In her round-up of the African literary scene, Gail Collins visits the healthy crop of Africa-oriented literary awards around the world and settles down with some of the best writing from the continent coming our way this year.
I recently noticed something very special. 2021 put authors from the African continent on a truly global stage – Senegalese author David Diop won the International Booker Prize, South African author and playwright, Damon Galgut won the Booker Prize, Tanzanian writer, Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and so the list goes on. No surprise then, that 2022 seemed a bit tame on the international awards front.
But last year did actually produce literary winners. The continent and diaspora have slowly grown their own slew of literary awards, recognising exceptional creatives, whose words reveal their stories and culture to all who are willing to open their hearts and minds, and whose works are also simply great reads.
There are the time-honoured awards. The AKO Caine Prize for African Writing was established at the start of the last millennium, annually rewarding a short story writer. Last year it was won by one of New African’s 100 Most Influential Africans, Idza Luhumyo, with her luminescent short story, “Five Years Next Sunday”. Currently, we hope, she is secreted away writing her first full-length novel.
Even further back, in 1989, the South African Sunday Times newspaper established its own writing award, initially just for non-fiction but later, for fiction too. But it has been a while since new literary prizes have been offered, until recently.
In 2020, Kenyan author Andrew Maina Kariuki, founded the Kendeka Prize, in memory of his mother. With cash prizes and a guarantee of being published in the anthology “I am Listening”, its mission is to support new and existing writers from Africa and the diaspora by creating a platform for Africans to tell their incredible stories to as wide an audience as possible. This includes reaching outside the continent to tell the world of the issues affecting Africa from an African viewpoint.
Last year’s winner was Kenyan writer and poet, Scholastica Moraa with her short story, Chained, a haunting tale that takes a blistering look at the dangers of back-street abortion for young women in Kenya.
Over the water
Across the Atlantic in San Francisco, California, the Museum of the African Diaspora is one of the very few museums that exclusively holds exhibitions for African artists living in the diaspora. Last year it launched a new initiative, The African Literary Award, “in recognition of an author who has produced a work of literary excellence and taken a leadership role in promoting writing and literacy in their local community.”
The first winner last year, was a writer (and photographer) readers of New African may be familiar with, the Rwandan-born Namibian Remy Ngamije, for his funny and moving debut novel of 2021, The Eternal Audience of One.
The Island Prize is taking submissions for its second year. Founded by South African author and Booker long-lister, Karen Jennings and named after her fourth novel, The Island (2021), its goal is to aid unpublished African debut authors open a door into the UK publishing scene. The inaugural winner was South African writer, Sarah Isaacs with her beautifully poignant book that takes on the oft complicated issues around family life, Glass Tower.
The James Currey Prize for African Literature has also been established in the past couple of years. James Currey is a leading publisher of academic books on Africa.
Initiated by Onyeka Nwelue, a Nigerian writer, filmmaker and publisher, the prize offers an annual award “for the best unpublished work of fiction written in English by any writer, set in Africa or on Africans in Africa or the diaspora.”
In his early twenties, Nigerian writer and LGBT activist, Ani Kayode was the first winner with his debut novel, And Then He Sang a Lullaby, which will be published in the UK by Grove Books in June this year.
Flow of creative juices
But it is not all about awards, it is also about the continuing flow of creative juices, the pouring of thoughts and stories onto paper that will always be the catalyst for Africa to reveal its innermost identity to its own people and the world. With that in mind, 2023 is already proving its literary prowess.
The year began with the refreshing release of Peponi, Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah’s first translated work into the Swahili language, from his 1994 novel, Paradise. The 100m Swahili speakers will welcome his work into an already thriving literary culture. His 2020 novel, Afterlives, is being translated into Kiswahili as I write, with release planned for later this year.
Growing up on Zanzibar, Gurnah left the island during the 1960s oppressions to study in the UK, where he stayed. He, however, never forgot his roots or experiences in leaving his homeland and a familiar thread of the transformation required of refugees runs through his works.
The man who for many is East Africa’s leading writer and a self-proclaimed ‘language warrior’, graces us with The Language of Languages (Seagull, Feb 2023). For the first time, Ngugi wa Thiong’o has amassed his essays and lectures about translation into one tome.
In an entreaty to break down the barriers of language, he includes his own experiences of traversing languages in his writings including his story, The Upright Revolution, which has been translated into over 100 different languages across the world and lays claim to being the most widely translated text written by an African author.
Perhaps less intellectual but by no means less thought-provoking, is Ayobami Adebayo’s second novel, A Spell of Good Things (Canongate, Feb 2023).
Described by The Observer newspaper as “a poised and luminous love story set against the backdrop of a violent contemporary Nigeria”, this highly anticipated novel puts the spotlight on the yawning gap between the wealthy and the impoverished in Nigeria and all that falls in between.
Her impressive tale of two families has already been included among the best fiction of 2023 in Stylist magazine and is a fitting follow up to her exhilarating and moving 2019 debut, Stay with Me, which won the Prix Les Afriques in 2020.
Finally, we celebrate the arrival of Nigeria-born author, Chika Unigwe’s fourth novel. She is a wonderfully talented writer who has produced award-winning short stories, poetry collections, non-fiction and now her fourth work of long-form fiction, The Middle Daughter (Canongate, April 2023).
Her latest work divulges the tale of 17-year-old Nani, whose experience of loss and being misunderstood takes her on a life journey where she must dig deep for the courage to overcome oppression and discover her freedom and happiness. By the author’s admission, it is her modern reimagining of the Greek mythical tale of love and abduction between Hades and Persephone.
Unigwe is a polyglot who writes in both English and Dutch (she moved to Flanders with her Belgian husband in 1995), and also converses in her native tongue of Igbo.
I leave you with her words of wisdom: “People should discover the joy of reading. There is this argument that reading creates empathy. I do not think that it creates empathy. I think that it encourages empathy. I strongly believe that the more you read, the more you realise that the world is bigger than your doorstep.”