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Etisalat Prize for Literature: Again, Nigeria’s young writers miss laurel


Prize for Literature

Iyaoge of Lagos, Chief Opral Benson (left); Judge, Etisalat Prize for Literature, Jamal Mahjoub; Chair of Judges, Etisalat Prize for Literature, Sarah Ladipo Manyika; Winner, 2014 Etisalat Prize for Literature, Songeziwe Mahlangu; and Chief Executive Officer, Etisalat Nigeria, Matthew Willsher at the award presentation ceremony held last Sunday in Lagos

For the second year in a row since the telecommunication company, Etisalat Nigeria, instituted the pan-African Etisalat Prize for Literature, Nigeria’s young fiction writers have been missing the big prize. They only came second and third, while their colleagues from East and South Africa have held the aces as South Africa’s Songeziwe Mahlangu, author of Penumbra smiled away, on Sunday night, with the 15,000 pound sterling prize money for the 2014 edition.

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.

The scenario was not different from the 2013 edition. South Africa-based Nigerian, Yewande Omotoso, author of Bom Boy and another South African, Karen Jennings, author of Finding Soutbek, trailed U.S.-based Zimbabwean writer, NoViolet Bulawayo, who won with her critically acclaimed first novel, We Need New Names. She was gracious enough to give her creative writing mentorship scholarship at University of East Anglia, U.K. to Omotoso.

However on Sunday night, Etisalat outdid itself to give its select guests a memorable evening. Etisalat CEO, Mr. Matthew Willsher made a poetic marketing presentation about his company and its journey in fellowship with writers and their unique art of storytelling. Although he said his company does not tell stories, as its mandate, it however provides the platform for stories to be told in the daily lives of users of its products and that it was for this that the company excels as carrier of other people’s stories.

“We’re here to celebrate literature,” Willsher said. “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.”

Willsher used the occasion to wish chairman, Etisalat Nigeria, Mr. Hakeem Bello-Osagie a happy 60th birthday.
First to be awarded was the Flash Fiction prize, which had Tolu Ogunlesi, as chair of jury. The prize went to Neema Komba. She beat two others, Justin Irabor Okhide and Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto to win the 1,000 pound sterling prize money. The others got 500 pound each as consolation prizes.
As usual, a documentary on Africa’s eminent men and women of letters was shown as inspiration to younger writers. First was Prof. Wole Soyinka and it intended to make up for the lapse last year when he was omitted. Next was Kenyan writer, Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ghanaian writer, Ama Ata Aidoo. Next, Etisalat prize trustee member, Prof. Kole Omotoso performed the poetic ordering of the world in the mould of words as gift to man from higher powers in a true Ifa divination ritual with a talking drummer and a sekere player as accompaniment. It was the perennial superiority of the writer’s word against the inanities of politicians with salt as symbol of the flavour the word gives the world.

A short film clip on how the power of words can change lives was shown. A schoolboy writes a note asking his female classmate if she liked him and makes two boxes with a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ options. In-between the options the girl writes back ‘maybe’, which would later inspire the boy to excel in his class essay; the said girl is first to celebrate his success!

Another innovation introduced into the prize menu was a dramatization of aspects of the three shortlisted works. The idea was to bring home to the audience, which had largely not read the works, so they have insight into what the works are about. First on the bill was a performance of the story ‘Fairness’ from Okparanta’s collection, Happiness, Like Water. Nollywood’s acts, Bimbo Akintola and Bimbo Manuel were the star attraction. But the performance failed to reach its climax; it was just a few paces away when the bleaching accident happens, before the performance unceremoniously ended.

It beats reasoning how a collection of short stories could actually compete against finished novels, as Okparanta’s Happiness, Like Water. Was it some kind of consolatory consideration by the judges? Whatever the case, it came a distant third although there are some really nice stories in the collection.
Omono Shomolu’s one-man act of an excerpt from Davids’ An Imperfect Blessing was exquisitely impressive. She wooed the audience with the giddiness of her breathless performance. Also, O.C. Ukeji’s performance of an excerpt from Mahlangu’s winning novel, Penumbra was stunning. Shomolu and Ukeji’s daring and near-perfect speech simulation of South Africa’s speech patterns couldn’t be rivaled. Theirs were showpiece performances, but the audience rooted more for Ukeji, especially when he was later introduced. But Ukeji’s performance almost got into anti-climax, as the producer/director seemed at a loss where to end it. It rather dragged on forever whereas when the protagonist was asked to quit the apartment he shared with his lady friend would have been perfect ending for the performance. Or was that a give-away that it was the winning work?

Announcing Penumbra as the winning work, chair of judges, Prof. Manyika Ladipo, who teaches literature at the University of Los Angeles at Berkley, said she believes Etisalat Prize for Literature is “the most innovative, the most exciting prize, not just in Africa but the whole world”. The winner, Mahlangu said crisply that he was “honoured and thankful for this prize; I’m greatly honoured for the prize”.

Then began the musical feast for the night. First was Nigeria Idol 2014 winner, Evelle, who pelted the audience with her soulful music.
Then came the irrepressible Angelique Kidjo, who was electrifying in her performance and got a sizeable audience members dancing along.
Indeed, the organisers would be delighted that this second edition had the endorsement of the Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka who came in quietly, as usual, shortly after the start of the three-hour show and left, also quietly, after the announcement of the winning work.

REGRETTABLY, in the two successive years, no young, homegrown Nigerian writer has even featured in the shortlist of three. So far, the two runners-up from Nigeria live in the Diaspora: Omotoso is South Africa-based while Okparanta is U.S.-based. What does this portend for the local Nigerian writer? Should this be a source of worry for Nigerian writers? Is it indicative of any perceived lapses in Nigeria’s literary horizon? What exactly is wrong with the local writer that they have failed to impress in two successive editions by not making the shortlist at least?
Poet and essayist, Odia Ofeimun rather asked, “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?”

President, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Prof. Remi Raji-Oyelade was at the event on Sunday in Lagos. He was quick to submit, “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 at the event was Toni Kan who said he wasn’t worried as such about the development. But Toni Kan has strong words of advice for Nigerian young writers, who he accused of living their lives on social media, which he said robs them of the rigour fiction writing requires.

“Of course not,” he said, “Chinelo Okparanta is Nigerian, so, 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.”

Vice President, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Mr. Abdullahi Denja, agrees somewhat with Toni Kan. He said, “I do not think so. We cannot expect to be dominating the literary prize landscape as we had done 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”.

Toni Kan does not think publishing infrastructure deficit is a problem, but blames it on lack of good manuscripts from writers. According to him, “Cassava Republic Press just published six romance writers; all new. It was tough getting entries. They (writers) will say, ‘oh, romance is beneath me’, but truth is they can’t write; they can’t put in the effort.  There are publishers but no quality manuscripts”.

Abdullahi doesn’t think publishing is the issue any more, noting, “Publishing is no longer the problem for quality works. Some emergent publishing outfits have come up willing to take a chance on quality manuscripts. What is missing rather is the aspects of literary agency that will devote time to sourcing for good manuscripts, redirecting the labour of good writers towards profound subjects and linking 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, “All I must say is that 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.”


In the two successive years, no young, homegrown Nigerian writer has even featured in the shortlist of three. So far, the two runners-up from Nigeria live in the Diaspora: Omotoso is South Africa-based while Okparanta is U.S.-based. What does this portend for the local Nigerian writer? Should this be a source of worry for Nigerian writers? Is it indicative of any perceived lapses in Nigeria’s literary horizon? What exactly is wrong with the local writer that they have failed to impress in two successive editions by not making the shortlist at least?

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