So Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature, who cares?
by Ikhide R. Ikheloa
The world has not rested since the 2016 Nobel Prize was awarded, not to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, but to Bob Dylan, that legendary poet who also sings. There have been impassioned essays for and against the award to Dylan. It all makes for fascinating reading. Take this piece from Rajeev Balasubramanyam, writing in the Washington Post (October 22, 2016) who makes an interesting case for why Ngugi should have won the prize:
Ngugi’s decision to move away from English was a brave one for a writer hailing from Africa, a continent frequently treated as irrelevant by the rest of the world. It could, in fact, have led to his disappearance from the global stage, but instead it solidified his reputation as a writer of supreme political commitment, though few of his contemporaries or juniors took up the call to write in their native languages. Ngugi’s attitude toward this, however, is markedly self-aware and flexible.
We of the elder generation,” he told the New African three years ago, “are so bound up by our anti-colonial nationalism, which is important for us but the younger generation ― they are free. You find they don’t confine their characters necessarily to Africa. They are quite happy to bring in characters from other races, and so on … that’s good because they are growing up in a multicultural world.
Okay, let me share a few thoughts:
1. Ngugi richly deserves the Nobel, no ifs, no buts about it. This warrior deserved the Nobel in celebration of a prodigious life marked by industry, hard work, innovation, a profound love for the word and its application in civil rights activism.
2. Ngugi’ innovation, in my view, is not in experimenting with writing in a Kenyan language. I didn’t find that particularly innovative, many writers (not well known of course) have always written in indigenous African languages. It was quixotic in the sense that there was not a market for it, a bold experiment perhaps, but not innovative.
3. Literary innovation was in how in their early works, Ngugi and Chinua Achebe took the English language and appropriated it as if it was an African language. I will go so far as to say they made it an African language. Achebe, said it all, as if with a wink and a smirk: “Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.” It is thanks to them and the young writers of the Internet and social media, and not to today’s contemporary African writer (of books), that words like “molue” and “egusi” are now words defined in English dictionaries (Yes, Google it!).
4. I would have danced myself crazy had Ngugi won. For many years, I agonized over Chinua Achebe not winning the Nobel Prize. I once said something about this in the once thriving literary list-serve krazitivity and I think it was the writer Obiwu, not sure anymore, who counseled me against looking outside for validation, Achebe was certainly not sitting around waiting for the Nobel to honor him. That spoke to me and in a sense has inspired me also to urge us to look inwards.
5. These are exciting times to be a reader if you love African literature. I have said this ad nauseam, advances in technology, especially the advent of the Internet and social media have exposed the world to the universe of the narratives of Africa. Our books are still incredibly important but you have to read the young men and women who are doing some pretty amazing and innovative work on the Internet and on social media to get a sense of the sum of our stories. They have pushed the frontiers of the work started by pioneers like Ngugi and Achebe. In their stories, we think, laugh, make love and cry like the human beings we are. Africans are not the pathetic disease-ridden stick figures we read of in African books of fiction. Like their Western counterparts they have learned to be “provincial” as the writer Chigozie Obioma wrongly (in my view) puts it in his recent piece in the Guardian, or in my words, insular. I applaud the new African writers of the Internet and social media. They don’t explain themselves, they just write. If you are curious enough, google “egusi” or “molue.”
6. These are exciting times to be a reader if you love African literature. Advances in technology, especially the advent of the Internet and social media have exposed the world to the universe of the narratives of Africa. Our books are still incredibly important but you have to read the young men and women who are doing some pretty amazing and innovative work on the Internet and on social media to get a sense of the sum of our stories. They have pushed the frontiers of the work started by gusi” just as you would “crumpets.” If you care enough about my world, you would be curious about my words. These young men and women do not write for the West, they just write. And guess what, the world is getting it. I say to young writers, keep doing more of what you are doing, may you profit from your demons.
7. And profit they should. Young African writers need a lot of support and affirmation. They are doing good work and they need all the help that they can get. I have serious issues with Nigeria’s NLNG $100,000 prize, I have been loud in decrying is as an embarrassment. It is a crying shame that the NLNG Prize committee spends the equivalent of the Nobel Prize (about $1 million) yearly to award a $100,000 lottery to one writer. I am happy for Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, he and Elnathan John (a runner-up along with the awesome writer, Chika Unigwe, a previous winner of the award) are exactly the kinds of exciting young writers I have in mind when I am talking about innovation in African writing. I have studied those two and think their entries are among the most important narrative to come out of Nigeria in the past decade or so, but we must push the conversation about how best to use $1 million every year. Right now, much of it is being wasted and the prize is seen more as an absurd give away than a real literary prize. There are so many innovative projects that the money could be used for. It is exciting to talk about the Nobel and who they should give their money to, but we have a great opportunity here in the NLNG Prize being wasted like a gas flare. By the way, I would have split the prize between Abubakar and Elnathan, they were both deserving of the award.
8. We need to support not just African writers of fiction and poetry and drama, we should also support the essayists in our midst. At the risk of generalizing, my observation is that African writers don’t do fiction well, many times what they call fiction is autobiography or long theses on social anxieties. Many of these works of fiction should be essays or works of creative nonfiction. Acknowledging these efforts might encourage many African writers to focus on their area of expertise. Even at that, writers should not wait for prizes or seminal events to hurriedly staple together thoughts. Many of the essays on Bob Dylan, for or against, that I have enjoyed were actually written months if not years ago. Western journalists and writers tend to anticipate events and write ahead. May Soyinka live long to torment us with his genius but he won’t live forever. Many Western newspapers have already written his obituary. Our writers are merely waiting. When he passes on to the next pantheon, there will be syrupy pieces on how we drank wine together. Get to work. Today.
9. Writers and thinkers should look at our world and ask hard questions about the way things are – and adjust to the changing of the seasons. I am happy that the award was given to Bob Dylan. Students and fans of Bob Dylan like me fully appreciate the Nobel for not only honoring him, but for in an unintended way, giving a loud nod to the fact that today’s literature is no longer your mama’s literature. Where it was once flat, it is now multi-dimensional, in song, on YouTube, in print and on the oral tradition of my ancestors.
10. So, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize and I am delirious and happy for him, who cares? African literature is undergoing a renaissance. We are making progress. I am happy.