By Anote Ajeluorou
In October 1986, Wole Soyinka stunned the world by winning the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature. He was the first black African ever to do so. Indeed, African literature will never be the same again, optimists said. But 25 long years after that feat, there is no sign that another black African or a Nigerian is any closer to clinching what is, unarguaby, the most prestigious literary prize in the world
The names of two Africans have largely been mentioned as possible claimants to the prize: Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe and Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o. But beyond these two, are there no other Nigerians worthy of the prize? What of the third leg that make up Nigeria’s literary tripod, J.P. Clark?
Clearly, the Nobel is made of a sterner stuff than can be imagined. In all of Africa, only four have won: Soyinka (Nigeria -1986), Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt -1988), and Nadine Gordimer and John M. Coetzee (white South Africans –1991 & 2003).
Of Soyinka’s prize, the press release from the Nobel Committee read: “This year's Nobel Prize in literature goes to an African writer, Wole Soyinka from Nigeria. Now in his early fifties, he has a large and richly varied literary production behind him and is in his prime as an author.
“His background, upbringing and education have given him unusual conditions for a literary career. He has his roots in the Yoruba people's myths, rites and cultural patterns, which in their turn have historical links to the Mediterranean region. Through his education in his native land and in Europe he has also acquired deep familiarity with Western culture. His collection of essays Myth, Literature and the African World make for clarifying and enriching reading”.
But back home, the argument whether another Nigerian is due for the prize has continued in some literary circles. Some argue vociferously that Achebe is long overdue for the award but that he has been schemed out on the basis of what is unmistakably the Nobel politics. But others yet disagree and argue that the winner must display a multi-disciplinary approach to his craft before he can be so awarded.
One critic that hinted at the politics of the Nobel is J.O.J. Nwachukwu-Agbada, a professor of English at Abia State University, Uturu. He bases his argument on the continuing fact that literary taste and even tradition are still largely dictated by Western tastes and preferences.
He argues, “In the elevated arena of readership, Soyinka would be numero uno, largely because, like the almighty American dollar in capitalist economics, Western taste in literature dictates the tune. For now it is difficult to challenge their hegemony in Literature and make any headway. This is certainly one of the problems of assessing African writing or being certain of what its aesthetic direction should look like. This is because somewhere along the line Western preferences must come in. More importantly it is not as if the Western taste is emotion-free or politically neutral. After all, Western literature has always been put to ideological ends.
“Often we forget that literature is not value-free or that because we are politically independent, we are also ‘scribally’ liberated or that we can write what we like and earn their awe, love or respect. Does it now make sense to you how a writer like Achebe, so loved at home and abroad, particularly wherever colonialism has left its ‘civilizing’ marks has not been awarded the Nobel Prize when his literary inferiors have? Literature, like fashion or beauty contest, is one of the spheres of life where decolonization is yet to be achieved. Western hegemony in this and other African engagements or fields of endeavor is very apparent.
“For instance, their manner of discussing African literature, even in the new century, would leave one with the impression that since the Soyinkas, the Achebe’s, the Gordimers etc, nothing serious has happened in our literature. Do not ask me why it is so! We are not even aware of their subtle machinations! But more crucially, we haven’t much to counter them and their shibboleths with. With their media reach, for instance, they easily enjoy the power of circulation, a reach, which we may not possess in the next hundred years”.
But Enugu-based author and publisher Mr. Dillibe Onyeama sees the matter differently. For him, no other writer in Nigeria comes any close to achieving what Soyinka has achieved, which will make the prize to continue to be elusive.
He states, “Apparently (but maybe not officially) The Nobel Prize for Literature was instituted by Alfred Nobel as the climax of collective global hysteria to applaud literary works, which are deemed larger-than-life in excellence precisely because nobody can understand them. In 1986 our own dear Wole Soyinka joined this exclusive closed shop of the world's most creative intellectuals whose literary outputs reflected the indefatigable dissidence of their authors against injustice. In almost all cases they became VIP guests of solitary confinement in the most dingy prisons.
“The print-run was ultimately destroyed.
“Soyinka is a writer in a billion, an intrepid peace activist in a million. That is why Nigeria has not produced another Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 25 years, and is not likely to produce one in another 25 years. Certainly the Chinua Achebes, the Chukwuemeka Ikes, the Obi Egbunas, the Buchi Emechetas, the Amos Tutuolas, the Chimamanda Adichies, the Christopher Abanis, the Ben Okris, and such other writers of serious contemporary fiction, are towering pen-pushers in their own right. But they pale into irrelevance against the uniqueness of Soyinka's inimitable, almost 'divine', creative eloquence – if because of his intellectual power and depth defy comprehension.
“No, there is no politics of The Nobel Prize to be blamed for the absence of a post-Soyinka Nigerian offering. It is simply that there has not been another Soyinka, and the Nobel Prize governors cannot go below that quality”.
International scholar, poet and teacher at the Department of English, University of Benin, Benin City, Prof. Tony Afejuku states, “Let me state urgently that the Nobel Prize is the literature prize every writer wishes primarily on account of its age, ancientness, global appeal and universal recognition its grants its possessor. But luck and political correctness play their part in the award in any given year.
“And when I use the terms ‘luck’ and ‘political correctness’, I do so without qualms. The best and greatest writers don’t possess the Nobel in any given year. Every writer who possesses it in any given year is not greater than the one who does not. Every great writer who is visited by the Nobel ought to recognize and give thanks to the Mammon of Literary Judgment, Subjectivity, Selection, Politics and Criticism. Since our dear icon and supremely profound and versatile Wole Soyinka was visited by it, the Nobel has done its merry-trip and merry-go-round in Africa three happy times: the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, South Africa’s Nadine Gordimer and John M. Coetzee have been touched and embraced by it.
“Its charm, music and magic have visited these greats, whose greatness does not in any way surpass Chinua Achebe’s and J.P. Clarke’s and even Femi Osofisan’s and Niyi Osundare’s as well. But this is not the end of the story. If these greats of Nigerian Literature, who are very excellently English languaged, especially Achebe, the father of the African novel, whose Things Fall Apart is Africa’s best known writing, have not been visited Stockolm as guests of the Swedish Academy, it is because they are not well languaged enough in their respective mother-tongues to write in them, a significant perequisite Stockolm hardly overlooks in the endeavour that influences the Nobel to make its visit of global recognition to any great writer year in year out.
“Perhaps, Soyinka is the only writer whose mother-tongue is not English, who has been awarded the Nobel. The ENGLISH IS OUR EXIL in post-colonial Nigeria. We may have a pretty, pretty long wait before the Nobel pays another charming, musical and magical visit to Nigeria… But the Nobel, I restate, does not make anyone the best of the best, no literary prize does. By the way, who is the best of the Nobel winners?”
However, female author, gender expert and teacher, Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo takes an optimistic approach to the matter. She believes there are Nigerians, who have acquitted themselves well in the literary field that can take the prize and that the country need not wait for another 25 years from now to get a winner emerging.
Adimora-Ezeigbo says, “I am always cautious when issues of prizes are discussed. This is because people often get too emotional about prizes. Every prize has its rules and regulations, which ought to be strictly adhered to by both the body that institutes the prize and the panel of judges that will determine the winner or winners. It is the responsibility of the sponsors of the prize to ensure the selection of an impeccable panel of judges, made up of people of integrity.
“Now you want to know whether Nigeria will have to wait for 25 years for another winner to emerge after Wole Soyinka won the prize in 1986? I do not see the basis for this question, for there is no doubt in my mind that there are Nigerian writers who have proved that they can and will be candidates for the Nobel Prize or any other distinguished prize for that matter. I don't want to be specific by mentioning names, but the evidence is there for all to see.
“There are potential candidates and winners and they cut across generations. I like to be optimistic. Though some people have expressed the fear that politics plays a part in the award of the Nobel Prize, we should not allow that fear to make us pessimistic. Rather, we - I mean people who are in a position to nominate candidates - should ensure that we sustain the nomination of viable candidates continuously”.
THIS JULY Soyinka’s 77th birthday celebration will come to a climax at the Zmirage International Cultural Exchange play project code-named WS28086 making the round in London theatres. On July 13th, 77 prominent Nigerian actors will grace the red carpet to read and recite excerpts from some of Soyinka’s plays in honour of the theatre icon. Also, 77 children from schools across the country will meet and have lunch with Soyinka on July 14 at his Abeokuta home in furtherance of his belief in giving the children a future through preparation and mentorship.
This year’s major play for the WS20886 will be Dance of Liberation, and will feature Kunle Bamtefa, Teni Aofiyebi, Jimi Solanke and Taiwo Obileye. It will be directed by Ayo Oluwasanmi.