Sunday, November 11, 2007

Osita Ezeliora, "The Swedish Academy"

Osita Ezeliora
Literature and Language Studies
University of the Witwatersrand
Johannesburg, South Africa

The Swedish Academy, the Politics of the Nobel Prize, and My Africa

May I resume this simple, innocent statement with a brief remark on the general misconceptions that have come to define Western perceptions of Africa and her children. Some of us had believed, uncritically, that contemporary global advancement in technology, particularly the developments in the audio-visual techniques in telecommunications and television would lead to a better understanding of our common humanity. Evidence abound, however, that commercialism, deliberate governmental propagandas and the irresistible urge to re-colonize the world through military engagements, and the cultural modes of films, radio and the whole tribe of the media department has continued to produce a greater number of “illiterates” across the world. You only need to listen to a typical American television talk show to observe how uninformed the average American is about anything else outside his immediate milieu. To him, his house is ‘the best in the world’, his army is ‘the best in the world’, his cottage is ‘the best in the world’, his backyard is ‘the best in the world’, his wrestler is ‘the strongest man in the world’, his food is ‘the sweetest in the world’, his city is ‘the most beautiful in the world’, and so, we might conveniently add, his stupidity is ‘the most profound in the world’.

The Igbo have a saying: it is the child who has never visited another man’s farm that beats his chest every morning to proclaim that his father’s farm is the largest in the world. This simple proverbial assertion leads ultimately to an understanding of the psychology of the Igbo in their quest for knowledge, adventure, and the sheer competitiveness for success that has come to mark him out, many observers and analysts say, as the most entrepreneurial and inquisitive of the black race. Thus the average Igbo would often remind his neighbour that ‘a widely travelled child has more wisdom that the grey-haired old man sleeping at home all his life’.

Why have I chosen to go this route? It is clear to me that the long history of the relationship that had existed between Africa and Europe has not diminished the jaundiced perception which most Europeans had, and still have of Africa since the middle ages: the patterns of ethnographic categorizations which had classified human intelligence on the basis of pigmentation appear, though, to be waning out in recent time: after all, mega-media structures in the likes of the CNN and the BBC acknowledged the ingenuity of an Igbo child-soldier of the Nigeria-Biafra war, Philip Emeagwali, whose resilience and resourcefulness has made available to the world the facilities of the International Network. What many Africans never imagined thus happened: the CNN acknowledging a black man as ‘Father of the Internet’. The world celebrated it; the American parliament honoured him; the presidency represented by the nation’s chief executive at the time, Bill Clinton, eulogised his accomplishments. For a while, we believed that pigmentation no longer matters--
many of us still do: after all, the acceptance of the subalterns in areas previously preserved for the ‘untouchables’ is increasing geometrically; even inter-racial marriages is now taken for granted, given that it is not only very fashionable in some quarters, but also because such conjugal relationships have produced some of the most beautiful specie of humanity. Many white women, today, openly declare that black men make better husbands--a statement that would have raised eyebrows once upon a time. When, recently, news came that Professor Esogbue, another Nigerian scientist of Igbo extraction played very prominent role as part of the team of scientists that designed the un-manned space ship at NASA, it was jubilation galore all over the African continent. “At last”, many screamed, “they are beginning to give us the opportunity to prove our mettle”.

This brings me to the ultimate question: where is the place of SWEDEN in the recent efforts by world powers to demonstrate their humanity to the so-called third world countries? I am particularly concerned, here, with the Swedish connection with the many peoples of Africa. I’d like, at this point, to remind you that not many people in Africa, obviously for some slight phonological reason, know the difference between Sweden and Switzerland. You might guess why: there is a ‘SWI’ in Sweden, and a ‘SWI’ in Switzerland. Again, as the Igbo would say, ‘because all lizards lie prostrate, it is difficult to tell which of them suffers from stomach-ache’. But while many people do not know the difference between Sweden and Switzerland, a lot of Africans do know, however, that one of the two countries is notorious for encouraging African dictators, avaricious criminals and sundry rogues to defraud their nations and to loot their national treasuries. A lot of Africans know that the recurrent cycle of poverty that appear insurmountable in the continent is largely a making of one of the two countries, which also provide banking facilities for the looted funds from Africa. Are you then surprised that a large segment of the Western media would confine itself to feeding you only with information about famine in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, war in Uganda, Liberia and Sierra Leone, HIV/AIDS in the Southern African sub-region and, of course, the spectacular news about rape and crimes of all sorts in South Africa?

The western media might not necessarily be wrong in all of these negative images painted of Africa. Where we are worried is that the same media hardly remind their privileged audience that many Euro-American nations are accomplices in the continued perpetuation of crime, disease, structured patterns of impoverishment and, consequently, the continuing decimation of the African humanity. I do hope that Sweden is not the ‘SWI’ country that has brought so much pain to the people of Africa.

Somehow, believe it or not, I feel quite persuaded that Sweden and Switzerland are two separate countries. Like many of my friends and colleagues, we have come to venerate this Scandinavian nation for the visions, insights and cultural prognostications of one of her great leaders, Gustaf 111 who, way back in 1786, established the ‘Swedish Academy’ with the sublime goal of propagating and projecting the ‘purity, vigour and majesty of the Swedish language’ so as to ensure its ‘clarity, expressiveness and prestige’. In spite of the many problems she encountered at the beginnings, the Academy has survived for over two hundred years with eminent secretaries and administrators that include Nils Von Rosenstein (1786-1824), Bernhard von Beskow (1834-1868), Carl David of Wirsen (1884-1912), Erik Axel Karlfeldt (1913-31), Anders Osterling (1941-64), amongst others.

If any cultural engagement ever sold Sweden to the world, it is precisely the prestigious award of the Nobel Prize, especially for Literature that got included in the many functions of the Academy since the beginning of the 20th century. Within this period, over 90 writers have won the Prize in Literature, some of whom are Sully Prudhomme, Theodor Mommsen, Rudyard Kipling, Anatole France, Romain Rolland, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Mann, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neil, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Bertrand Russell, Winston Churchill, Samuel Becket, Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee and the many other accomplished writers that, for reasons of space, would not be accommodated in this short essay. These awards, I believe, are well deserved, and the winners have all contributed immensely to the global understanding of our universal humanity in varying virtuosities.

But many observers have often wondered whether fairness is part of the game in the award of the Nobel Prize. This suspicion arises in discussions of the mentalities of the Swedish Academy in its relationship with Africans, especially in its perception of black African writers. A widely held view is that the Swedish Academy is not synonymous with the United Nations or the World Bank and that the issue of fairness does not arise. The Academy, it is argued, is an organization founded on the goodwill of a Swedish patriot and visionary who was determined to market the linguistic and cultural elegance of his people. To this end, no one has the right to interrogate the propriety of its decisions in matters of awarding laureates to whomever it chooses. It could decide to award the Nobel Prize to whoever dances to the tune of Europe’s intrigues and political calling. In recent time, however, even this view could be challenged: the world is aware of the refusal of Sweden to join the clamour for a European common currency, and we watched with dismay as one of her very charming daughters got assassinated recently for what appears obviously to be for her political beliefs. The world watched, surprised, because it is often taken for granted that such pattern of killings is only associated with the so-called third world countries of Africa.

A more commonly held view, however, is that as deserving as they are of the Nobel Prize, many black African writers might never win it because of their unrepentant attack on the European notion of superiority. Sometime in 1998, a renowned Polish-American scholar of African and English Literatures, Professor Bernth Lindfors during his occasional visits to Nigeria, had spoken frankly to an assembly of students at Ogun State University, Ago-Iwoye, on how he has often looked forward to Chinua Achebe winning the Nobel Prize for Literature at the turn of each year, and had prayed: “I hope he gets it in his life time”. He had probably read the minds of the thousands of students who were eager to ask him basic questions on the politics of such awards and, somehow, he was strongly of the position that if anyone actually deserves such an award in Africa, from Cape to Cairo, Chinua Achebe has to be the one.

This does not imply, of course, that Achebe is the only African writer so deserving of the award. Indeed, while Achebe rightly occupies a foremost seat for consideration, the Kenyan novelist, Ngugi wa Thiongo stands quite close to him, as does the Ghanaian Ayi kwei Armah and Nigeria’s Buchi Emecheta. But why has nearly all commentators on the politics of the Nobel Prize often hammered on Chinua Achebe as the most acceptable choice? It does seem that Achebe’s brutal frankness in matters of race relations, which, many claim, must have infuriated many Europeans, will always come into play. Achebe has never argued for a superior African black pigmentation just as he has never accepted its inferiority to anyone anywhere in the world. In an interesting essay he wrote in the late 1970s, ‘Impediments to Dialogue Between North and South’, he had averred: “Many Europeans have made enormous contributions towards the understanding of Africa in Europe. Some of them have even helped us to see ourselves anew in the freshness of an itinerant perspective” (Achebe 1988:16). Achebe, in this reaction to the many centuries of Europe’s refusal to listen to the subaltern, had cited the instance of a former British Governor of Rhodesia (Southern Africa) in the 1950s who, when asked to explain the “partnership” between black and white in his territory, had no hesitation in defining such partnership as the one that exists “between the horse and its rider!” (Achebe 15). For the British colonialist, the African would always be a horse! But is this position also true of the Swedish?

I dare not take a position on this last question, for, after all, the Swedish do not have the odious reputation of being colonizers--at least, not in my Africa. But the central point has been made: Europe’s audition to the African predicament through the course of history has been defective and selective; her vision is equally selective; Europe’s memory of Africa is selective just as her amnesia remains selective. It took a Chinua Achebe at the Belgium lecture to address this frustration on the part of Africans in their dealings with their white over-lords: “I realize that all white people cannot be exactly of one mind or equally guilty of too much transmission and too little reception; I realize that all Europeans did not participate to the same degree in the events of modern African history. But despite local qualifications that would be made here and there, I believe that the major outline of my thesis is correct” (Achebe 1988: 16).

Achebe’s thesis, which runs through his numerous imaginative writings and profound scholarship rests on the need for a common and universal humanity; it resides on the premise that pre-colonial Africa, with all its imperfection, did not hear of culture for the first time from Europe. In Things Fall Apart, a novel that has been translated into over forty languages, with over fifteen million copies sold, Achebe imaginatively reinvents a pre-colonial African society with a robust sense of values: a society that exemplifies the ingenuity of the often talked-about traditional African through an admirable sense of productive craft. Awka, one of the many towns East of the Niger, archaeologists have discovered, was notable for iron-smiting and was involved in magnificent technological inventions prior to the incursion of western civilization. The hoes and machetes used for agricultural purposes, and the weaponries used for the occasional wars that erupted in many of these societies were said to have been invented by these so-called traditional technologists. The culture of ‘gun salutes’ during the burial of ozo-titled men and other people of great accomplishments were part of a bourgeoning tradition that was in existence prior to the advent of Europeans to Africa. The design and invention of the nkpo-ani, the traditional ‘gun’ used during such festivities remains a historical fact. The immense archaeological findings in Eastern Nigeria especially at the sites in Igbo-Ukwu and the neighbouring towns of Ora-Eri, Amichi, Nnobi, amongst others, attest to a memory of productiveness that lasted over twenty centuries before the arrival of Western merchants, missionaries, and colonialist mercenaries. This epochal sense of inventiveness is evident in Achebe’s novels of pre-colonial Africa.

In Things Fall Apart, Achebe also presents a traditional society with a fine sense of entertainment that subsume wrestling contests, poetry, dance and music; a democratic society where the young is trained from childhood to “wash his hands properly” so as to be able to “dine with elders”; a society where agriculture enjoyed a pride of place and every member of the community, male and female, desires to be a champion of the farm, be it in yam, cassava, or cocoyam production. Achebe successfully presents of Umuofia an archetypal Igbo and, indeed, an African community with a profound sense of justice where “ there are no lawyers and there are no liars”. To a European reader-audience unfamiliar with aspects of African cosmological discourse that necessitates the supremacy of truth and honour in the absence of the western-type legalistic structures, the system would always be fascinating, if only such a person is prepared to listen.

Whether it is in his Things Fall Apart, No Longer At Ease, Arrow of God, A Man of the People, Chike and the River, Girls at War, Anthills of the Savannah, Beware Soul Brother, Morning Yet On Creation Day, The Trouble With Nigeria, Hopes and Impediments, Home and Exile, or in his other numerous short stories, poetry, and essays scattered everywhere in Literary magazines, the search for justice, racial equality and the economic emancipation of humankind has always been the preoccupation of Chinua Achebe. Till date, Achebe remains the most venerated African novelist, dead or alive. This is an accomplishment that came with the long years of struggle, of resilience, and absorption of all kinds of criticism, be it constructive or otherwise. There is hardly any novelist-scholar who has inspired the over 500 million African audience and the rest of the world more than Chinua Achebe with respect to the propagation and projection of Africa’s cultural identity and racial equality. It is instructive that even Ngugi wa Thiongo--himself a worthy son of Africa and a deserving candidate for any literary award that has any claim to integrity--would pronounce Chinua Achebe as a major influence on him as a writer. The young Ngugi had not only read Achebe as an undergraduate during which period he says he has “a sense of the Igbo”, but also he had the privilege of meeting him in person during a seminar organised by the Makerere University, Uganda, in 1962.

“Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, the two American presidents to have visited Nigeria while they were in office”, writes Prof. Harry Garuba, “each had course to refer to Chinua Achebe’s works when making policy statements to their Nigerian audiences” (Garuba 2003:276). Such is the veneration Achebe commands that practically every university that matters, as well as most African governments--from Nigeria to South Africa--have had to honour themselves in honouring him. One recalls that about ten years after Achebe’s insistence that Europe should learn to listen, if there must be proper dialogue between North and South, another leading African novelist from South Africa, Nadine Gordimer, in ‘Living In The Interregnum’, echoed a similar request when she asserts that the white in South Africa “has become highly conscious of a dependency on distorted vision induced since childhood”, and suggests that “the way to begin entering history out of a dying white regime is through setbacks, encouragements and rebuffs from others, and frequent disappointment in oneself. A necessary learning process . . .”. Gordimer, of course, herself a Jewish white, is convinced that Africans never really slept in history per se, and so all superficial efforts to write the African off history would fail. So, she had suggested to the white world: “There is no forgetting how we could live if only we could find the way. We must continue to be tormented by the ideal . . . Without the will to tramp toward that possibility, no relations of whites, of the West, with the West’s formerly subject peoples can ever be free of the past, because the past, for them, was the jungle of Western capitalism, not the light the missionaries thought they brought with them” (Gordimer 209-225).

The experience of South Africa is a matter of recent history and, as I am writing this piece, South Africa is celebrating her 10th Anniversary of democratic dispensation. Do we need to over-flog the beauty of listening instead of only transmitting, which Achebe had so much decried?

As the founding editor of William Heinemann’s ‘African Writers’ Series’, Chinua Achebe applied himself into editing the first one hundred titles of that series without charging a cent from the Heinemann’s publishing outfit; at the end of the Nigeria-Biafra war, he founded at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, OKIKE: An African Journal of New Writing, a fine literary journal of creative writing and criticism that provided voice for the emerging African literary intelligentsia, and it is worthy of note that most of the major scholars and writers from Africa and beyond got their earlier endeavours published by OKIKE. Major contributors to African literary scholarship such as Isidore Okpewho, Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, Ihechukwu Madubuike, Charles Nnolim, Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan, Romanus Egudu, Emmanuel Obiechina, Donatus Nwoga, Theo Vincent, Clement Okafor, Niyi Osundare, Juliet Okonkwo, Patrick Wilmot, Ossie Enekwe, amongst others, all appeared in OKIKE. Achebe also founded Aka Ikenga another journal in his Igbo language also at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He was also instrumental to the founding of the United States’- based African Commentary. The list is actually endless, and the obvious question is: who has done more towards the growth and development of African Literature? Who has inspired the emerging African writers more than the founding editor of the ‘African Writers’ Series’? Who has provided the finest space, within Africa, to the young scholars of African literature and culture more than the founding editor of OKIKE? Who has inspired young Nigerian writers more than the founding President of the Association of Nigeria Authors (ANA)?

Professors Emmanuel Obiechina, Eustace Palmer, Ernest Emenyonu, Dan Izevbaye, Bernth Lindfors, Wole Soyinka (a Nobel laureate), Oladele Taiwo, G.D. Killam, C.L. Innes, Simon Gikandi, Ali Mazrui, Biodun Jeyifo, Samuel Asein, Harry Garuba, Kalu Ogba, Theo Vincent, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Njabulo Ndebele, and the Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, just to mention a few, have all honoured Chinua Achebe in very percipient essays and speeches that would challenge not only the visually impaired, but also even any literary magistrate caught in the web of selective and afflicted audition.

The world has since begun to acknowledge individual achievements without recourse to racial pigmentation. In spite of the general perception of American arrogance and what some see as her stupidity, that country will be atop the world for several years to come--and I wish her well. She deserves every bit of the progress she has made so far in ensuring her pride of place in scientific and technological advancement: she is there because she has recognized the beauty of our common humanity and has been able to bring out the best in the likes of Professors Emeagwali, Esogbue, Nnaji, and Oyibo. But will Sweden and the Swedish Academy ever concede to the theory of a common humanity? I feel reluctant to risk a response to this question, which, I believe, only the named institutions can. But I also feel tempted to respond in the affirmative; after all, there is one black man, Wole Soyinka, in the list of the Swedish Academicians. And as the Igbo would say, “ikwu amaghi, ibe ezi ya”(it is the duty of neighbours and relatives to advise an erring and confused brother). The Swedish Academy has done well by extending the frontiers of what was originally meant to be a project for the advancement of Swedish language and culture to writers all over Europe and beyond. The Academy deserves to be commended by anyone genuinely interested/trained in literature and criticism. In extending its frontiers beyond Sweden, however, its engagements might at a point in time, with good reasons, be seen as very political. Nothing probably suggests this widely held view than the Academy’s continued exclusion of black African writers whose literary accomplishments, many insist, outweigh those of many of the previous winners. Chinua Achebe and his “son”--Ngugi--have done excellently well in this regard.

Given my encounter with the works of many of the previous winners of the Nobel Prize, I believe that the Swedish Academy is an institution of profound honour. But it can no longer afford the luxury of subjecting this positive testimony of its integrity to suspicion. We are living in the African century, and there is no greater honour the Academy could do to itself as an institution than to honour the most revered African novelist(s). It’s time the Academy dropped the decadent mantle of Euro-modernism to embrace the classical imaginative output of black African writers and, especially, my Africa.

Works Cited:

Achebe, Chinua. ‘Impediments to Dialogue Between North and South’, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-87. London: Heinemann, 1988.

Garuba, Harry. ‘Explorations in Animist Materialism: Notes on Reading/Writing African Literature, Culture, and Society’. Public Culture. 15.2 (2003): 276.

Gordimer, Nadine. ‘Living in the Interregnum’. In Race and Literature. Charles Malan (ed). South Africa: CENSAL Publication, 15 (1988): 209-225.

Lindfors, Bernth. 1998. ‘Lectures’ at the Ogun State University, Ago-Iwoye, Nigeria.

‘Swedish Academy, History of’,

‘Swedish Academy, The Nobel Prize in Literature – Laureates’,

Osita Ezeliora taught African and British literatures in Nigeria’s Ogun State University for about ten years. An Andrew W. Mellon scholar, he recently completed doctoral research on the new directions in Post-Apartheid South African Novel of English expression at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, where he currently teaches Post-Apartheid and Postcolonial literatures.

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