African writers took literary laurels in 2021

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Paris (AFP) – African writers won three major international awards this year: the Nobel Prize, the Booker Prize in the United Kingdom and the Goncourt in France.

“We are witnessing a renaissance in the attention of the literary world towards Africa,” Xavier Garnier, professor of Francophone and Swahili African Literature at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University, told AFP. A “singular” phenomenon.

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

But this year the Senegalese Mohamed Mbougar Sarr became, at 31 years old, 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).

And 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 International Booker Prize crowned the French-Negalese David Diop, the prestigious Neustadt Prize (United States) was awarded to the Senegalese Boubacar Boris Diop and the Camoes Prize (which rewards a Portuguese-speaking author) to Mozambican. Paulina Chiziane.

South African Damon Galgut, awarded the Booker Prize, on October 31, 2021 in London Tolga Akmen AFP

Awards that come after the “rebirth of African literature in the last ten years”, explains to AFP Boniface Mongo-Mboussa, doctor in Comparative Literature.

Ecology and Afrofuturism

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

And another coinciding phenomenon: “the entry into 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 “that speak, for example, of violence, war, child soldiers “.

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

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

Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah shortly after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, on October 8, 2021 in London
Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah shortly after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, on October 8, 2021 in London Tolga Akmen AFP / Archives

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 the 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 last decade,” the researcher, who studied the recognition of French-speaking African authors over several decades, told AFP.

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 prize. And the Franco-Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou taught at the prestigious Collège de France.

But African francophone writers 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 took literary laurels in 2021