Posts featuring Wole Soyinka

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

The latest in world letters from Beijing, Oklahoma, and the UK.

Three superpowers this week compete for our attention with their respective updates in the realm of national literature. Our editors bring you news this week from the Beijing Literature Summit, the results of the Neustadt Prize in Oklahoma, and the continued fallout of the 2019 Booker Prize award in the UK. Read on to find out more!  

Xiao Yue Shan, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting for China

“Beijing is the country’s literary mecca,” articles enthusiastically parroted this month as the nation’s capital held the 4th Beijing Literature Summit on October 18. Though the multifold of equally rich literary cities in this vast country could dissent, the summit and forum nevertheless overtook headlines as well-established members of the Beijing literati took the stage in the square at Zhengyangmen, the immediate heart of the city. Attendees included preeminent novelists Liang Xiaosheng 梁晓声 and Liu Qingbang 刘庆邦, and the poet Yang Qingxiang 杨庆祥 (a leader of “new scar poetry”), as well as an assembly of Beijing’s foremost scholars, critics, and publishers.

The talks concentrated around three predominant themes: the past, present, and future of Beijing literature. Throughout the seventy years of the People’s Republic of China, literary culture in Beijing remained at the forefront of the country’s social and cultural reality, thereby receiving the most immediate impact from the tumultuous chronology of the country as a whole. In discussing the tremendous weight of history, Liang stated that the past is not overbearing but exists in a continuous exchange with the present. The question is, he said: “How should we use the text to state it?”

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The Nobel’s Faulty Compass

After all, it seems hard to believe that the magnetic north of the literary lies in Europe or in the languages that have emerged from it. 

In the will he signed in Paris on November 27, 1895, Alfred Nobel established five prizes in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and the promotion of peace. In the sciences, the key characteristic of a laureate’s contribution to the larger field was that it should be the “most important” discovery or improvement, while the peace prize was intended to recognize “the most or the best work” performed in pursuit of fostering what he called the “fraternity between nations.” Yet when turning to the award for careful work with language, Nobel would distinctly modify his own: he specified that the literary prize should go to whichever writer had produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”

From 1901 to 2017, women have exemplified that ideal direction a mere fourteen times. Although that dismal distribution has somewhat improved in recent years, it is nothing to brag about: only five women have won since 2004, and only six in the past twenty-one years. Such disappointing diversity continues when we turn to languages: of the 113 laureates in that same period, twenty-nine have written in English. That number does not even include three laureates who each wrote in two languages, one of which was English: Rabindranath Tagore, the songwriter who won a century before Bob Dylan and who also wrote in Bengali; Samuel Beckett, whose most famous work is titled En attendant Godot in the original French; and Joseph Brodsky, whose poems appeared in Russian and whose prose was written in the same language as the documents certifying the American citizenship he had acquired a decade before winning.

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