By Morenike Taire
In the autumn of 1986, Nigeria’s Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka (aka Wole Soyinka), became the Nobel Laureate for literature. The Nobel prize- a set of annual international awards bestowed in several categories by Swedish and Norwegian institutions in recognition of academic, cultural or scientific advances- is the agreed ultimate in the world of prizes and political as it is perceived to be, it is nevertheless agreed that it is virtually impossible to win it if the contender is not extraordinary in his or her field of endeavour.
The Nobel Peace prize has been by far the most controversial- its subjective nature makes it possible to manipulate and sometimes, politics rather than achievement takes the upper hand amongst the criteria.
Of course the science and social science prize winners are far less visible, and the prizes themselves far less possible to manipulate. If someone has done groundbreaking work in physics or economics, it is virtually impossible to ignore them. The most glamorous of the Nobel prizes has got to be the literature prize, the one that Soyinka won.
Though he was the first African ever to have won the uber prestigious award, the giving of it to him was not without its own controversies. The novelist, biographer, poet and playwright have been said in some quarters to the late father of Nigerian literature Chinua Achebe, whose great first novel Things Fall Apart had catapulted him into permanent greatness and had him rising year after year like a meteor in the space that is the international literary community. Arguments on this went on for years.
Soyinka had opened the door for the rest of Africa including Albert Camus, the journalist and playwright of Algeria; activist Nadine Gordimer of South Africa, her compatriot John Maxwell Coetzee who had also won the prestigious Booker prize; as well as Doris Lessing of Zimbabwe. Out of these, only Nadine Gordimer arguably has boasted as much international clout as Soyinka has, perhaps by virtue of his personality, or perhaps by virtue of his being Nigerian. Soyinka is the one Nigerian who has never sat on the proverbial fence when it comes to national matters.
If an African has had such intense influence on the world just for winning a prize, it shows how important the subjects around the prize are to human development. And if science, literature and peace are important subjects to the rest of the world, why are they not to Nigeria?
More than two decades after Soyinka won the Nobel prize and Ben Okri’s the Famished Road won the Booker- another very prestigious prize, no other Nigerian has won any major literary prize for their Nigerian writing.
Helon Habila, former Arts Editor for the Vanguard; as well as Chimamanda Adizie who won the ‘junior Booker prize’ and the Orange prize respectively, have moved on from Nigerian affairs, choosing, like Okri, to be Nigerian writers at large. In the midst of the tragedy of the London’s Grenfell tower fire in June 2017, Okri wrote a wildly critically acclaimed poem- Grenfell Tower- which ironically catapulted him back to global literary reckoning. As a British writer.
No home based writer is given any recognition, except in literary circles. Not for them, national awards. There was a ray of hope when the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas company, NLNG, installed their mouth watering ‘Nigerian prize’. It was to be expected that others would follow. It did not happen, until Etisalat endowed a less prestigious prize more recently whose scope is not limited to Nigeria.
As the whole world celebrates the new Nobel Literature Laureate and the sale of his books goes through the roof while they have become the topics at top dinner parties in the world’s capitals, Nigeria has joined to celebrate his success through the social media. While Soyinka, Achebe and Ekwensi had spurned the next generation of great writers of literature after them, their progeny has unfortunately failed to deliver in that regard.
This state of affairs might have more to do with the dearth of the entire industry than with the literary giants. Nobody is rewarding writers, so nobody wants to write. The level of literature that is available is therefore abysmal in nature. There is no competition, no inspiration, no encouragement.
The kind of literature that is available to school children is limited, at best. In reality most of the books with which Literature in English is being taught in Nigerian schools today are mostly badly written, poorly edited and poorly printed. A pre-teen child who has been taught well how to read and write, can easily pick out the grammatical errors in many of them.
This has some obvious implications, chief of which is that writers of influence will be scarce amongst the millennials, who are already bogged down by intrusive technologies with which they have to contend daily.
More importantly, who will teach them the practical aspect of grit, the one thing the study and practice of literature teaches? Who will put Nigeria back on the global map? Who will write the book that will unite Nigeria?