The Nobel and Ngugi's Cause - A Short Response to Tricia Adaobi's Article, 'In Africa, the Laureate's Curse'

Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Discussions have been going-on, ever since Tricia Adoabi's article In Africa, the Laureate's Curse, was published in The New York Times. I had vehemently opposed to most of the issues raised in the article and had a facebook post of it yesterday. However, I really didn't want to blog about my qualms. Yet, to distance my comments from my blog would be a dereliction of duty, most especially when my blog exists mainly to promote African Literature. To begin with Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is the author of that beautifully-written, award-winning novel I Do Not Come to you by Chance, a novel that has been on my contemporary reading list but for its unavailability in Ghanaian shops I would have reviewed it on my blog.

Now to the crux of the issue. Adaobi stated that:
A Nigerian publisher told me that of the manuscripts she reads from aspiring writers, half echo Chinua Achebe and half try to adopt Wole Soyinka's style. (paragraph two)
and then
I know some young writers who are experimenting in these and other genres; an Ngugi award could have pushed them back to the old tried and tired ways.
My problem is not with writers. It is with the publishers who want nothing but to see the next Achebe or Soyinka. They hardly experiment and as Tricia rightly pointed out 
the floundering publishing industry [on the continent] has little money for experimentation and [...] writers [...] have to move abroad to gain international recognition.
Who then is the problem if young writers ape the established ones? Publishers always want things that sell and if one has already been established why not follow them? For instance, if one is writing about Africa and it is not mundane, morbid, atrocious, despicable, political it won't sell. Should writers then be blamed if they copy those who are already established?

Besides, I am not comfortable when the article seems to suggest Africans would only recognise a great writer only when Western establishments have honoured him or her with a great award such as the Man Booker International (Chinua Achebe) or the Nobel (Wole Soyinka). I believe Ngugi's oeuvre is as impressive as any other Nobel laureate and at least any reader of African fiction would have read him. He is and has been a great writer even before his name came up for the Nobel award. Hence Nobel or no Nobel Ngugi would be loved, emulated, and improved by writers. And who said there is a writer who has never been influenced by another writer? Show me one such writer and I would boldly show you a liar. Unless one is John Nash, an Economics Nobel Laureate, who refused to attend lectures while studying for his Doctoral thesis for fear of influencing his original idea, unless one is him, one cannot hit his chest boldly and say 'I have not been influenced by any writer' including the likes of Soyinka, Ngugi, and Achebe. The key is, learn from them, add onto them, express your writings with your unique voice and perspectives of issues.

Yes, we need variety and on this I have written about. Yet, I believe that Tricia herself, Tendai Huchu, Myne Whitman, Ngozi Achebe and others are doing greater exploration by carting a different path in terms of genres and issues to write about. However, before one can brand a group of writers's writing style as
... an earnest and sober style
one should take cognisance of the environment within which such writers wrote and the purpose of their writes. It takes only a significantly unusual writer to write about the sky and the stars and the lions, when his environment is drowned in stuttering bullets and raging militarism; when access to basic commodities is bleak at best; when the so-called rulers are nothing but cheating chaps. It takes a writer who's blinded and deaf to his environments to write anything other than the disturbances, the dis-equilibrium that is likely to be caused by colonisation. And writers are anything but blind and deaf to their environs.

Today, writers have the liberty to explore because by and large we have moved from these messy issues into a world where all things are possible, where ones environment is not only the country within which he or she finds himself. If one studies the trend in African literature one would realise that it has been changing such that today any topic is explorable. And I believe that if Tricia were writing in 1940s to 1950s he definitely would have written something different from what she has written.

My last issue is my biggest issue. The issue of the language in which one has to write. Except when we refuse to equate our local languages, such as Twi, Ga, Ewe, Igbo, Swahili, Yoruba, Hausa, Gikuyu, to languages like Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, can we complain of the language in which we write. However, if we accept the fact that these languages are equal to others then I don't understand why a writer would 'shudder' when another writer writes in his local language or why one could not refer to a writer as a great African writer even if that writer writes in his native language.
Many fans have extolled his [Ngugi] brave decision to write in his mother tongue, Kikuyu, instead of English. If he truly desires a Nobel, I can't help but wish him one. But I shudder to imagine how many African writers would be inspired by the prize to copy him. Instead of acclaimed Nigerian writers, we would have acclaimed Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa writers. We suffer enough tribal differences already. This is not the kind of variety we need.
This paragraph breaks my heart absolutely. First, is English a Nigerian language? Are the people of Nigeria referred to as English. Couldn't a Nigerian writer be accorded the accolade 'acclaimed' if he or she writes in any of the numerous languages in Nigeria? To bestow universality to a borrowed language is to divest oneself of one's identity. Let's not be blind to the fact that 'English' as a language is another man's culture; his local language. A people who lose sight of their culture is a dead people (paraphrase from Two Thousand Seasons by Ayi Kwei Armah). Besides, I don't think Ngugi desires a Nobel. Absolutely not! Yet, a Nobel that recognises his works in his mother-tongue would greatly inspire writers in the local languages to revive this dying literature. English is not a unifying language as the paragraph suggests. It has not been. It has only widened the gap between the reading and non-reading public such that now reading has become an elitist activity. Every great non-English language novel, as Ngugi has shown, would eventually get translated. Don't we read Russo-Literature, and works from other non-English speaking countries in English? The elitist view which associates everything Western to civilisation  or modernisation is Africa's greatest enemy to development.

In the end, it is imperative that Tricia's works be encouraged in much the same way as any writer who wants to write in any  language he feels comfortable with. In fact such writers should be given special attention as they are doing us a great favour, resuscitating what we are eagerly strangulating. After all, Herta Muller (Nobel Laureate in 2009) won the award for her works in a minority language. Why not Ngugi? Why should English be thrust on us?


  1. Hear Hear !!!!!

  2. Great post; very eloquent and thought-provoking. You raise excellent points about language, identity and cultural self-esteem. People won't produce great literature without believing that what they have to say is worthwhile and people who are taught that their language and culture are worthless won't produce art at all.

  3. @Marie... thanks. I hope they begin to see it that way. Research has shown that people are able to think best and solve problems in their native language. Regarding those of us who have English as a second language, we always have to translate in our heads before we speak while making sure that grammar and syntax are correct. Yet I don't do any of these in my local language.

  4. Great response post, interesting to read. I, too, think that multiple native tongues should be able to flourish - just with more translators and translations!

  5. I just read about this over at Kinna's blog too, and am also really surprised (and bothered) by the arguments put forth in that article. Thanks for taking the time to break down the issues raised and form this rebuttal!

  6. @Emily Jane... thanks. Was surprised too.

  7. One has to wonder her about her motivations when she wrote the article. In this day and age how can anyone, a writer no less, want to sideline our languages? After all that we've been through and the continuing struggle to hang to our own cultures? As usual, a very well-thought out and insightful post from you. Thanks.

  8. Thanks Kinna, it puzzles me. I thought we have moved past this era - of identifying oneself with things solely English; moreso a writer who is expected to espouse ideas that would help develop the very tool of her profession.


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