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What Does Ngugi wa Thiong’o Have to Do to Win the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Yesterday the Swedish Academy surprised the world when they awarded the 111th Nobel Prize in Literature to French author Patrick Modiano.

In the weeks leading up to the award, Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was considered a front runner, as has happened before, in 2010 and in 2013.

In the House of the InterpreterA Grain of WheatThe River BetweenWeep Not, ChildPetals of BloodDreams in a Time of WarWizard of the Crow


Read our previous reports:


Ngũgĩ has written numerous books, including In the House of the Interpreter, Dreams in a Time of War and A Grain of Wheat, and his influence on African literature is immense. In the late 1960s made the controversial decision to write in Gikuyu and Swahili, in an effort to revitalise and empower indigenous languages.

Two years ago, The Guardian applauded his decision and argued that he deserved to win the Nobel: “Ngũgĩ has dedicated his life to describing, satirising and destabilising the corridors of power.”

Even then, The Guardian wondered if Ngũgĩ would join Chinua Achebe on the list of African authors who deserve to win the Nobel Prize, but didn’t:

In 1962 a group of writers who were to shape the future of African literature gathered at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. Those present included Wole Soyinka, Lewis Nkosi, Kofi Awoonor, and from across the Atlantic, Langston Hughes. One evening, an undergraduate approached a conference participant with drafts of his writing. The student was a young Ngugi, the participant Chinua Achebe, and the manuscript, Weep Not Child, was published two years later as the first new novel in the paperback African Writers Series.

Soyinka was the first black writer to win the Nobel prize for literature in 1986. Achebe has notoriously never been granted the Nobel – and Ngũgĩ may join him on the list of those that got away. But 50 years after that momentous conference, the reasons for inviting the Kenyan author to accompany at least one of his Nigerian colleagues into the Nobel hall of fame are compelling.

In an article entitled “Nobel Prize eludes Ngugi wa Thiong’o yet again”, Kenyan newspaper The Standard reacted with surprise to Ngũgĩ losing out, but quoted the Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary Peter Englund as saying that the award is usually for “the art of memory”, as well as being based on an overall assessment of a nominee’s work. Englund said: “It’s a life’s work that is rewarded, not individual books,”

So what do you have to do to win the prize?

Jane Messer unpacks the makings of a Nobel Laureate in Literature in The Conversation, looking at what past winners have been engaged with, the “ubiquity of the market” and “the new trend – international literature”. She cites Nobel Prize for Literature judge Horace Engdahl’s statement prior to the award announcement that “American and European literature is today characterised by writing which does not transgress anything – but only pretends to”.

Self, society, language and power

In view of the chair’s comments about past winners over the last decade, the selectors clearly wanted literature that was profoundly engaged with meta structures of the self, society, language and power. Elfriede Jelinek, the 2004 winner and Enghdal favourite, was cited for:

her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.
Engdahl’s argument against writers enjoying creature comforts is a familiar one: give the writer a room of his or her own, time in which to write and an intellectual community to speak with, and she will not be sufficiently eviscerated to write truly well.

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