African writers dominated literary honors in 2021

Paris. African writers won three major international prizes this year: the Nobel; the Booker, in the United Kingdom, and the Goncourt, in France.

“We are witnessing a renaissance in the literary world’s attention to Africa,” said Xavier Garnier, professor of Francophone and Swahili African literature at Sorbonne Nouvelle University. A “singular” phenomenon.

Historically, African writers have been underrepresented on the international roster.

But this year, the Senegalese Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, at the age of 31, became the first writer from sub-Saharan Africa to obtain the Goncourt Prize, the Graal of French letters, for his novel La plus secrète mémoire des hommes (The most secret memory of men).

That same day, South African Damon Galgut won the Booker Prize, the highest award for novels written in English.

The coronation came with the Nobel awarded to the Tanzanian Abdulrazak Gurnah.

But the list does not end there: the Booker crowned the French-Negalese David Diop, the prestigious Neustadt Prize (United States) was awarded to the Senegalese Boubacar Boris Diop and the Camões (which rewards a Portuguese-speaking author) to the Mozambican Paulina Chiziane.

Awards that come after the “renaissance of African literature in the last 10 years,” explains Boniface Mongo-Mboussa, doctor of comparative literature.

Ecology and Afrofuturism

African literature is increasingly dominated by “professional writers”, which “was not the case with our predecessors,” says this expert.

Another coinciding phenomenon: “The entry on the scene of women”, such as Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe), Paulina Chiziane (Mozambique) or the award-winning Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi (Nigeria).

The subjects have also changed, explains Mongo-Mboussa, writer and literary critic.

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, awarded with the Goncourt, “chose to talk about literature” in his novel, which means “distancing himself” from the most common themes of African novels, “for example, violence, war, child soldiers” .

Feminism, homosexuality, ecology and Afrofuturism (current of science fiction) also appear in the literary production of the continent.

“We are realizing from the African continent of the great dangers (social, ecological, political) that threaten us”, estimates Xavier Garnier.

The 50s and 60s were “moments of recognition of African literature” as a “political and literary phenomenon”, for example with Léopold Sédar Senghor, writer, poet and first president of Senegal, he explains.

But now the landscape has changed, with the appearance of national awards, new publishers and literary magazines, explains Claire Ducournau, a sociologist specializing in the literary world at the Paul-Valéry University in Montpellier.

“Many things have been changing in the recent decade,” said the researcher, who studied the recognition of French-speaking African authors over several decades.

Swahili and Wolof

However, in the Francophone world the distinction between French and French literature persists, emphasizes Boniface Mongo-Mboussa.

Several African writers have won the Renaudot Prize, another great French literary recognition, and the Franco-Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou taught at the prestigious Collège de France.

But African French-speaking authors are still perceived as “products of the old Empire” and not really as equal actors, adds this doctor of letters.

The situation is different in the English-speaking African world, whose writers are fully integrated into the American and British university world.

His work also benefits from a more dynamic market and the attention of critics.

Of the five African Nobel laureates, four are Anglophones, and the fifth is Arabic. However, the maximum recognition of those who write in Swahili, Wolof or other languages ​​of the African continent is lacking.

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African writers dominated literary honors in 2021