Chinua Achebe and the Nobel Prize for Literature

Chinua Achebe and the Nobel Prize for Literature 3
In the last 24 hours, and unfortunately less than a week to the burial of Prof Chinua Achebe, there has been an upsurge in some quarters about the place of Chinua Achebe in Literature, African Literature to be precise, and the fact that his works as great as they are did not qualify him to win a Noble Laureate. So all those who love and revere Achebe should start crying over this sense of loss, that is more than even losing the great literary icon itself. I consider the dusts being raised by this two issues as quite unnecessary and either the handiwork of people looking for something to do or that of mischief makers lurking behind ‘genuine’ desire to re-educate us all on what we already know.

There are certain things that are uniquely Nigerian, and this is one of them. Creating controversies out of settled issues.

First, those who are of the belief that Achebe should have got the Nobel Prize in Literature have the right to air their views, those who believe it does not pan out that way are equally right. Whether they both know so is another subject of discussion. But I am disappointed at those who are making an issue out of this, same as those calling for a posthumous Nobel Award for him as if Achebe is less without the Nobel Prize. Such calls in my opinion tantamount to an insult on the name,person, and the globally acknowledged brand that is Achebe.

Indeed,it would have been good for Achebe to have been a Nobel Laureate. But it is better that he is Chinualumogu Achebe, which is far greater an honour and achievement than being a Nobel Laureate. Achebe has left a big indelible mark in the sands of time, generations yet unborn across Africa will always remain grateful to this man who told the story of who they are in a way they understood.

Nobel Prize?

There are several outstanding writers in history that never made it to the roll call of the Nobel Committee, controversial as those decisions were,most of which have reduced the Prize instead of elevating it, these writers were never lessened by that inability to be so chosen.

Great names that have been etched into the immortality of Literature’s hall of fame such as Marcel Proust (I read his book, Albert Camus as a first year student at Nsukka, it changed something in me), Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, Gertrude Stein, August Strindberg, John Updike, Arthur Miller, Bertolt Brecht, Yannis Ritsos did not win the Prize. Those who have followed the Nobel controversies in literature know so well that all these names mentioned here were sidelined for reasons that has nothing to do with the quality, or lack of it, of their works. Can we forget that influential names in the field of Literature such as Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, Émile Zola never won the Prize?

The controversies that have trailed the Committee’s decision in Literature stems from the uniqueness of arts, unlike say Medicine, Chemistry, Physics or even Economics where inventions , discoveries and even theories are easily identifiable for all to see. But not in literature, which brings us to the question of who decides what is “a lofty and sound idealism” as contained in the Will of Sir Alfred Nobel being the basis for choosing who wins the Prize. And this rests with the Nobel Committee some of whom cannot write a one liner.

Should we use the Prize to decide the best the world has to offer in literature when majority of the laureates have been European. Can we simply wave that off and say there is no European bias in deciding who becomes a Literary Laureate? Is it not on record that Swedes have received more prizes than all of Asia put together, is that a reflection of the intellectual prowess of the Swedes over Asians, or a mark that Asians have no literature that could be said to have ” a lofty and sound idealism”?

Is it not on record that Horace Engdahl, one time permanent secretary of the Academy, was quoted as saying that “Europe still is the center of the literary world” and that “the US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. A claim which his successor tried to water down saying that “In most language areas … there are authors that really deserve and could get the Nobel Prize and that goes for the United States and the Americas, as well,”, but he never made any attempt to deny that there is European bias in the selection process, acknowledging that “I think that is a problem. We tend to relate more easily to literature written in Europe and in the European tradition”.

So next time you try to mass market the sentiments of a few old men in Sweden the standard the entire world should defer to, please keep it to yourself.

The Nobel Prize would not have made Achebe more popular,more read or more respected. And without it, he is not lesser.

Chinua Achebe,we owe you a debt that can never be repaid!

Jee nke oma.

Kelechi Deca,

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