European literary prizes for African authors | Books | DW

For a long time it was criticized that African voices were not given sufficient recognition in Europe. The French Prix Goncourt in particular had to be accused of placing too much focus on the literature of white men. This year, however, a young man from Senegal was honored with Mohamed Mbougar Sarr.

The 31-year-old received the award for his novel “La plus secrète mémoire des hommes” (in English: “The most secret memory of man”). In it he tells the story of a young Senegalese writer: in Paris he discovers a legendary book from 1938 and sets out in search of traces of the author, who has mysteriously disappeared.

South African Damon Galgut was also honored this week. He received the British Booker Prize 2021 for his novel The Promise. His book tells of the upheaval in South Africa: away from apartheid – towards democracy. It’s a story about big promises and dashed hopes.

Four important prizes in just four weeks

And that’s not the end of the price series. Two other African authors were honored in October: the Tanzanian author Abdulrazak Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and the activist and author Tsitsi Dangarembga from Zimbabwe received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.

Tsitsi Dangarembga is one of the best-known authors in sub-Saharan Africa

So these days it can hardly be said that African authors are not appreciated in Europe. However, it is to be hoped that this will remain the case in the long term, says editor and translator Manfred Loimeier, who has been dealing with African literature for many years. “We also had the boom in Latin American authors in the wake of Gabriel García Márquez [der 1982 den Literaturnobel-Preis gewann, Anmerk. d. Redaktion]which then also fell asleep.” Overall, Africa is still a small part, but over the decades it has always gotten a little bit better.

In essence, however, he is confident that interest in Africa will last. According to Loimeier, there is a certain commitment in Germany through the German-African population, which will make it possible to permanently dock the topic – especially against the background that Germany is increasingly dealing with its own colonial past. “I hope that this will help us learn to understand Africa as part of our own culture.” Many would still see Africa as very separate, “as if it actually had nothing to do with us. And I have a completely different opinion, that the development of German history is basically based on the colonial era.”

Diversity – the new normal

The book market is not the only area where calls for diversity are growing louder. Diversity is the order of the day, be it in politics, business or culture. The film and television industry is also gradually becoming more diverse, but the road is a long one and patience is required. “I notice that something is changing – but on a small scale,” says German actress Denise M’Baye, who herself has African roots.

Books by Abdulrazak Gurnah are displayed on a table

Abdulrazak Gurnah tells stories of migration in which eternal change and constant upheaval are certain

So it may be a coincidence that African authors have now won important prizes four times in a row. It’s always a good sign. And whether the jury of the Prix Goncourt gave a purely literary assessment or whether political considerations also played a part due to the criticism of the prize previously expressed, remains a matter of speculation. What is certain is that it is good for an award to show that it is open to diversity.

In any case, Senegal’s President Macky Sall is publicly pleased about the award and recognition for Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, who grew up in Senegal but now lives in France: He warmly congratulates his compatriot, Sall added Twitter: “I am proud of this high award, which illustrates the tradition of outstanding achievements by Senegalese writers.”

origin and identity

However, one thing is also evident at award ceremonies like these: there is still a great need for classification. That Damon Galgut, who lives in Cape Town, is a South African author may be easy to judge. And Mohamed Mbougar Sarr has only been living in France for a few years and is therefore rightly called a Senegalese compatriot. But what about Abdulrazak Gurnah: is he a British or a Tanzanian author? He grew up in Tanzania but has lived and worked in the UK for several decades.

Manfred Loimeier thinks of the following: “There is a very nice novel by Dany Laferrière. He comes from Haiti, lives in Canada and has written a book entitled ‘I am a Japanese writer’. In it, his protagonist creates a biography by he says: ‘My audience is in Japan, I write for a Japanese publisher, that’s where my readers are. So my perception is actually Japanese. And since I’m only perceived as a writer there in Japan, I’m actually a Japanese writer.’ I found that an unusual approach, but a good one.”

The novel by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr has so far been translated into 22 languages, according to the stock exchange newspaper. Hansverlag has secured the rights for the German edition, which is scheduled to appear in autumn 2022.