“This has been a great year for African writing,” announced Damon Galgut, accepting the Booker Prize earlier this month for his multi-layered novel, The Promise, which tells the story of an Afrikaner family amid the political and social upheaval that followed the end of apartheid.
“I’d like to accept this on behalf of all the stories told and untold, the writers heard and unheard from the remarkable continent that I come from.”
It was not an overstatement.
Galgut’s Booker win comes at the end of a year when many of the literary world’s major awards have been scooped by writers with origins and heritages in the countries of Africa.
In June, David Diop’s second novel At Night All Blood Is Black (translated from French by Anna Moschovakis) won the International Booker Prize, its visceral story inspired by the accounts of Senegalese riflemen’s experiences in the First World War.
In the last few weeks, Senegal has again come to the fore, as Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s The Most Secret Memory of Men won France’s Prix Goncourt, making its author the first writer from Sub-Saharan Africa to do so.
Last month, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Tanzania-born novelist who has explored themes of displacement and dislocation over the course of 10 novels.
Gurnah’s work, which includes the novels Paradise, By the Sea and, most recently, Afterlives, has gained critical respect for the subtlety and potency with which it examines what he calls the “tragic havoc” that has affected so many in the post-colonial era. Now that work is likely to reach new readers.
Along with Galgut, fellow South African novelist Karen Jennings was also on the Booker longlist this year for her novel An Island, about a lighthouse keeper’s encounter with a refugee. As with Gurnah, the prize will radically widen her readership – An Island had a print run of just 500 copies until the Booker nod, when thousands more were ordered.
Meanwhile, Somali-British author Nadifa Mohamed was shortlisted for The Fortune Men, about a Somali sailor wrongly accused of murder in Wales, based on a real-life miscarriage of justice in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay.
Reading the runes of these triumphs is a task that requires caution, however, and begins with important caveats. These are European prizes, with all that that implies: their histories are intertwined with the valorisation of the novel as a European creation, adopted and curated over centuries as, it might be argued, a bourgeois art form; if its self-appointed custodians are now concerned to recognise its wider potential, and to widen its parameters, who shapes that process and decides who is allowed to speak? Which readerships are they addressing? And, in speaking of both “African countries” and the “African diaspora”, which identities are privileged and which are marginalised?
Any discussion of a ‘phenomenon’ must encompass the variousness of literary cultures with African heritage
Literary prizes are the visible tip of an iceberg formed of writers’ careers – often long, diligent and unsung – the endeavours of publishers and booksellers, and the creative ecologies of countries, languages and regions.
As Ellah Wakatama, editor at large at the publisher Canongate and chair of the AKO Caine prize for African writing, notes of this year’s victories: “It’s not a moment that suddenly happened. It’s a moment that’s happened because of lots of work to open up the spaces.”
And that work won’t be finished, she says, “until you get to the point that writers are being published in enough volume that they can contend for the Booker prize as part of our culture, not as something strange and unique”.
Excerpted from the Guardian (UK)