Now that he is gone, he cannot win it anymore. The Nobel Prize in Literature is not awarded posthumously. Achebe won almost everything except the mother of all literary prizes. Many people think he should have won it. But he did not. Why?
The Nobel Prize in Literature has had a chequered 110 years history. Between 1901 and 2012, it has been awarded 105 times to 109 Laureates (no prizes were awarded during the War years and there were some years when the prize was shared between two winners). Many of the world’s best writers were honoured with the prize. But there have also been a few remarkable omissions.
Many people, especially Africans, think the late Chinua Achebe is one such serious omission. But Achebe is in good company. Great writers who did not win it include Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, Marcel Proust, Anton Chekov, Ezra Pound, Mark Twain, James Joyce, Graham Greene, Thomas Hardy, W. H. Auden, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jorge Luiz Borges. Like Achebe, all these writers are dead and can no longer win the prize. There are some writers alive now whom many people believe are being constantly bypassed. These include Philip Roth and Milan Kundera. But there is still hope for them.
Some people think some writers who received the prize of late are not really deserving of it. These are Dario Fo (Italian, 1997), Elfriede Jelenik, (Austrian, 2004) who, herself, thought she didn’t deserve it (a member of the academy resigned in protest of her award), and Herta Muller (Romania, 2009). If these people won it, how could Chinua Achebe not win it?
It is difficult to say who deserves the prize and who does not. It is both a “judgement” and a “quota” prize. It is judgement because a group of people (even if experts in the field), based on their subjective judgements, decide who to give it to. It is not like giving it to a person who first crosses the finishing line in a marathon. It is a quota prize because every year, someone must win it. There can be no year in which nobody is found worthy to win it. But this disadvantage, perhaps, does not matter so much since the prize is awarded for a body of work unlike the yearly ones like the Booker or the Pulitzer which are given to books published in specific years with the danger of a book winning in a year in which none of the entries was particularly good. For the Nobel Prize there is enough time to weigh an author’s life time production rather than what he achieved in a particular year. The net is wide enough to capture the best in the world. An author who does not win this year can still win next year without producing anything new – if he does not die before then.
Sometimes, the prize can come late in a writer’s life. Tomas Transtromer won it when he was 80. A brilliant poet, rumours had it that he had been long on the committee’s shortlist but the committee denied him the prize because he was one of their own (a Swede) and they didn’t want to be seen to be favouring their own countryman. By the time they gave him the prize in 2011 he was old and crippled and could hardly walk to receive the award from his sovereign’s hands. The average age of winners is now 64. Doris Lessing remains the oldest winner of the Prize when it was awarded to her when she was 88. Perhaps if Achebe, too, had lived longer, he may have made it. But given the fact that his last major work, Anthills of the Savannah, was published more than 25 years ago, and he had not won the prize around that time, it was unlikely that he would have won it if he had lived longer without producing anything new.
The Swedish Academy has in place a meticulous way for choosing each year’s winner. This is how it describes it on its own webpage: “The Nobel Committee sends invitation letters to persons who are qualified to nominate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Other persons who are qualified to nominate but who have not received invitations may also submit nominations. The names of the nominees and other information about the nominations cannot be revealed until 50 years later.” As at today, the last time the proceedings of the committee are available as a public record is 1950. The Swedish Academy (founded in 1786 to promote the Swedish language and literature) has 18 members all of whom are elected for life and identifiable by their seat numbers. All the members are men and women of letters who are distinguished authors or professors of Literature or Linguistics. “The Nobel Committee for Literature is the working body that evaluates the nominations and presents its recommendations to the Swedish Academy, and comprises four to five members.”
Each year the committee sends out 600-700 invitation letters to experts in the field to submit nominations. No one can nominate himself. By April 15, 20 preliminary candidates are chosen and this list is whittled down to five by May. Between June and August, members of the Academy spend time reading the works of these five priority candidates. In September, the entire academy confers and by October, the candidate who receives more than half the votes cast is chosen as the winner for the year.
Those qualified to nominate include the academy members themselves, members of similar academies in other countries, professors of literature and linguistics of universities around the world, previous Nobel laureates in literature, and presidents of those societies of authors that are representative of the literary production in their respective countries. This is a formidable list.
Every year, as the date for the announcement approaches, the world’s most popular bookmaking companies set odds on possible winners. Achebe had for long been on these lists. Nobody, except the academy members, knows how near Chinua Achebe ever came to winning the prize. The members are sworn to secrecy. Whiles the committee always produces a citation as to why a particular recipient was given the prize, it never comments on why another writer was not chosen instead. Anything anybody says as to why Achebe never won is just mere speculation.
One of the main reasons given for his not receiving the prize is that he has published “only” five novels, a book of short stories, one of poetry and some children’s books. Only three of these works are found in Swedish translations but the academy members, like most Swedes, are fluent in English and would have been familiar with Achebe’s writings in the language in which he wrote them. His reputation is based largely on his first published book, Things Fall Apart (TFA), not so much for its literary qualities (which it has in abundance) but because it holds the unique position of being the first modern prose work of merit from an African writer. It is often the book many non-Africans read as an introduction to black African literature. Is that fact alone enough to win him the prize? The award’s nature has changed of late. Hemingway won it based mainly on one book – The Old Man and the Sea. Of course, Hemingway produced other great work. Would Achebe be so highly regarded if TFA had appeared ten years later? Did the committee decide that his corpus was too modest for him to be awarded the prize ahead of those with whom he was in competition who eventually won it?
Or did they think it would be too much to give it to two writers from the same African country that, even if it is a giant in African terms, is still a small country on the literary map of the world – very unlike Ireland, a tiny country by physical size but a colossus in the literary world with its four Nobel Laureates (equal to the total of all of Africa’s)? The committee would deny any political considerations in its decisions. But some people argue that Salman Rushdie will never win the prize because the committee will not want to offend Muslim sensibilities. Three academy members (Seat numbers 12, 13, and 15) resigned in protest against the academy’s inability to support Salman Rushdie when Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a death sentence on him in 1989. And the academy has often been criticised for its Eurocentric bias.
There are some Nigerians who say Achebe may have unfairly “borrowed” parts of TFA from another person’s work and this may have cost him the Nobel Prize. I don’t think there is any credence to this allegation, and, again, we cannot know if this has ever come to the attention of the noble men and women on the Nobel Committee.
Another reason often encountered in this discussion is that Achebe’s stinging criticism of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness may have done him in with the Noble Committee. I personally find this difficult to believe. Achebe’s essay (which is not without its own critics) taught a whole world an alternative reading of a classical text. It is often taught and discussed in schools in the USA and Europe. If anything, it should rather enhance his chances of getting the prize. Can we imagine some of the academy members telling themselves, before they cast their votes, that they would not give it to an otherwise deserving author because he accused a dead white European male writer of racism in a beloved text? Will it be something they do without their knowing they are doing it? Are the academy members so petty and also so vindictive as to carry a grudge they hold against an author who refused their invitation to the extent that they would virtually blacklist that author? And will newer members of the academy also respect that blacklist and vote like the older members for exactly the same reasons?
How often did Wole Soyinka, as a Laureate, nominate his fellow countryman? Was the Soyinka award meant for Black Africa and once they had gotten that out of the way, they forgot about us? Or do we have a tendency to shout “racism” at any perceived injustice done to a member of our race?
These, and other reasons, can be known only in some 30 or more year’s time when the committee’s deliberations around the time Achebe could have won the prize start becoming public knowledge. The academy is made up of human beings who cannot be expected to make perfect choices at all times. Short of getting into the minds of the academy members, we may be unlikely to ever know, with certainty, why they denied Achebe the prize.
Achebe clearly means a lot more to us, black Africans, than he does to any other groups of people in the world. We know that other, equally good, writers did not win the prize. But that does not give us any comfort. Achebe does not need the academy’s endorsement to confirm his greatness to us Africans, but we still feel he has been done an injustice in not winning it.
Of the academy’s current members, Par Wastberg, (Seat number 12 since 1997) is, perhaps, the most knowledgeable about African literature. After his studies in Harvard and Uppsala, and still a young man in the early 1960s, he won a literary scholarship which he spent in southern Africa - a journey that opened his eyes to the political situation there. When he was president of Swedish PEN, he promoted the cause of many persecuted African writers.
As a founding member of Swedish Amnesty International, he was vocal in promoting the cause of the imprisoned Nelson Mandela. He was banned in the 1960s from entering Rhodesia and South Africa for his anti-colonial and anti-apartheid activities. It is said that he was instrumental in promoting the works of Wole Soyinka and Nadine Gordimer. He was already a member of the academy when J. M. Coetzee won the prize in 2003. Guess if he did not vote for him? Wastberg, a very fine writer himself, will be 80 this year. When he dies, Africa will lose a friend on the academy.
Ghanaians and Nigerians like comparing their countries to each other. This has been going on since the colonial days. Achebe, too, indulged in this sport. In his essay “What is Nigeria to me?” (2008), he conceded that Ghana beat Nigeria to independence by three years (it was actually three and a half!) but added “... but then Ghana was a tiny affair, easy to manage compared to the huge lumbering giant called Nigeria. We did not have to be vociferous like Ghana. Just our presence was enough”. And in his recent memoirs he sportingly called it a “subtle competition” and talked of Nigerians thinking of Ghana as too small to matter to which the Ghanaians responded by saying: “Nigeria is bigger than Ghana in the way in which three-pence was bigger than sixpence” – a joke that is easily understood by those old enough to have used these coins that we both inherited from the British.
But in literary output and winning the big prizes in the field, we, in Ghana, have little to set against the Nigerians. No Ghanaian writer has even been rumoured to be on the Nobel Committee’s long-list for the prize. Who would that be? But the future is promising. Will it be Taiye Selasi who will clinch it for us? She is only half-Ghanaian (and half Nigerian – ouch, these Nigerians again!) but we won’t mind that at all.
Or will it be Canadian born Esi Edugyan? Whether Esi regards herself as a Ghanaian or not and whether she likes it or not, we shall still celebrate whatever successes come her way and make her our very own...