Nigeria’s dominance of the literary scene in Africa in terms of prizes won is not in doubt. The country has won every available international prize on offer – from the Commonwealth to the Caine, the Booker and the Nobel Prize and more.
But observers have begun to worry over the country’s poor showing in a homegrown literary competition originating from the continent. In its third year in a row since the telecommunication company, Etisalat Nigeria, instituted the pan-African Etisalat Prize for Literature in 2013, Nigeria’s fiction writers have failed to win the prize. Instead East and South African writers have continued to hold the aces.
Shortlist for the 2015 edition includes Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Democratic Republic of Congo) – Tram 83, Penny Busetto (South Africa) – The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself and Rehana Rossouw (South Africa) – What Will People Say?
So, two South African writers will vie for the prize with a Congo DR writer. Indeed, two South African women – Busetto and Rossouw – are competing against one man, Congo DR’s Mujila.
At its inaugural edition in 2013, U.S.-based Zimbabwean writer, NoViolet Bulawayo, won with her critically acclaimed first novel, We Need New Names. The duo of South Africa-based Nigerian, Yewande Omotoso, author of Bom Boy and another South African, Karen Jennings, Finding Soutbek, trailed Bulawayo. Also, South Africa’s Songeziwe Mahlangu, author of Penumbra, smiled away with the 15,000 pound sterling prize money for the 2014 edition plus a residency award. Another South African, Nadia Davids, author of An Imperfect Blessing and U.S.-based Nigerian, Chinelo Okparanta, author of Happiness, Like Water, a collection of short stories, trailed behind Mahlangu.
Etisalat CEO, Mr. Matthew Willsher, said at last year’s edition: “We’re here to celebrate literature. We’re here to celebrate books. We’re here to celebrate stories. But how long does it take to tell a story? Our expertise is not to tell stories but to carry them. We really care about stories. We help so many people tell their stories every day. We congratulate the writers for their beautiful stories. Today, one of you will walk away with the prize although all of you are winners in a sense.”
Like the last two years, no Nigerian writer stands a chance to win the prize. What is worse, no Nigerian writer even made the shortlist, as was the case in the last two editions with Omotoso and Okparanta. They only featured in the longlist. Surprisingly, Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, which was in the race for the prestigious British Booker prize, failed to make it to the shortlist. In fact, when Nigerians made it to the shortlist in the last two years, they were writers resident abroad. No home-based writer came that far.
Should this be a source of concern to the stakeholders, especially at a time when there is a renaissance of sorts in Nigerian writing on the local scene?
Poet and essayist, Mr. Odia Ofeimun does not believe there is anything to worry about, and blames whatever lapses there are on the country’s poor reading habit. He asked pointedly, “Why do you want all prize-winners to be Nigerians? Where are the book-buyers to give writers motivating challenge? At any rate, it is not a competition among nations. Or, is it?”
Former President, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Prof. Remi Raji-Oyelade argued for equal representation of literary canon from all over Africa, saying, “Don’t forget that other nationals are not sleeping! It is good for Africa that not only a section of its geography has all its writers”.
Also, Toni Kan is not worried as such. But Toni Kan has strong words of advice for Nigerian young writers, whom. he accused of living their lives on social media, which he said robs them of the rigour fiction writing requires.
According to him, “It’s a reflection of the current quality of writing on the continent. But for me it is a pointer to the fact that our young writers in Nigeria need to buckle up, and I will explain. The Etisalat Prize is for debut works of fiction and clearly, our young writers are stuck on Twitter and Facebook. A novel demands discipline and consumes time, something many of these Twitter warriors cannot afford. So, I think it’s time for them to start getting off on silly 140-character quips and do some work that demands rigour.
“In any case, it’s not a Nigerian, but African prize. Nigeria has dominated the Caine Prize. I don’t think it’s a comment on the expertise of young Nigerian writers. Most people’s first book is a trial, and may not be the best. I think it’s too early to judge. You have to read the books to decide what is what. It’s the third edition; let’s see what happens next”.
President, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Mr. Denja Abdullahi, agrees somewhat with Toni Kan. “It’s not a problem really,” he asserts. “We cannot expect to be dominating the literary prize landscape as we did for some two decades or so since the 1990s. There was a time we were very dominant in the Caine Prize. We should acknowledge that writers from other parts of Africa also have their own stories to tell, which in many ways are similar to ours.
“I do not believe there are lapses in our literary horizon; our writers are as vibrant as ever. We only need to be more adventurous and experimental. Our writers should begin to go beyond the usual fare, tell the untold stories or tell the usual in unusual ways. But we need to hear other voices from the continent. In 2015, a lot of very good works have come out of Nigeria. We need to discover new voices.
However, publishing infrastructure in other countries, especially in South Africa is better. Also Nigerian writing does not travel outside its borders like those of other countries. Our writers need to get into residencies; ANA will do more for young writers to hone their skills. Editing of works, publishing and promotion are problems facing Nigerian writers.
“Publishing is no longer the problem for quality works. Some emergent publishing outfits – Cassava Republic Press, Farafina and Parresia Publishing Ltd – have come up willing to take a chance on quality manuscripts. What is rather missing is the aspect of literary agency that will devote time sourcing for good manuscripts, redirecting the labour of good writers towards profound subjects and linking them to opportunities that will bolster their writings”.
However, professor of literature, Tony Afejuku sings a different tune about prizes altogether. In his trenchant way, he said, “Literary prizes worth and mean nothing to great literary minds! Robert Frost, the preeminent American poet that will always remain preeminent in American Literature and Letters, never entered for any literary prize – although he won the Pulitzer Prize more than any literary figure and persona – I think he won six times or more than anyone, dead or alive. But others entered competitions on his behalf and against his wish.
“Let our writers just write so long we love writing. I have no dot of respect for anyone who writes just to win prizes. Such a one will not last in the turf of literature”.
Author of The House My Father Built and former editor of African Writers Series (AWS), Mr. Adewale Maja-Pearce is in tune with Afejuku and does not believe in prizes, saying prizes were just a lottery. As he put it, “I don’t put much on prizes; it’s just a lottery and I don’t think people should get excited about prizes either. I’m very skeptical about prizes. If I win I may change my mind (laughs). I just finished reading two books – Abubakar Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms and Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday – and they are very good. In any case, we (Nigerians) used to be number one in terms of prizes”.
However, author of The Sahara Testament and winner of The Nigerian Prize for Literature in 2013, Mr. Tade Ipadeola does not agree with the other writers but sees a fundamental problem with the country’s young writers for not measuring up with their counterparts from Southern Africa.
According to Ipadeola, “Standard is not improving in Nigeria; it’s very low. Fiction coming out of Nigeria is not competing very well in Africa. Our fiction has not been measuring up in standard. We will be able to compare with local texts after the winner emerges. We have not done very well in fiction; it points to a bigger problem about our standard. Zimbabwe has been working and South Africans take their fiction seriously.
“Our editorial suite has a problem. Most of our publishers are not doing well in terms of editing. In South Africa, they send their manuscripts all around the continent for vetting, but we don’t. That is what makes all the difference”.
SO, what are the prospects for Nigerian writers in the future in winning Etisalat or any other prize for literature?
According to Ipadeola and Abdullahi, it has to be writing good books made possible by local publishers who are willing to take risks investing in young writers and exposing such works to as many good readers or editors as possible while also promoting the books to a wider readership audience.
By Anote Ajeluorou