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Big Prizes For African Writers Don't Change Balance Of Power In Literary World

Novelists from Africa have been receiving some of the most prestigious literary prizes. But there are still questions around who are the world’s literary gatekeepers and what role writers from the Global South can play, writes Mauritian poet and photographer Umar Timol.

Big Prizes For African Writers Don't Change Balance Of Power In Literary World

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr poses for the press after being awarded with the Prix Goncourt literary prize in Paris

Umar Timol

-Analysis-

PORT LOUIS, MAURITIUS — In the arena of prestigious literary awards, 2021 was the year for Africa: Senegal's Mohamed Mbougar Sarr won France’s Goncourt Prize, the Tanzanian Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize in Literature and the South African Damon Galgut won the Booker Prize (for English-language novels). All are well-deserved recognitions for the continent, but is the success limited by the expectations of Western critics?

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr won France’s top literary prize for his novel La plus secrète mémoire des hommes (“The Most Secret Memory of Men”) and even he recognized how it expanded who could receive the Goncourt: “It is a strong signal [...], a way, also, to show that France is sometimes much larger and much nobler — in any case much more open — than what we can, what we want to reduce it to."


This prize rewards a novel of great quality, highlights the wonderful work of two small publishing houses (Philippe Rey and Jimsaan) and, above all, puts a peripheral novel on the world literary map. What more could anyone want?

Intellectual enslavement

A dose of critical distancing seems necessary, however. Enthusiasm must give way to a work of critical reflection. There are thus several issues that it can prove useful to explore. What does this triumph reveal about the relationships, structured by colonial history, between the dominant and the dominated? What is the cost of success when it depends on someone else who is in a position of power? What does it tell us about the condition of a writer coming from the Global South?

Who decides the value of the dominated

Behind literary recognition is the question of literary power, which is part of the structures of colonial domination. Thousands of men and women write around the world, in many languages and with diverse writing practices. But few achieve global recognition because the latter depends on the literary centers that decide on the legitimacy of their writing.

For the French language, Paris is at the heart of this practice of legitimization. The power of these centers emanates from colonial history, from a history of subjugating the other. It is multiform: economic, political, military and also symbolic. It may have diminished over time, but its hold remains. We cannot therefore dissociate these instances of legitimization from history and from a specific context.

One could thus wonder about the general enthusiasm, notably of an intelligentsia from the Global South, that glorifies this event without questioning the symbolic power of an institution like the Goncourt. For what is celebrated, in the end, if not the approval of the dominant, who decides the value of the dominated and grants the author the legitimacy they secretly dream of. It is, in certain aspects, a psychic and intellectual enslavement, a reflex of the ex-colonized, this perpetual good student who waits to be told that he is up to the task.

Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature

Larissa Schwedes/dpa/ZUMA

An eminently European novel

The success of the dominated writer has a price: to be accepted and recognized, they must write texts that meet the expectations of the dominant. Thus, the writing practice and the chosen genres and themes are not innocent. Writers create according to well-defined limits. A degree of subversion is authorized, but only if it’s agreed upon. They practice a form of otherness which is accepted, a form of subjected insubordination, so to say.

Condemned to perpetual exile

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s novel is, in my eyes, an eminently European novel, in its themes (in particular the deification of literature) and in its structures, following an existing thread in the project of Western modernity. In other words, it is a writing of the margins, which claims to be such, but which is paradoxically a writing of the center, built according to the logic of the center, elaborated to be recognized by the center. The tragedy of the artists from the Global South is that they are condemned to be in perpetual exile. Little or not understood by their own, without recognition, exiled in their own country, they wish to reach or have already reached recognition and artistic success in the Global North. But this is not without consequences.

Some, in a situation of psychic dependence in front of structures of domination, end up internalizing them. Others strategically choose to play the game, without necessarily disguising who they are. Exiled at home, exiled in the spheres of domination, the artists of the Global South wander in a true literary no man's land. True decolonization will undoubtedly begin when they can psychically free themselves from symbolic domination, when they can create for their own people, drawing on their roots. It’s when they manage not only to decentralize their artistic practice but to reinvent it, according to other paradigms. Thus, to be at the heart of this "most secret memory," one must be at the heart of oneself, at the heart of one's own history.


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