Nobel Prize: How Fair Is the Judgment of Swedish Academy? | Independent Newspapers Limited
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Nobel Prize: How Fair Is the Judgment of Swedish Academy?

Posted: Mar 21, 2016 at 3:16 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

Yemi Adebisi, Lagos

Nigeria, the acclaimed Giant of Africa, perhaps attained a more reputable height in global intellectual hierarchy the day Professor Wole Soyinka emerged as the first African writer to win the international Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.

It would probably be an understatement to say that the down-to-heart poetical playwright, political analyst, foremost dramatist, Kongi, as fondly called by colleagues, merited the global fame judging from his timeless writings.

Soyinka, known in some quarters as a mobile encyclopedia has turned his world around with his literature. Accepted as an authority even in the western world, Soyinka was probably licensed to create his own words in English language.

He was adjudged as having his roots in the Yoruba people’s myths, rites and cultural patterns, which in their turn have historical links to the Mediterranean region.

Through his education in Nigeria and in Europe, the octogenarian author acquired deep familiarity with western culture.

The judges characterised Soyinka as one of the finest poetical playwrights that have written in English.

Among his plays, the Academy made special mention on A Dance of the Forests and Death and the Kinq’s Horseman. The former is a kind of African Midsummer Night’s Dream with spirits, ghosts and gods.

But Death and the King’s Horseman is in the nature of an antique tragedy with the cultic sacrificial death as theme.

The relationship between the unborn, the living and the dead, to which Soyinka reverts several times in his works, is fashioned with very strong effect. Soyinka confirms his position as a centre of force in drama.

Presenting the award ceremony speech in 1986, Professor Lars Gyllensten said Soyinka has synthesized African heritage with his literary prowess.

“Dear Mr. Soyinka, in your versatile writings you have been able to synthesize a very rich heritage from your own country, ancient myths and old traditions, with literary legacies and traditions of European culture. There is a third component, a most important component in what you have thus achieved – your own genuine and impressive creativity as an artist, a master of language, and your commitment as a dramatist and writer of poetry and prose to problems of general and deep significance for man, modern or ancient. It is my privilege to convey to you the warm congratulations of the Swedish Academy and to ask you to receive this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature from the hand of His Majesty the King.”

However, at a point, some literary critics began to doubt if the Academy, sponsor of the prize, have been consistent in their fair judgment.

Some allegedly accused the group for unhealthy politicking, saying this has recently mutilated their mode of selection.

Others however claimed that till date, the Academy remains apolitical and have been considered to be eruditely transparent in their operational procedures.

Those who queried the integrity of the Academy wants the group to explain while none of the numerous publications of the acclaimed father of African literature, late Professor Chinua Achebe,  has never earned the grand story teller, the Eagle On Iroko, such a covetous literary prize with its global assessment by experts.  They wondered specifically why none of such publications like the celebrated Things Fall Apart, Anthill of Savannah, Arrow of God among others, has never merited a mention in such archive of award, either while the author was alive or posthumously.

According to them, one of his evergreen novels, Things Fall Apart (TFA) has outstandingly outshined (by any standard), some of the publications that had been openly adjudged as the winning theme of past winners.

However, a professor of humanity from one of the old Nigeria’s Federal Universities who would not want his name mentioned in the print said Achebe was deliberately punished for his comments against the western world.

His words: “Probably most people don’t know the reason why Wole Soyinka was given Noble Prize Award. It was obvious that the late Chinua Achebe was the favourite to win Noble Prize ahead of Wole Soyinka but Chinua Achebe was denied the award because he was the only person in Africa that stood and criticised the Western countries of being biased in giving award. He told them that in giving award, they should not only judge based on their (Western) perception of writing, but they should also look at it based on African perception.

“This did not go down well with the Western countries who knew that the late Chinua Achebe had exposed their biased judgment. So, to punish Chinua Achebe, they looked for his rival Wole Soyinka who was far behind the Late Achebe and gave him the Noble Prize thinking that would provoke hard feelings on Late Chinua Achebe.

“Before then, nobody from Africa had won the award, and it was after Late Chinua Achebe criticised them that they decided to give it to Wole Soyinka. The Late Chinua Achebe was well known in the world than Wole Soyinka in everything.”

But in his submission, one of the foremost Nigerian writers based abroad argued that Soyinka was preferred because of his rare excellence.

“Soyinka is so versatile that he wrote (and wrote well) in all the genres of literature. Soyinka is not appreciated here because his writing is lofty, not because he is a puppet. His writings are subtle. He doesn’t side the white man. He is very traditional. He is so traditional that all his children bear deep Yoruba names such as Moremi. In The Lion And The Jewel, tradition triumph over Westernization.

“In summary, Soyinka won because he was the best candidate. Also, Nobel prizes in Literature are not awarded based on one strong book but on an author’s ouvre. As at 1986, Achebe had only written one very popular book. At 1986, he had not written one major work for almost twenty years. Even if he had been nominated, you think the committee would have considered him more worthy than Soyinka who had since 1960 been publishing in all the genres?” he said.

Be that as it may, it was also noted that for the past five years, the name of the foremost Kenyan writer, Professor Ngugi Wa Thio’ngo has become a recurring decimal annually in the file of the Swedish Academy.

Though, as gathered, privileged experts would nominate him but somewhere along the line, he would be disqualified. By implication, it means till date, it seems the Swedish Academy still considers Ngugi’s literary works unworthy for this global prize.

With his expertise in indigenous literature, Ngugi has been widely published as a renowned African author that has captured the essence of writing, sailing his world across turbulent borders round about the literary circumference of the world.

For real, by October 2016, Swedish Academy would come up again with the announcement of a winner of the prize for the year.

Without prejudice, critics insisted that with the global acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature as a standard for outstanding author in the world, the Academy should widen its horizon and endeavour to concentrate more on critical evaluation of their nominees to promote the best of the world writers.

It would be recalled however, that the celebrated journalist and Belarusian author, Svetlana Alexievich, was declared in October last year, the winner of the 2015 edition. She is the 14th woman to be awarded the prize.

The writer, who made her name as an investigative journalist, was chosen from a list of 198 candidates, nominated by hundreds of official experts, including literary professors, members of the Swedish Academy and former Nobel laureates.

The announcement was made by Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy. Danius said that Alexievich had been chosen “for her polyphonic writings: a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”

For readers unfamiliar with Alexievich’s work, Danius recommended War’s Unwomanly Face (1985, first published in English in 1988), which is based on interviews with hundreds of Soviet women who participated in the Second World War, describing it as “an unknown history” that “brings you very close to every single individual.” Alexievich had immortalised the voices of these women: “In a few years, all of them will be gone.”

Alexievich, aroused with the announcement of her name as the winner of the year’s prize, said it was “Fantastic!”

The award in Danius’ words, “widened” the concept of literature.

Alexievich, she said, had “devised a new kind of literary genre,” achieving brilliance “not just in material, but in form.”

Danius praised her writing “for exploring the soviet individual. She has conducted thousands and thousands of interviews with women, with children and with men. She is offering a history of emotions, a history of the soul.”

Born in 1948,  Alexievich hailed from Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankivsk, to a Ukrainian mother and a Belarusian father. The family moved to Belarus after her father had finished his military service; Svetlana attended finishing school before working as a teacher and a journalist in Belarus.

The book that earned her the fame, War’s Unwomanly Face was the first in the grand cycle of her books, known as “Voices of Utopia”, in which she portrayed the Soviet Union from the perspective of the individual. She later applied her revolutionary historical method, a collage of painstakingly collected human voices, to the Chernobyl disaster (Voices from Chernobyl, 1997, first published in English in 1997) and the USSR’s war in Afghanistan (Zinky Boys, 1990, first published in English in 1992).

Often critical of the Soviet and then the Belarusian regime, Alexievich has periodically lived abroad, in Italy, France, Germany and Sweden.

112 writers have received the Nobel Prize in Literature since the annual award was established in 1901. Recent winners include Patrick Modiano, Alice Munro, Mo Yan and Tomas Tranströmer.

Each year’s nominees are judged on the entirety of their literary career. The winner must be deemed by the Swedish Academy to have produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction,” as stipulated by Alfred Nobel in his will.

The nominations and the opinions written by the members of the Nobel Committee in Literature each year are kept secret for 50 years.

Danius, who was appointed Permanent Secretary in June 2015, is the first woman to hold this prestigious position.

This judgment is often controversial. In the early years of the award, an “ideal direction” was taken to imply a “lofty and sound idealism” – a reading that damaged the chances of less “idealistic” writers. Staunch, conservative idealists like Paul Heyse and Rudyard Kipling were awarded the prize, while writers like Mark Twain and Émile Zola were overlooked. After being repeatedly snubbed by the academy, the iconoclastic writer August Strindberg was awarded an anti-Nobel prize by his supporters in 1912.

Suffice to say however that the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature is always notoriously difficult to predict.