[JRB Daily] ‘A transformative figure in African literature’—Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o wins PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has been announced as one of the winners of this year’s PEN America Literary Awards.

Ngũgĩ was honoured along with Elaine May and Jackie Sibblies Drury in PEN America’s career achievement awards, which recognise ‘two visionaries whose influence has resonated across generations, and a playwright whose recent theatrical-form-exploding work has provoked urgent conversations’.

PEN America says:

‘These artists have challenged convention, shaped culture, and inspired us with daring and original works on the page, stage, and screen. They are celebrated commentators of our times whose stories reveal us to ourselves and will continue to resonate deeply.’

Ngũgĩ was awarded the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature, a prize worth $50,000 (about R750,000), conferred annually to:

‘… a living author whose body of work—either written in or translated into English—represents the highest level of achievement in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and/or drama, and is of enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship. The writer’s work will evoke to some measure Nabokov’s brilliant versatility and commitment to literature as a search for the deepest truth and highest pleasure—what Nabokov called the “indescribable tingle of the spine.”’

The judges for this award this year were David Treuer, Laila Lalami and Mónica de la Torre.

From the judges’ citation:

‘Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a transformative figure in African literature. For nearly sixty years, he has been committed to telling the stories of a country and a people whose political destiny was brutally interrupted by outsiders. In novels like Weep Not Child, A Grain of Wheat, The River Between and Wizard of the Crow he has portrayed with great honesty and sensitivity the lasting divisions that colonial rule sowed within families and cultures, the damage wrought by the dictatorships that followed independence, and the joys of finding freedom in all its forms—personal, political and linguistic.

‘In 1977, when he was held without trial in the maximum-security prison at Kamiti, he used toilet paper to write Devil on the Cross, not in English, the language he had used until then, but in Gikuyu, his mother tongue. His refusal to be silenced and his insistence on the value of indigenous languages has inspired a generation of younger writers. His analysis of language and power in Decolonising the Mind continues to provoke spirited debate many decades later. Between The Black Hermit, a play staged in 1962 by the traveling theatre of Makerere University in Kampala, to The Perfect Nine, a novel-in-verse published by the New Press in 2020, he has produced dozens of novels, short stories, plays, and memoirs that weave myth and folklore, wisdom and humour.’

Selected by a panel of ‘dedicated judges at the forefront of their fields’, PEN America said that 2022’s honorees ‘have the power to awaken empathy and define public discourse’.  

Writer Elaine May was awarded the PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award ($25,000), while playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury won the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award ($10,000).

The awards will be celebrated at the 2022 Literary Awards Ceremony, held on 28 February in New York City.

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