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Lili - Heft 107

Pamela Z. Dube

»Double Talk and Multiple Moralities?«

Reflections on the Nobel Prize in the African Literary Context:
Wole Soyinka and Nadine Gordimer



Dieser Beitrag wirft einen Blick auf die beiden Schriftsteller, ihr Oeuvre und ihre afrikanische Herkunft unter dem Aspekt ihrer Ehrung mit dem höchsten Literaturpreis, dem Nobelpreis. Der Nobelpreis für Literatur hat eine lange Geschichte mit Kontroversen über die Kriterien für die Auswahl der Laureaten, weshalb es nicht verwundert, daß afrikanische Kritiker wie Chinweizu dieses Stockholm-Ereignis als Zeugnis europäischer Hegemonie betrachten, die sich anmaße, aus europäischer Perspektive den literarischen Wert von Werken in Afrika, wie in diesem Fall, ja in allen Kulturen der Welt autoritativ zu bestimmen. Dieser Beitrag beleuchtet diese Kritik im Hinblick auf die betroffenen Laureaten und ihre Vorträge zur Preisverleihung, in denen sie sich auch zu ihren Aufgaben als Schriftsteller äußern; er skizziert die von der Schwedischen Akademie ausgewählten Werke und die Relevanz dieses Preises im Kontext afrikanischer Literatur. Die in Soyinkas Vortrag zur Preisverleihung erwähnte Anklage ambivalenter Weltpolitik bildet das Konzept dieses Beitrags, auch im Zusammenhang mit der Kritik an Soyinkas und Gordimers Ambivalenzen und Ambiguitäten nicht nur als Schriftsteller, sondern auch als Personen.

»Africa does not need the cultural disorientation and subservience which western prizes promote.« (Chinweizu, »Literature and Nation Building in Africa«) The above comment by Chinweizu, circulated as part of a paper to participants at the conference of African writers in Stockholm in May 1986, is only part of a series of contemptuous arguments against and criticism of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and it already throws a glimpse at the indisputably long history this legacy has of generating controversy in the choice of the laureate and the criteria surrounding the choice. Of course, Chinweizu's contempt is directed at this legacy's specific involvement in judging African Literature. Such aspects as criticism and reactions to the prize going to Africa, as well as the writers in question's response to the award as it is expressed in their lectures of acceptance and in what they believe their task as writers to be, will be dealt with in this discussion.

With the cultural, political and economic map of the world radically changing and through influences of political protests, liberation struggles from oppressed nations and a growing interest in and recognition of minority literatures (mainly perpetuated by the so-called Commonwealth literatures) it is no wonder that by the eighties attention had to be eventually paid to one of the continents that had been till then neglected in literary circles. So far, from the vast geography, multiple cultures and languages of Africa, only Wole Soyinka in 1986 and Nadine Gordimer in 1991 have led the way as writers who have been deemed worthy of this highest of literary accolades, the Nobel Prize for Literature. Although there is an interval of five years between their receipt of the prize, what is particularly of interest here is not only the continent and countries they represent, but also their diverse cultural, political, race (and gender?) backgrounds, and how these aspects are addressed in their Nobel lectures in as far as they influence them as writers. Some major aspects stand out when looking at these writers. Wole Soyinka is a black male born in 1934 in Abeokuta, Nigeria, and educated both in Africa and Europe, and Nadine Gordimer is a white female born in Springs in apartheid South Africa in 1923, of a Jewish father and a British-born Jewish mother. Nevertheless, both writers blend African and European cultural traditions in curious ways and yet write from a very African-centred world view. Both were awarded the prize for their daring and outspoken commitment to social justice and democracy, for being an international voice for the voiceless in their respective countries.

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It is no coincidence then that Wole Soyinka's Nobel Prize Lecture on the 8th of December in 1986, titled »This Past Must Address Its Present« is more a sociopolitical comment on African political affairs and an attack at Europe's involvement in dehumanising the African than a direct biographical testimony on his writing or on what the prize means to him and his country. Naturally this lecture was dedicated to Nelson Mandela who was still in prison for life at the time. Soyinka himself has a long history of imprisonments, continual threats of imprisonment, torture and death which span from before to after receiving the Nobel Prize. Already in the early stages of his career as a playwright and performer, in 1965, a period of intense political upheaval in Nigeria, he experienced his first imprisonment for protesting against a corrupt election.1 When several British and American writers protested his imprisonment, charges against him were eventually dropped, but two years later, during the early days of the Nigerian Civil war, he was arrested again and held in solitary confinement for twenty seven months on charges of conspiring with the rebels. However, his persevering spirit was soon to be proved in how while he was imprisoned he managed to continue writing and had books smuggled to him on which he continued writing inscriptions between the lines as well as on cigarette packs and on toilet paper. It was these prison notes that became the basis for several ensuing principal publications, like Poems from Prison (1969), A Shuttle in the Crypt (1972), the collection of prison notes The Man Died (1972), the novel Season of Anomy (1973), and the play Madmen and Specialists (1974). Even since 1986, Soyinka has been forced into exile on three occasions, culminating in the confiscation of his Nigerian as well as his United Nations international passport by the Nigerian military government in 1994. Threatened with the prospect of house arrest he eventually left Nigeria and chose to live in exile. Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his essay »Wole Soyinka: Mythopoesis and the Agon of Democracy« cites parts of the letter of the Annual Human Rights Award presented to Soyinka in 1995 by the International Human Rights Law Group in recognition of Soyinka's »perseverence for the cause of human rights and democracy in Nigeria, with great eloquence and against great odds [...] At extreme personal risk« (Gates, p.187). According to the letter of award, Soyinka has »remained true to the principles of social justice and public accountability« (ibid.), and Gates Jr. confirms that since 1986 Soyinka has indeed »become an even more vocal exponent of democracy and a public foe against tyranny not only in Nigeria, but throughout the entire African continent from South Africa to Senegal, from Ivory Coast to Angola, from Kenya to Zaire« (ibid.). The main crux of his Nobel lecture in 1986 already testified to his mission against injustice, human oppression and especially against the subhuman denigration of the African as proved historically and in the neo-colonialism of apartheid South Africa. Although the title of the lecture pleads to the past to address its future, Soyinka declares:

In any case, the purpose is not really to indict the past, but to summon it to the attention of a suicidal, anachronistic present. To say to that mutant present: you are a child of those centuries of lies, distortion, and opportunism in high places, even among the holy of holies of intellectual objectivity. But the world is growing up, while you willfully remain a child, a stubborn, self-destructive child, with certain destructive powers, but a child nevertheless. And to say to the world, to call attention to its own historic passage of lies - as yet unabandoned by some - which sustains the evil precocity of this child. (Soyinka 1995, p. 179).

For Soyinka then it is realities like, among numerous others in the continent, the South African apartheid politics, the Nigerian corruption and military politics, memories of the atrocities at the Hola camp in Kenya during the Mau-Mau Liberation struggles that make him question himself as a writer, »When is playacting rebuked by reality? When is fictionalizing presumptuous? What happens after playacting?« (Soyinka 1995, p. 173). Such questions, he believes, can endanger the internalized processes of the writer's creative mind in two ways, »he either freezes up completely, or he abandons the pen for far more direct means of contesting unacceptable reality« (p. 174). Soyinka himself has proven to have neither frozen up nor abandoned the pen; on the contrary he has wielded his pen and his voice completely towards a commitment to justice and eradication of human inequality. He says:

Intellectuals, writers, scientists, plain working men, politicians - they come to that point where a social reality can no longer be observed as a culture on a slide beneath the microscope, nor turned into aesthetic variations on pages, canvas or the stage. The blacks of course are locked into an unambiguous condition: on the occasion I do not need to address us. We know, and we embrace our mission. It is the other that this precedent seizes the opportunity to address, and not merely those who are trapped within the confines of that doomed camp, but those who live outside, on the fringes of conscience. (Soyinka 1995, p. 176).

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Again, while Soyinka's outspokenness comes from a very African-centered world view and experience, and lashes at the continuing impacts of colonialism in Africa his commitment to preservation of individual freedom and social justice is evident in his defiance of any repressive regime, black or white. His probing and daring writing as a dramatist, novelist, critic and social commentator testifies to his active engagement and awareness of not only the political issues and history of his country and Africa, but also of other countries outside Africa, especially Europe. It is partially for this reason that he has been often accused of mimicry, of being a Euro-assimilationist and Anglomodernist in his writing and loyalties. This sophisticated integration of African and European cultural traditions pervades most of his writing, and as Bruce King confirms that although the setting in Soyinka's plays or novels may be such modern Nigerian cities as Lagos and Ibadan, the scenes and situations »seem familiar since they often are influenced by, are adapted from or imitate well-known works of European literature« (King 1988, p. 339). King further notes that Soyinka's plays resemble those of Ben Jonson and Bertolt Brecht »in their energy, knock-about humor, satire, sharply outlined characters, sense of society, unexpected development, and use of popular culture« (ibid.). All of these aspects combined with Yoruba expressions, witty word-play and layered symbols, myth and imagery which move the narrative back and forth in time, as well as song and dance, create a sense of a highly dramatic and very visual performance.

It was a combination of this integrated vision of life, active commitment to social justice and his sophisticated, cosmopolitan craft as a writer that won Wole Soyinka recognition as the first African recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. The Swedish Academy honoured him especially for being a dramatist »who, in a vast cultural perspective enriched with poetic resonances, stages the dramatic representation of existence« (cited from the Swedish Academy Award commentary in The Georgia Review, p. 165). Out of all Soyinka's oeuvre, it was the play Death and the King's Horseman (1984) that was specifically referred to by the Academy, a play exploring to its depth a very familiar motif in Soyinka's tragedies: self-sacrifice. This drama has at its centre the conflict of a communal order with an individual's will and is a freely adapted version of an actual historical event in 1944 in Nigeria.2 Soyinka's plot of the play suggests his use of the text as a mediation of the profoundly ambiguous and metaphorical distance between art and life. Henry Louis Gates Jr. believes that »in that space between the structure of the historical event and the literary event (which is to say, the somehow necessary or probable event), one begins to understand Soyinka's idea of tragedy« (Gates, p. 189). For Gates this drama suggests more affinities with Greek tragedy than Elizabethan, recalls mythopoetic tragedies of Synge and Brecht as well as Lorca's Blood Wedding, and is not »merely a fable of the evils of colonialism or of white unblinking racism. Death and the King's Horseman is a classical work in which structure and metaphysics are inextricably intertwined« (p. 190). The ambiguity inherent in this drama appears at various levels in the role played by the main character, Elesin, in both his individual and collective, social and psychic dilemma, the conflict in the face of change, and in the language and action of the play. Such thanatotic and erotic ambiguities as symbolized by Elesin's marrying a virgin on the day of his death, the son's self sacrifice for the father who also slays himself, stand , for Gates, »as signs of a deeper idea of transition and generation. The role of the Horseman demands not only the acceptance of ambiguity but also its embrace« (p. 192).

Although this sense of ambiguity seems to be specifically defined in the context of its inevitability in the distance between art and life, at this stage it seems necessary to carry it further to the reality of criticism of Soyinka's ambivalence not only in his writings but of himself too as a person. A sense of this ambiguity is also recalled in the cited question which has been so far ignored but forms the title of this paper: »double talk and multiple moralities?«. This quote is from Soyinka's Nobel lecture, from the part where he addresses the conscience troubled other who, for instance, finds sanctions morally repugnant, and so Soyinka asks: Or what shall we say of another leader for whom economic sanctions which work against an Eastern Europe country will not work in the Apartheid enclaves of South Africa, that master of histrionics who takes to the world's airwaves to sing: »Let Poland be«, but turns off his hearing aid when the world shouts: »Let Nicaragua be«. But enough of these world leaders of double talk and multiple moralities. (Soyinka1995, p. 176 - my italics).

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Michael Thorpe's article, »Soyinka's Clay Foot« (1989, p. 39), which accuses Soyinka of ›double talk and multiple moralities‹ is a lament from an admirer losing faith in Soyinka's visions. Thorpe's criticism of Soyinka's contradictions and double standards are based not only on some points in Soyinka's Nobel Lecture, but also on some close observations of his responses in interviews and presentation of papers on writing. One such instance of ambiguity in an interview, cited by Thorpe from the 1987 Literary Half-Yearly special on Soyinka, is of Soyinka proudly telling the interviewer that he is a member of the Academy of Letters of the German Democratic Republic while in the same interview he urges thought about the suppressed writers of Southern Africa. Thorpe wonders, of course, why a writer of Soyinka's experience would not decline an invitation from such a disagreeably exclusive body from a country well known for its treatment of outspoken writers, some of whom were driven into exile. In the Nobel Lecture, Thorpe finds it already ambiguous that Soyinka should mention the atrocities of the Mau-Mau, of the deaths in South African police custody and township lynchings and yet omit the controversy of the »necklacing« gangs supported by Winnie Mandela in her notorious »we have our necklaces« speech, an extremely cruel event that hurt the ANC's image abroad. One wonders then if ambiguity is not inherent in human nature, as it is in art and life, and that it is only through the individual's will, choice and action at any given time and place that provide a space for exercising this inheritance according to where one's principles, wishes, possibilities and loyalties lie at that time. Soyinka himself at the beginning of his literary career already declared, »I don't believe that I have any obligation to enlighten, to instruct, to teach. I don't possess the sense of duty or didacticism«. (Soyinka in Duerden/Pieterse, p. 173).

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In Nigeria, Soyinka's acceptance of the Nobel Prize was received with a mixture of jubilation and critical acclaim. Bernth Lindfors (1994, p. 141) writes in detail on this subject; how for weeks Soyinka's achievement »dominated the headlines, editorials, political cartoons, advertisements and letters to the editor in all Nigerian newspapers and news magazines« (ibid.). What pleased Soyinka more was that his achievement was taken as a national honour and was shared by all, from the president Babangida to the ordinary people in the street. However, from his critics came contempt at his obscurity as a writer, reopening a decade old debate on the relevancy of high art, such as Soyinka's sophisticated works in English, to everyday life in Africa.3 Chinweizu expressed his revolt against the Nobel Prize even more explicitly when he pointed out that it was more a »bewitching instrument for Euro-imperialist intellectual hegemony«, and that he finds »the conceit that a gaggle of Swedes, all by themselves, should pronounce on the intellectual excellence for the diverse cultures of the whole world« extremely abhorrent (Lindfors, p. 143). The Nobel Prize, according to Chinweizu, encourages African writers to mimic prescribed and fashionable styles of western literature and thereby prevents the writer from contributing productively to the cultural integration of their own society.

The result is a euro-assimilationist literature which is bewitched by western claims of cultural superiority, and which grovels for acceptance into the tributary streams of western literature. Yet other African writers might contrive to make their assimilationist works appear authentic products of the African tradition by craftily giving them enough Africanesque patina and inlays to satisfy the western tourist taste for exotica. (in Lindfors, p. 146).

Although there were also a number of other contributions in the form of newspaper articles and letters especially to The Guardian from various readers in support of or against Chinweizu and Soyinka's dispute, it is deliberate that only Chinweizu's criticism has been quoted here to throw light on the seriousness of the criticism not only against Soyinka's writing style but also on the Nobel Prize legacy in the African literary context. From other academics and students in Nigeria most articles were in praise of Soyinka's writing style and his use of language. The rest of Nigeria embraced the Prize with national pride for the confirmation of their success in the outside world of literature as a young independent country. Lindfors claims that one of the sanest reactions to the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature came from Chinua Achebe, the fellow Nigerian writer who also had often been nominated for the same Prize. Achebe, at a conference of the Association of Nigerian Authors in November 1986, expressed the national joy at Soyinka's achievement and acknowledged all the controversies surrounding the acceptance of the Prize, but declared that for him what was important was that »one of us has proved that we can beat the white man at his own game. That is wonderful for us and for the white man. But now we must turn away and play our own game.« (Lindfors, p. 153). And so it came to pass, that five years later, from the same continent, a white person, a woman, and moreover a South African, just two years after Mandela's release and three years before Mandela's election to presidency, in that uncertain state of ›interregnum‹ in (post)apartheid South Africa, Nadine Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Nadine Gordimer who has often been described as South Africa's ›First Lady of Letters‹ is distinguished not only as one of the country's most gifted writers, but more for her outspoken fiction which has always mirrored the political and psychological tensions within the country. Explicitly leftist and supportive of the African National Congress, and when it was banned of the United Democratic Front, she nevertheless has often described herself as »an apolitical person in a situation where to be effective you have to be political. All I have to offer is my ability to write« (Bazin/Seymour, p. 12). It is along these lines too that her Nobel Lecture in December 1991 titled, »Writing and Being« seems to confirm her convictions. Already at the beginning of the lecture her focus is on the word, its development from orality to being written and to being incorporated within various innovative electronic media. And she believes that the inherent faculty in humans to want to know what makes us »spend our lives attempting to interpret through the word the readings we take in the societies, the world of which we are part.« (Gordimer, Nobel Prize Lecture, in: The Georgia Review, p. 276). This statement recalls exactly the main criteria under which the Swedish Academy awarded Nadine Gordimer the Nobel Prize for Literature; for being a writer »who through her magnificent epic writing has - in the words of Alfred Nobel - been of very great benefit to humanity« (cited from the Swedish Academy award commentary in: The Georgia Review, p. 272). Gordimer's tremendous contribution to South African literature and politics has had a lot to do with her love for words and her commitment to justice, which she has shown in her freely chosen task as an interpreter of a society in struggle, an interpreter to South Africa and the rest of the world. In all her novels and short stories, Gordimer has continuously explored and sought to reflect the political issues that have dominated apartheid South Africa. In her essays and articles she has been daringly outspoken in her opposition to apartheid and support of black liberation movements and black writers, and has made statements like: I am not a preacher or a politician. It is simply not the purpose of a novelist. I am totally opposed to apartheid and all the cruel and ugly things it stands for, and have been so all my life. But my writing does not deal with my personal convictions; it deals with the society I live and write in. I thrust my hand as deep as it will go, deep into the life around me, and I write about what comes up. My novels are anti-apartheid, not because of my personal abhorrence of apartheid, but because the society that is the very stuff of my work reveals itself. The suffering inflicted by White on Black, the ambiguities of feeling, the hypocrisy, the courage, the lies, the sham and shame - they are all there, implicit. If you write honestly about life in South Africa, apartheid damns itself. (Bazin/Seymour, p. 83).

Although she has often insisted that her commitment in her fiction is not to any specific political position but to the truth of her art, she has had three of her novels banned quite early in her writing career, World of Strangers (1958) for twelve years, The Late Bourgeois World (1966) for ten years and Burger's Daughter (1979) for three months.4 Censorship, which she believes is very closely linked to apartheid, has not been as tough on her as a white writer as it has been on outspoken black writers, »if a white writer has a book banned, an area of his professional life has been affected. But if a black writer has a book banned he comes under general suspicion of being ›subversive‹. He is watched and harassed by the Special Branch simply because he is an articulate man [...].« (ibid. p. 86). For the award of the Nobel Prize the three novels cited in particular by the Swedish Academy as masterpieces were The Conservationist (1974), Burger's Daughter (1979), and July's People (1981). All three novels deal in various ways with the tension between the complicated personal and social relationships in the apartheid South African environment. Although all three novels are merely observations of Gordimer's intensive immediacy with the harsh realities of her world, there is a kind of deep insight and prediction of the future in the sequence of events that these three novels in particular seem to form; predictions which are actually slowly being realised in the new (post-)apartheid South Africa. In The Conservationist, there is an intense feeling for place, for the land and ownership, and, of course, the conflict within the South African politics and history based on the question, ›whose land?‹ arises. Consequently then, the concern for the environment, for the animals and the birds while ignoring the human beings unjustly treated and deprived of their land is another intruding issue that has to be eventually addressed. Burger's Daughter in dealing with the problems of whites working politically with blacks and the conflicts in their families and immediate social relationships shows the confrontation with the critical state of being in-between, and the ensuing dilemma with the self, and the struggle to escape the political heritage in South Africa. July's People shows Gordimer's vision of a future black rule in South Africa, an inevitable future. However, it is a terrifying, violent future coming out of a civil war, a future that has been misread already as »You see, this is what South Africa is going to be like when the blacks take over!« (Gordimer in: Bazin/Seymour, p.294). While the novel seems to address the fears and uncertainties as to what would happen to white people when the blacks take over, Gordimer herself believes that there is no need for whites to run away like the liberal Maureen Smales in the novel who takes her husband and children to seek refuge with their black servant, July, in his native village. Gordimer's conviction has always been that the South African society under a black majority government would be a real democracy for everybody.

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The Nobel Prize award to Nadine Gordimer received with great appraisal internationally and in South Africa has not limited Gordimer's visions as a writer. Judith Kitchen notes:

Something tends to happen to the attention paid to Nobel laureates in literature. They are often rendered effectively ›posthumous‹ - not so much by the prize itself but by the critics who, once a writer has received the award, are busy predicting the next winner as if assuming that the nature of the honored writer's significance is fixed forever. (Kitchen, p. 285).

This has not been the case with Gordimer who even as she received the prize had just issued her latest major novel My Son's Story (1990). She has since also produced a collection of short stories and her most recent novel None To Accompany Me (1994). This remarkable novel is set in postelection South Africa where the main character is a woman in her sixties and has worked as a lawyer spending almost a lifetime working for this moment of a new political phase in her country. At the age of retirement, Vera Stark, »her work finished or at least handed over to her black counterparts« (Kitchen, p. 285) is still open-minded and involved. For Kitchen, this character »represents white South Africans who must of necessity relinquish authority« (ibid.), but this is not so much the case than the fact that Starks is a highly individualized person, »a woman poised on the brink of something new, something more private and more personal than her previous life has allowed her to explore« (ibid.). This novel explores more individual relationships than the previous novels which deal with conflicts between personal and social relationships; »With the specificity of its title, the book moves inward. There are doors still to open, and they must be opened alone. The questions both author and character ask are What now? and Where do we go when we've reached the place we were headed?« (Kitchen, p. 286). Confrontation with various options and possibility of alternatives is a usual theme in Gordimer's work. The choice not made then remains an important part of the book. The character, Vera Stark, reassesses all her relationships and finds a simple kind of intimacy beyond the political or even the sexual in her friendship with an outspoken black man who is more a moralist than a militant. For Kitchen, Gordimer presents in None to Accompany Me, a striking new image of women in literature.

On the question of women and feminism, Gordimer has been often criticised by feminists for her refusal to identify with feminism or see herself as a spokesperson for women in general. Considering that she was the first woman after twenty five years to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, in her Nobel Lecture there was no mention of her triumph as also a success to be shared with all women. She has always maintained that writers are androgynous beings and she is not a »woman writer«. For her, a woman writer is »somebody who is setting out to make a point about being a woman. But to me, the real thing that makes a writer a writer is the ability to intuit other people's states of mind [...] Writers do this all the time. I think there is a special quality a writer has that is not defined by sex.« (Bazin/Seymour, p. 278). Talking of women in the sense of feminist politics, she declares, »I'm not a feminist writer. And I don't see myself in that spectrum at all. I am a woman, and obviously what I write is influenced by the fact that I'm a woman, but so far as politics is concerned, I am concerned with the liberation of the individual no matter what sex or color.« (p. 295). In the struggle for liberation she has had her sympathies with black women whose oppression in terms of racism has been shared with black men and has been foremost than their liberation as women. For Gordimer, feminism could only be addressed as part of the general struggle of all against racial injustice. Gordimer considers herself as an African writer, writing in the English language, from a very African-centered consciousness and therefore part of the English literature in South Africa and elsewhere. She believes in and has links with writers from other parts of Africa. For Gordimer, the shared cultural links and instinctive understanding which prevail despite the many languages, different religions and different ideas give the Africans a sense of attachment to the continent, a kind of relationship which she believes should be kept on by South Africans who have formerly had little contact with the rest of Africa. Although in her many travels around Africa she has been merely seen more as a European, it is in her home-country in South Africa where she has been more at home with her Africanness. Her Jewishness, she confirms, has not played any major role in the formation of her attitude to life, »for me, the formative thing has been being a white African.« (p. 297).

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Gordimer received the Nobel Prize at the beginning of a transitional phase in South African politics. Already after two years of Mandela's release, all attention was concentrated on what was to happen next and there was intense anxiety and excitement as some political prisoners were being released and exiles returning home. News of Nadine Gordimer's award came at the right time when South Africa was in everybody's minds, and so her achievement was like an added triumph to the positive changes that were taking shape towards a democracy in the country. Gordimer herself became even more of a political representative after the award, as she travelled around the world and gave talks and interviews. At a »Berliner Lektionen« literary series where Gordimer gave a talk and a reading on the 31 May 1992, Luyanda Mpahlwa writes (p. 1), »the Berlin audience, which filled the sold-out Renaissance Theatre on a warm Sunday morning seemed to have prepared itself to hear the ›message‹ from the white South African writer, who has become the symbol of opposition to apartheid.« Questions from the audience and media correspondents were directed primarily on her views of a future liberated South Africa and her personal experiences as a privileged white ›protest writer‹. In an interview in the Berliner Zeitung in 1995, asked if the Nobel Prize award has influenced her work as a writer, she replied that her work has not been affected, she still writes, however the award has made more a public figure and political spokesperson out of her. For instance, at a World Economy Forum in Switzerland she had the opportunity to suggest the best ways of investments that a new democratic South Africa would need. Gordimer's view of a positive South African future was already demonstrated in her gesture of inviting a long time black writer-colleague and friend, Mongane Wally Serote, the ANC Head of Arts and Culture, to accompany her to the reception of the Nobel Prize. In this way she broke the official procedure stipulated by the Swedish authorities for recipients of the prize to be accompanied by the ambassador of their government. At the time Gordimer did not recognise the South African government as legitimate (cf. Mpahlwa). Gordimer's enthusiasm and support in her role as co-founder of the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW) has been shown in her active involvement in the project of establishing COSAW's own publishing facilities particularly for the under-privileged black community. Mpahlwa confirms Gordimer's plans in 1992 that funds donated from her Nobel Prize would go into the first pilot project of translating some of the South African literature, mainly written in English, into the two main black languages in South Africa. The problem of readership which most writers who write in English have would be lessened in a situation of an illiteracy rate of about 60%. Gordimer explains further in the Berliner Zeitung interview (1995), that hundred thousands of black South Africans can read the newspaper in English, understand the news on television, but cannot master the language good enough. Therefore COSAW, 95% of whose members are black, seeks to establish a larger readership and to encourage more black writers to write, not only in English but also in their mother-tongue.

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In a collection of essays titled, like her Nobel Lecture, Writing and Being (1995), commenting on the dawning of a new South Africa Nadine Gordimer says: It is not only in a religious sense that one may be born again. In 1994 the struggle, the final process of decolonization was achieved, after decades when the end receded again and again. In April 1994 all South Africans of all colours went to the polls and voted into power their own government, for the first time. There are now no overlords and underlings in the eyes of the law. What this means to our millions is something beyond price or reckoning that we know we shall have to work to put into practice, just as we worked for liberation. We know we have to perform what Flaubert called ›the most difficult and least glamorous of all tasks: transition.‹ This is the reality of freedom. This is the great matter. I am a small matter; but for myself there is something immediate, extraordinary, of strong personal meaning. That other world that was the world is no longer the world. My country is the world, whole, a synthesis. I am no longer a colonial. I may now speak of ›my people‹. (Gordimer 1995, p. 134).

Looking at both Soyinka and Gordimer in the light of their continuous vitality as writers and spokespersons not only for African literature but also for the social politics of the continent, one realises that their passion for writing is inextricably linked with their immediate social environment and the will to expose it as it is, like Gordimer confirms in her Nobel Lecture, »nothing factual that I write or say will be as truthful as my fiction« (Gordimer in: The Georgia Review, p. 279). And drawing parallels with the ambivalence of »double talk and multiple moralities« in the sense of writing, Gordimer believes in a kind of tension between standing apart and being involved, and being shaped by different levels of consciousness. For Gordimer, »all literary studies are aimed at the same end: to pin down to a consistency (and what is consistency if not the principle hidden within the riddle?); to make definitive through methodology the writer's grasp at the forces of being«, and therefore declaring that there is no state of pure being, »life is aleatory in itself; being is constantly pulled and shaped this way and that by circumstances and different levels of consciousness« (ibid., p. 278). If one carries this question of multiple moralities even further to the field of criticism and debates surrounding the actions and criteria of the Swedish Academy's choice of its Nobel Prize laureates, one could conclude that at the centre of it all what remains is that the Prize often raises particular attention to whichever author has been selected, his or her work and to the rest of the country, the continent's literature, history and even politics - and that is one major contribution the Nobel Prize legacy has made internationally, in the words of Alfred Nobel, for the »very great benefit to humanity« (ibid., p. 272).

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Bazin, Nancy Topping/Seymour, Marilyn Dallman (eds.): Conversations with Nadine Gordimer, University Press of Mississippi 1990.

Chinweizu: »Literature and Nation Building in Africa«, unpublished paper, cited in: Lindfors 1994, p. 147.

Duerden, Dennis/Pieterse, Cosmo (eds.): African Writers Talking, Heinemann, London 1972.

Espmark, Kjell: The Nobel Prize in Literature: A Study of the Criteria behind the Choices, Boston 1986.

Gates Jr., Henry Louis: »Wole Soyinka: Mythopoesis and the Agon of Democracy«, in: The Georgia Review 49 (1995) p. 187-194.

[Gordimer:] »Schuldgefühle sind unproduktiv«. Nadine Gordimer über ihr Land und ihr Schreiben, in: Süddeutsche Zeitung Nr. 284, Dienstag 10. Dezember 1991, Feuilleton S. 35.

Gordimer, Nadine: »Writing and Being«. Nobel Prize Lecture, in: The Georgia Review 49 (1995) p. 276-283.

Gordimer, Nadine:Writing and Being, Harvard University Press 1995.

[Gordimer:] »Das war mehr als eine Revolution«. Literatur-Nobelpreisträgerin Nadine Gordimer: ›Ich bin stolz darauf, was wir in Südafrika erreicht haben‹, in: Berliner Zeitung Nr. 61, Montag 13. März 1995, Feuilleton S. 29.

Hugh-Hallett Lucy: Nadine Gordimer: »Communist in Silk and Chiffon«, in: The Independent on Sunday, 26 August 1990.

Ivask, Ivar: »Nobel Prize Symposium II: Choices and Omissions 1967-87«, in World Literature Today 62.2 (1988) p. 197-200.

Klima, Vladimir: »The African Nobel Prize Winner«, in: Philologia Pragensia 32 (1989) p. 117-126.

King, Bruce: »Wole Soyinka and the Nobel Prize for Literature«, in: Sewanee Review 96 (1988) p. 339-345.

Kitchen, Judith: »Nadine Gordimer: The Realism of Possibility«, in: The Georgia Review 49 (1995) p. 284-289.

Lindfors, Bernth: Comparative Approaches to African Literatures, Rodopi Amsterdam 1994.

Ders.: »Beating the White Man at His Own Game: Nigerian Reactions to the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature«, in Lindfors 1994, p. 141-153.

Mpahlwa, Luyanda: »Nadine Gordimer: ›Blacks must lead, whites must follow!‹« unpublished ANC paper, Berlin 1992.

Odelberg, Wilhelm: »Alfred Nobel - The Man and His Prizes«, Foreword in: The Who's Who of Nobel Prize Winners, 2nd ed. 1990, p. vii-xii.

Riggan, William: »The Swedish Academy and the Nobel Prize in Literature: History and Procedure«, in: World Literature Today 55.3 (1981) p. 399-405.

Wole Soyinka, »Orisha befreit den Geist«. Ein Gespräch von und mit Ulli Beier, in: Kunstforum International 122 (1993) S. 150-153 und 160-164.

Soyinka, Wole: »This Past Must Address Its Present«, in: The Georgia Review 49 (1995) p. 171-186.

Thorpe, Michael: »Soyinka's Clay Foot«, in: World Literature Today 63.1 (1989) p. 39-41.

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  1. Prior to this event, Soyinka had, of course, already established himself as a socially conscious and provocative writer. He started his writing career early as a young man at secondary school where he wrote dramatic sketches for student groups and received several prizes for poetry recitations. It was more his mother, a teacher, performer and political activist called a ›Wild Christian‹ for being from a family which was prominent in spreading Christianity in Western Nigeria, who had important influences in his early life than his father, a headmaster at an Anglican primary school. After secondary school and continued writing he worked as a clerk to support himself and wrote plays for radio, studied English, Greek and History at the University of Ibadan and cofounded and edited a student publication. In 1954 he left for England to the University of Leeds where while he studied for his honours degree he continued to involve himself in literary circles, acted with the university's Theatre Group, published short stories in the student literary magazine and under the influences of Professor Knight's approach to Western theatre and theatre as ritual started to pursue his integrated vision of Western and Yoruba traditions in his drama. Two of his major dramas The Swamp Dwellers and The Lion and the Jewel already won him recognition such that he was invited to join the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1958. It was when he was back in Nigeria in 1960 at the University of Ibadan, where he and his dramatic troupe performed A Dance of the Forests as part of Nigerian Independence Day celebration, that he established himself more firmly as a social observer and activist with biting commentaries on political issues, with plays like The Trials of Brother Jero, and the satirical revues Before the Blackout and Kongi's Harvest which landed him in jail during the political unrest of 1965.
  2. The real event was the death of the King of Oyo, an ancient Yoruba city in Nigeria, in December 1944. He was to be buried on the same night. According to Yoruba tradition, the Horseman of the King was expected to commit ritual suicide, and lead his master's favourite horse and dog through the transitional passage to the world of the ancestors. A British colonial district officer intervened and decided this custom was savage, prevented the Horseman from completing this ritual act, for which he had been prepared all his life. Confronted with a challenge to communal order and the anarchy this unconsummated ritual would effect in the Yoruba world, the Horseman's son sacrificed his own life as a substitute for his father. In Soyinka's liberal plot, the Horseman, Elesin, embraces his sacrifice willingly, but before he commits it wants to possess a beautiful virgin girl he met at the marketplace as he danced his ritual farewell dance. Also revolted by the barbarity of the custom, a British colonial officer intervenes at the moment of the Horseman's intended union of life and death. The Horseman's eldest son returns from his medical school in England intending to bury the father, and faced with his father's failure to carry out the ritual sacrifices himself to restore social order, but eventually two men die instead of one as the Horseman also kills himself when the corpse of his son is unveiled.
  3. The basic argument in this debate hoisted by the three famous Nigerian »troika«, Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie and Ihechukwu Madubuike, who co-authored essays on Nigerian literary criticism under the title »Towards the Decolonization of African Literature« is that African culture is under foreign domination and in order to pave way for new foundations for an African modernity all aspects of colonial mentality should be destroyed. And African literature should avoid being anglomodernist and should find more ways of incorporating the rich inheritance of African oral tradition. It is exactly for this expertise of being able to draw on the oral tradition and blending both European and African traditions in his plays and novels that Soyinka has been internationally highly praised for by, for instance, Bruce King, who sees Soyinka as »a modern who writes from an African-centered world view without nostalgia for an idealized past, and his attitude is sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and international in awareness, reference, and relevance« (King, p. 339). However, Chinweizu and friends have accused him of being »a sell-out to the West, a brainwashed colonial cringing obediently before alien literary gods« (Lindfors, p. 142), exactly for his sophisticated use of English syntax and semantics, his obscurity and affinity for using Shakespearean, Greek and other European archaic models for his literary diction. A continuous war of words ensued between Soyinka and the ›troika‹ as Soyinka accused them of being superficial traditionalists pursuing a »poetics of pseudo-tradition« with no authentic African tradition (ibid.). It is not amazing then that Soyinka's acceptance of the Nobel Prize in 1986 provided ground for tensions to flare up again.
  4. Prior to her first novel to be banned (1958), Gordimer had, of course, already long established herself as a writer. Her first short story was published at the age of sixteen in 1939. Her mother, a housewife commited to charity works especially for black people, plays a very important role in Gordimer's passion for reading and writing. Growing up in the small gold-mining town in Springs with a small population of people (all white) she became fascinated early with the black mine workers and servants in white families like her own who lived on the fringes of the white society. She started to ask herself questions about the relationship between these races and expressed her observations and feelings in her writings. One particular incident that opened her eyes and inspired her first writing on black lives, she maintains, was when the police broke into her family's black maid's room searching for illegal liquor without respecting her privacy. During the late forties and early fifties Gordimer published a number of short stories in theNew Yorker, Harper's, Virginia Quarterly Review, Yale Review and other journals (The Georgia Review, p. 273). In 1953 she published her first novel, The Lying Days, which won her very positive critical acclaim for her accurate perceptiveness and verbal dexterity. She has subsequently written numerous collections of short stories and novels.

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