An incomplete history of Nobel Prize in Literature winners at Southbank Centre

Thursday, August 17, 2017 - 09:17

Accolades for authors don’t come much bigger than the Nobel Prize in Literature. Since 1901, when the first prize was awarded, 113 writers have been named Nobel Laureate. Southbank Centre has been lucky enough to host visits by more than a few – here are just five, including Orhan Pamuk, who returns this September to talk about his latest novel.

Toni Morrison

won in 1993, appeared most recently in 2009

Ohio-born Toni Morrison is arguably the grande dame of American fiction writers, giving us the devastating post-American Civil War novel Beloved, as well as Depression-era The Bluest Eye and most recently God Help The Child, about an African-American woman in the fashion industry.

Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison © Michael Lionstar

Her novels deal with multiple aspects of African-American experience throughout history, and although her characters often find themselves in difficult circumstances Morrison does not abandon them to lives without redemption. The Nobel committee cited Morrison for being a writer, ‘who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality’.

Toni Morrison has made various visits to Southbank Centre, including an appearance at the Fiction International festival in May 1998, where she read from her recently published novel Paradise. She was back again in 2009 discussing Beloved with a packed audience, 25 years after its publication and Pulitzer Prize win.

suggested read

Beloved, about the life of Sethe, who has escaped slavery but at a huge personal cost.

Svetlana Alexievich

won in 2015, appeared at Southbank Centre in 2016

Alexievich was born in Ukraine in 1948 and grew up in Belarus. Her literary career almost stalled before it started, with the Soviet Communist Party ordering the destruction of her 1983 manuscript The Unwomanly Face of War. But with the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika everything changed. Just two years later it was published to great acclaim and huge sales, along with her second book The Last Witnesses: 100 Unchildlike Stories.

Throughout her long career Alexievich has remained unafraid to criticise the establishment and is famous for giving a voice to hundreds of ordinary people, covering subjects such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the Soviets’ ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan and the end of the USSR.

Alexievich told journalists that she was at home doing the ironing when she got the call about her win. She was cited by the Nobel Committee for her ‘polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’.

The writer appeared here in May 2016, talking about Putin and power as part of the Power of Power festival.

suggested read

Boys in Zinc, reportage about the USSR’s war in Afghanistan.

Doris Lessing

won in 2007, appeared for the final time at Southbank Centre in 2008

There had been talk for so long about Lessing being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature that by the time she found out she had won (doorstepped by journalists on her way back from the supermarket), her response was simply ‘Oh Christ!’.

British author Doris Lessing reacts to Nobel win

Lessing, born in Iran and raised in Zimbabwe, was a prolific writer who jumped around genres with ease, publishing memoirs, science fiction and even a book about her love of cats, to name just a few. Her most famous books are probably her debut The Grass is Singing, which deals with the brutal reality of white colonialism in Africa, and The Golden Notebook, an expansive novel about writing, parenthood, middle-age and more.

When she appeared in front of a packed Queen Elizabeth Hall audience in January 2008 it was to discuss her book Alfred and Emily, a biography of her parents – but  written as if the First World War had never taken place and her parents had not met.

But it’s her status as an ‘epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny’, as the Nobel committee stated, that have made this spiky author so valued by readers.

suggested read

The Golden Notebook, four entwined narratives telling the story of writer Anna Wulf.

Wole Soyinka

won in 1986, appeared at first London Literature Festival in 2007

Nigerian-born Soyinka is a prolific poet, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, actor and academic who was imprisoned for almost two years in the 1960s for his stance on the Biafran War and went on to become the first Nobel Literature laureate to hail from the African continent. Is it any wonder that the Nobel committee cited him for being a writer ‘who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence’?

He was born into a Yoruba family, with a mother who was staunchly feminist and an Anglican minister father. His politics and criticism of censorship have landed him in trouble more than once, with the Nigerian government banning one of his books and later accusing him of treason. In his acceptance speech, Soyinka dedicated his Nobel Prize in Literature win to Nelson Mandela, then entering his third decade of imprisonment in South Africa.

Soyinka is well-known to Southbank Centre audiences, making a number of appearances here including as one of the headline speakers at the very first London Literature Festival, which took place just over 10 years ago, in May 2007.

suggested read

The Lion and the Jewel, a comic play about the struggle between the traditional culture of a Yoruba village and Western modernity.

Orhan Pamuk

won in 2006, appearing this year

Pamuk was born in Istanbul in 1952 growing up in what was initially a large, happy family. This changed over time ‘as our fortunes dwindled and our family dispersed’, he says. He had an ambition to be a painter, initially enrolled to train as an architect but then switched to a journalism course. Pamuk says the only job he has ever had is writing.

His first book appeared in Turkish in 1974 and by the 1980s he was making waves internationally, with his writing as well as his outspoken politics. Some of his famous books include Istanbul, The White Castle and Snow. Of his work, the Nobel Committee said that Pamuk ‘in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures’.

In English, Pamuk’s most famous book is probably The Museum of Innocence, which was published two years after his Nobel Prize win. It is set, like so much of his work, in Istanbul and tells of a romance between a wealthy young man and a girl who works in a shop. The book inspired Pamuk to create a real life museum, in turn inspiring a film.


When he appears at Southbank Centre next month, Pamuk will discuss his most recent novel, The Red-Haired Woman, about the familial bond that develops between a well digger and his apprentice.

suggested read

My Name is Red, an Ottoman-era murder mystery.