The excitement is building as the Nobel Prize announcement day draws near. 2019 is a unique year for the Nobel Committee, as they will be giving out this year’s and last year’s prizes. People in the literary world are buzzing about who the literature laureates will be, although the literature prize is usually one whose winner is hard to predict. If one of the two authors is Asian, they will be the 9th Asian winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the 6th East Asian winner.
Awards are about recognition of achievement, recognition that shouldn’t be limited only to the window of time surrounding the ceremony. With this in mind, let’s look back at the 5 East Asian Nobel literature laureates and their works.
Prize Winning Year: 2017
This Japanese-born British author has written eight novels, of which The Buried Giant (published 2015) is his most recent. Many of Ishiguro’s works follow a strange and dreamlike narrative that incorporates elements of science fiction. Our favourite in the ABB office is Never Let Me Go (2005).
Prize Winning Year: 2012
Mo Yan is a Chinese writer who tends to cause strong opinions. He has been criticised in the past for promoting the party’s narrative and neglecting to sign a petition that called for the release of Liu Xiaobo. However, there appears to be a disconnect between what he says (or doesn’t say) and what he writes, as many of his novels depict an exhausting China with numerous social problems. Commenting on the heightened criticism he has received since the Nobel, Mo Yan said, “Should the Nobel Prize in literature not be for literature, for something someone wrote?”
Prize Winning Year: 2000
The first Chinese recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Gao Xingjian is primarily a dramatist, although he has also written four novels. His plays have not been shown in China since The Other Shore was banned there more than 30 years ago. He is now a French citizen, and writes in both Chinese and French. One of his most famous writings is Soul Mountain, an ambitious novel that examines the problems of self-doubt and societal pressure.
Prize Winning Year: 1994
Kenzaburo Oe has written a number of works critiquing contemporary Japanese society. He also wrote Hiroshima Notes in 1965, telling the tales of those who lived through the disaster. This important work stands as a testament to the destructive power of nuclear weapons. As well as tackling these sorts of national problems, Oe also uses his pen to explore personal difficulties. One of his sons was born with brain damage, and a number of his novels examine life affected by disability. His two most famous books, The Silent Cry and A Personal matter, both involve disabled characters.
Prize Winning Year: 1968
Kawabata was born in 1899, significantly earlier than the other writers featured. His writing is generally quite melancholic. In his later works especially, there is a recurring preoccupation with death. His most famous novel is Yukiguni/ Snow Country, and centres on a love affair in a remote onsen town. This novel took him over a decade to complete! Sadly, Yasunari Kawabata took his own life four years after receiving the Nobel at his home in Zushi.