The Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious prize in literature, has existed since 1903. In that period, only one Black person had won it—French Guyanese novelist and poet René Maran in 1921, for a novel that criticized European rule in Africa.
But on Nov. 3, Senegalese novelist Mohamed Mbougar Sarr became not just another Black winner but the first from sub-Saharan Africa. What’s more? At 31, Sarr is the youngest Goncourt winner since French writer Patrick Gainville won at 29 nearly five decades ago.
Such is the groundbreaking nature of Sarr’s winning novel, titled The Most Secret Memory of Men in English, that the 10-person jury “made its mind up on the first vote – there was not need for a second round,” according to a juror quoted in The Guardian.
“With this young author, we have returned to the fundamentals of the Goncourt,” Philippe Claudel, the Goncourt Academy’s secretary-general, said.
Sarr lives in France where he’s studying African literature but was born close to Dakar, Senegal’s capital. His winning novel, which is his fifth book, is about a young writer who tries to find another writer whose career ended after brief success.
The part of the successful writer is borrowed from the real life story of Yambo Ouologuem, a Malian novelist who was the first African to win a French literary prize in 1968 but was accused of plagiarism four years later (possibly because critics thought his work was too good to be an African writer’s, accusing him of stealing from Graham Greene and other western writers.)
Ouologuem left France and gave up on literature and writing. He died mostly poor in 2017.
Winning the Goncourt may not automatically make Sarr rich. The prize only has a €10 cash reward, unchanged since 1903. But winners are all but guaranteed to sell thousands of books and become more popular, as they join a roll of honor that includes Marcel Proust, and seminal feminist author Simone de Beauvoir.
Philip Rey, Sarr’s publisher, will print 300,000 new copies of The Most Secret Memory of Men to reach more readers in Senegal and France. Only 5,000 copies were printed when the novel was first released in August.
It has been a good year for literary works about Africa by writers of Senegalese origin. David Diop, the French novelist who won this year’s International Booker prize, was born of a Senegalese father and lived in Dakar for most of his childhood.
Where Sarr investigates western gatekeeping of writing, Diop tackles the subject of west African soldiers fighting in French wars – which also happens to be the subtext of a new film by Omar Sy, star of the hit crime series Lupin.
This rush of historical works refocuses Senegal as one of the intellectual centers of the pan-African independence movements of the 1960s. Sarr hails from the same Serer ethnic group as Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegal’s first president who was a poet and leading proponent of the Négritude philosophy aimed at raising Black consciousness.
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