All things considered, it’s been an incredible year for books from the African continent and diaspora. Senegalese writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr won the Prix Goncourt, the biggest prize in French writing, for The Most Secret Memory Of Men. South African Damon Galgut took home The Booker Prize for The Promise - beating fellow South African Karen Jennings and British-Somalian author Nadifa Mohamed.
And Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah trumped the lot, winning the Nobel Prize in October for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
Was this recognition of African writing pure coincidence or an intentional, long overdue global appreciation of African literary prowess? An indication of changing reader tastes or a reflection of the demand for more variety and originality? Speaking at today’s World Conference on Creative Economy at Expo 2020 Dubai, Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, president of the International Publishers’ Association and Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Kalimat Group, argued that the answer is all of those things, but more complex and nuanced, too.
“I see much more profound shifts happening,” she said. “I see a human family that is gradually making space for more diverse voices to be heard - I spend a lot of time interacting with readers from around the world and at every book fair and publishing event I've attended, I've observed a genuine desire to understand and embrace the other.”
Indeed, in a polarised age characterised by social, religious, political and ideological faultlines, Sheikha Bodour argued that the role of creatives and the creative economy isn’t just increasingly important, it should come with an inherent mission.
“We must hold our societies together through our mutual belief in the possibilities that live within books, songs, paintings, films, and other forms of culture,” she said. “We need to mobilise the creative economy, not just to create more jobs, and financial opportunities, but most importantly to build more bridges and give a voice to untold stories.”
Sheikha Bodour reminded delegates of widely-reported research by Washington and Lee University. It found that those who read just a snippet of Shaila Abdullah’s 2009 novel Saffron Dreams - about an educated and strong-willed Muslim woman - made fewer or no racial judgments when they were shown a selection of pictures of mixed-race faces afterwards.
“What an extraordinary example of the power of books to significantly reduce bias,” she said. “So can you imagine the impact on humanity if more multicultural books were widely available?
"I’m thrilled that growing scientific evidence is proving that books can transform us into more empathetic and accepting people - I know how profoundly moved I can be when I see the world through the eyes of others. It shifts my perspective, it gives me a unique opportunity to understand the realities and ambiguities of different people from different parts of the world.”
Of course, the key now is to mobilise these laudable aims and aspirations into actual change. Perhaps Galgut’s The Promise, or Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men do hold within them something bigger, more fundamental than just incredible storytelling.
As Sheikha Bodour put it: “They give us hope that we can still change our world for the better, one book at a time.”