My wife thought I deserved it, but I always thought the Nobel a Western prize.’

– Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt), Nobel Prize for Literature laureate

In 2016, the secrecy-shrouded Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature to American folk/rock singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. This created a storm of controversy that blew across the entire literary world. Jaws dropped in Africa after Ngũgi wa Thiong’o (highly favoured to win over the previous few years) was once again overlooked. In an article for Reuters.com, titled ‘ “Greatest living poet” Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Literature Prize’(13 Oct 2016), Johan Sennero and Alistair Scrutton relayed the news thus:

“Bob Dylan, regarded as the voice of a generation for his influential songs from the 1960s onwards, has won the Nobel Prize for Literature in a surprise decision that made him the only singer-songwriter to win the award.

The 75-year-old Dylan – who won the prize for ‘having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’ – now finds himself in the company of Winston Churchill, Thomas Mann and Rudyard Kipling as Nobel laureates.

The announcement was met with gasps in Stockholm’s stately Royal Academy hall, followed – unusually – by some laughter…

Awarding the 8 million Swedish crown ($930,000) prize, the Swedish Academy said: ‘Dylan has the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound.’

Swedish Academy member Per Wastberg said: ‘He is probably the greatest living poet.’…

Over the years, not everyone has agreed that Dylan was a poet of the first order. Novelist Norman Mailer countered: ‘If Dylan’s a poet, I’m a basketball player.’

Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Nobel Academy, told a news conference there was ‘great unity’ in the panel’s decision to give Dylan the prize…

Literature was the last of this year’s Nobel prizes to be awarded. The prize is named after dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel and has been awarded since 1901 for achievements in science, literature and peace in accordance with his will.”

To be fair, Robert Zimmerman (aka Bob Dylan) has a very poetic/literary style of writing songs. The lyrics of such tunes as Romance in Durango, The King of Hearts, Subterranean Homesick Blues, Twitter and the Monkey Man, Tangled Up in Blue, and – one of my absolute favourites – Shelter From the Storm would serve well as published poems, and Dylan did once author a book titled Tarantula…

In 2018, the Nobel Prize for Literature was not awarded at all, following a scandal at the Swedish Academy. Interestingly, another Swedish group calling itself The New Academy took up the mantle, announcing an ‘alternative Nobel Literature Prize’ dubbed The New Academy Prize in Literature… They came up with a list of 47 nominees which included Kim Thúy (Vietnam/Canada), Neil Gaiman (UK), Harukami (Japan), Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe), Ngũgi wa Thiong’o (Kenya), Chimamanda Adichie (Nigeria) and Nnedi Okorafor (Nigeria/USA). Based on more than 32,000 responses from the public, the award eventually went to Maryse Condé ‘whose novels explore slavery and exploitation’…

I love Bob Dylan but he has not done more for global literature than Margaret Atwood (Canada), Ngũgi wa Thiong’o (Kenya), Haruki Murakami (Japan) or Assia Djebar (Algeria).

Alexander Nderitu ‘Changing the Literary Map of Africa’ (2019).


Alexander Nderitu is a Kenyan-born novelist, poet, playwright and critic. In late 2007, Nderitu won a Theatre Company prize for his humorous stage play, Hannah and the Angel. The play was performed in 17 different venues, including Phoenix Theatre in Nairobi, by the Fire By Ten acting group. In 2012, Hannah and the Angel was translated to Japanese.

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