi.
Furthemore, it’s baffling that, nearly 25 years after Nigeria bagged her own Nobel through Soyinka, a Nigerian writer saw nothing wrong in suggesting that a Kenyan should not get the prize. Ngugi, Soyinka and Achebe have since the 60s formed the great tripod of the humanising literature of Black Africa. Soyinka has his Nobel, Man International Booker winner Achebe has been celebrated to the heavens for ‘Things Fall Apart’, and suddenly it’s a Nobel for Ngugi that will spell the death of African writing?
Nwaubani’s argument is deeply flawed; and it is regrettable that someone with a platform like the New York Times to postulate about Africa, chose to use her new-found international voice in this manner. The author of ‘I Do Not Come To You By Chance’ must realise that it will not be by chance that her argument will play into Western prejudices about Africa and African writing. ‘Oh, let’s not give another African a Nobel because, knowing no better, they’ll only copy themselves.’ Might as well go the whole hog and cite Shakespeare’s Iago: “These Moors are changeable in their wills."
Arguing for the emergence of new styles of writing, Nwaubani lumps Achebe, Soyinka and Ngugi into a questionable sameness, purveyors of what she calls “an earnest and sober style”. But what is so “sober” about Soyinka’s plays, or his prison memoirs, ‘The Man Died’? Or indeed Achebe’s ‘A Man of the People’? Have the likes of Helon Habila, Chimamanda Adichie, Sefi Atta, Lola Shoneyin and Uzodimma Iweala come to prominence simply because they ‘copied’ Achebe and Soyinka? And which of these two has Nwaubani herself copied? Of the supposed sobriety of the triumvirate, Kinna says on the blog, “Soyinka is far from sober. And what of Ngugi’s ‘Wizard of the Crow’, which successfully mixes humour, satire and fantasy and is, in my opinion, one of the most entertaining books by an African author. Is sober the new word for old?”
The part of Nwaubani’s argument that has provoked the most consternation, is the suggestion that literature in the indigenous languages serve only to exacerbate “tribal differences”. She declares, “This is not the kind of variety we need.” Chielozona Eze issued an early rebuttal to Nwaubani’s “cowardly ideas, the core of which sought to suggest that it is separatist for a writer to write in his native language or even to claim that he is a writer from his ethnic group.” As for Carmen McCain, a Hausa literature enthusiast, writing in indigenous languages “is exactly the variety we need.”
My own imaginative universe has been formed to a significant extent by the works of D.O Fagunwa, which I devoured as a child and still marvel to read today, novels that form the bedrock of Yoruba literature, books which might not have had the same power written in English. And what of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and others, whose immortal works were not originally written in a Western European language? What of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ and other works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Their initial publication in Spanish has done nothing to prevent them being read the world over through translation.
I suspect Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani could not have intended to be understood as saying a writer should not identify with an ethnic group. The bio on the UK edition of ‘I Do Not Come To You By Chance’ informs that the author “grew up in the eastern part of Nigeria, among the Igbo speaking people” – a construction that reads more like an ethnography citation from 70 years ago, but which nonetheless serves the purpose. But if Ngugi must be denied just so we don’t write Igbo, Hausa or Yoruba literature, it’s fairly standard that Nwaubani’s New York Times piece is a hard sell.
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