Thursday, 21st September 2023

15 years after, time to Rejig Nigeria Prize For Literature

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor (Arts and Culture Editor)
24 March 2019   |   3:14 am
He's spent a lifetime trying to make himself happy again: He lost his parents very early in life. Prophecy or heresy, whichever, condemned him to a life in the street, struggling. When he sought an alternative word to his sorrow, he found pessimism. Like his idol, the 19th century realism writer, Henrik Ibsen, he often…

[FILE PHOTO] Ikeogu Oke

He’s spent a lifetime trying to make himself happy again: He lost his parents very early in life. Prophecy or heresy, whichever, condemned him to a life in the street, struggling. When he sought an alternative word to his sorrow, he found pessimism. Like his idol, the 19th century realism writer, Henrik Ibsen, he often took a hard look at life to shape his world and his vision.

That’s the story of Soji Cole, the 2018 Nigeria Literature Prize winner. May be the world wouldn’t have known him. Maybe the world would have known him too, as head of Motor Park, like Samson, in Wole Soyinka’s The Road.

Losing his parents early in life brought its own depravity, but made him determined to succeed.

This afternoon, he was calm. But Soji is overcome by the urge to correct a ‘wrong impression’.

Last year, his Embers won the Nigeria Prize for Literature at the expense of Denja Abdullahi’s Death and the King’s Grey Hair and Akanji Nasiru’s The Rally. His winning was against the run of play, as is often said in football parlance. He got $100,000 in the process.

Literary purists and stakeholders believe that a minor infraction to the 2018 prize was the jury chairman, Prof. Matthew Umukoro. They pointed out that since Umukoro and Cole were in the same Department of Theatre, University of Ibadan, Umukoro should have excused himself after Cole emerged on the shortlist of three plays.

However, Cole had this to say: “Everybody knows Professor Umukoro, he will never bring his name into disrepute. He is a man of integrity and a Prize like this will not spoil the reputation he has built over the years.”

While saying that he would not have submitted his entry last year, because Prof. Umukoro was head of jury, many counseled him against such since he planned to enter for it.

Chika Unigwe

He added, “let me shock you, Umukoro and I see on a daily basis and we have never discussed the Prize. The highest he did was just to send me a congratulatory message as head of my department. Nothing else. Anybody who feels that being in the same department would have influenced him is wrong.”

Entry for this year’s Prize (Children’s Literature category) opened February 15 and Nigerian writers have begun to send in their works. Entry closes April 5.

But Cole is not entering. His focus now is, guess what? Booker Prize.

In its 15 years, the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas company (NLNG), sponsors of the prize, have given out $880,000, which in today’s Naira market (1 USD = 360 NGN), is about N316,800,000 million. The Prize has produced 14 millionaires.

In 2017, it was the late Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresiad that got the award. He got $100,000 in the process. In 2016, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms got $100,000, while Sam Ukala’s Iredi War was rewarded with $100,000 in 2014.

For Tade Ipadeola, his 2013 effort, The Sahara Testaments, got him $100,000. The same as Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters’ Street in 2012 and Adeleke Adeyemi’s The Missing Clock in 2011.

Esiaba Irobi’s Cemetery Road (2010) and Kaine Agary’s Yellow Yellow (2008) won $50,000 each.

In 2007, Mabel Segun’s Readers’ Theatre: Twelve Plays for Young People and Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo’s My Cousin Sammy shared the $30,000 at stake.

The same amount Ahmed Yerima got for his Hard Ground in 2006, while Gabriel Okara’s The Dreamer: His Vision and Ezenwa Ohaeto’s Chants of Minstrel Poetry shared $20,000 in 2005.

Between 2008 and 2018, there had been, at least, 1,332 entries. In 2008, 149 entries were received, while in 2009, it was 161 entries — an improvement on previous year.

For 2010, the figure, however, went down to 93 entries, which is the second lowest and in 2011, 126 entries were submitted, while 2012, Chika Unigwe beat 213 authors to the prize with her book On Black Sisters’ Street.

The number went down in 2013 to 201 submissions. It slightly went up to 124 in 2014 for the drama competition. The following year, 2015, 109 entries were received. Eighty-nine entries did not meet the preliminary criteria for assessment. This number represents 81.6 percent of the total number of entries received for the year.

In 2016, a total of 173 authors of prose fiction entered for the competition while 184 entries were received for the 2017. 2018 had the lowest number of entries during the same period, just 83.

Between these years, drama has recorded the least number of entries compared with prose. While drama had 93 (2010), 124 (2014) and 83 (2018) prose has 149 (2008), 214 (2012) and 173 (2016).

Except for drama, all the other genres have had no winner declared at one time or the other — 2004 (Prose), 2009 (Poetry) and 2015 (Children Literature).

Initially loathed for excluding Nigerian writers abroad, and coming from a parastatal established by General Ibrahim Babangida, who was hated for annulling the ‘assumed’ freest and fairest election conducted in the country, now it’s one of the most sought after Prizes on the continent. It’s, however, a pity that only Nigerian writers are allowed to enter for it.

Admittedly, the prize got off to a wobbly start. Established in 2004, and its subsequent awards in 2005 to 2007, which are seen as ‘retirement benefit’ to already older-generation writers, the awards scheme has cleared its initial baggage.

Mistakes Of Advisory Board
BUT it is also time to point out missteps the advisory board continues to take, and has already taken for this year’s prize, and for which it needs to reverse itself before controversy dogs the process of getting a winner in October.

Some critics of the prize have pointed at the composition of the prize jury as being inadequate and largely reason their verdict is sometimes at variance with what readers’ expectation regarding the best book to win the prize in a given year.
Apart from 2016, when Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossom won, the winners of the last two editions (2017 and 2018) have been greeted with disquiet and disbelief.

Even with Season of Crimson Blossom, there are some who believe that Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday is a much better book than Ibrahim’s on account of its range of depth and how accurately it mirrors the social menace called Boko Haram as it traces the ideological and or theological trajectory that made the sect to take root.

No book has so engagingly given an in-depth study of and insight into the insurgency as John’s, which menace was the most contemporaneous issue plaguing the country at the time, and still does.
Many have also argued that in 2017, there was another jury error, which became manifest when a book that had more errors was declared winner against ones with minimal errors.

The late Oke Ikeogu’s Heresiad poetry collection was winner in spite of some identified grammatical and structural errors while Ogaga Ifowodo’s A Good Mourning and Tanure Ojaide’s Songs of Myself with just two or three typos lost out.

University Teachers As Jury Members
AND it brings to the fore why university teachers are always selected as judges for The Nigerian Prize for Literature. It is time to democratise the board so readers and current practitioners of literary art are made part of the jury of the coveted prize to continue the preservation of the prize’s excellence.

The idea of appointing a three-man jury yearly should give way to a fixed tenure of the four-year rotational format of the prize to cover the four genres. .
More importantly, those who argue against having writers and none university teachers and scholars to be jury members are not being objective and out of tune with what happens on the international scene. For instance, no prize is more recognised globally than the U.K.’s Booker Prize. Only writers and readers make up the jury. Even the head of the U.K.’s secret police M-16 was its jury head a few years ago.

The jury of the 2019 Man Booker Prize for Fiction will be chaired by Peter Florence, director of the Hay Festival, and consists of: former fiction publisher and editor Liz Calder; novelist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo; writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch and pianist and composer Joanna MacGregor.

The Booker jury is a testament to the fact that the NLNG board has continued to ignore ordinary consumers of literature who have equal stake as the scholar-critic and anyone else. And this is a grave disservice to the prize’s fortunes.

The announcement of jury for the prize this year does not give room for cheer. This year is Children’s Literature, a highly technical genre of literature.

Unlike what happens abroad, there is no department of English and Literature (or Literary Studies) where children’s writing is specifically being studied in Nigerian universities. This is enough cause for alarm in itself. It is what largely accounted for the poor representation of children’s writing in the country, where it is an all-comers affair.

And so Nigerian children are being weaned on a poor diet of literature. Except, perhaps, they return to the days of Chinua Achebe’s Chike and the River or Onuorah Nzekwu and Michael Crowder’s Eze Goes to School, or Ifeoma Okoye’s Only Bread for Eze, Nneka Goes to Market, Eme Goes to School, and Village Boy among others, there have not been much famous children’s books on offer. But the hiatus was broken not long ago with such works as Akachi Ezeigbo’s My Cousin Sammy (joint winner of the prize in 2007) and The Buried Treasure.

The perennial manifestation of the poor output of the genre was what led to the prize not being awarded in 2015. The result of that poor outing was the workshop on Children’s Literature that the Advisory Board for The Nigeria Prize for Literature organised for would-be writers of the genre from which a seminal book was published.

In fact, the organisers had to fly in two world acclaimed experts of the gene from universities in the United Kingdom (University of Manchester), alongside local experts to hold the workshop.

So, in 2019 what has changed?
The prize jury this year is made up of regular university teachers of literary art, with no specific expertise on children’s writing. They may have written some books for children, but that does not necessarily confer on them jury expertise on the subject.

In fact, past winners of the prize who have shown ample ability and knowledge about the genre are in the best position to judge the prize. And they are quite a handful of such ‘experts’ to do a satisfactory job of being jury members this year, and not necessarily academics.

Prof. Ezeigbo is one such expert. She was a facilitator in the 2016 workshop for children’s writing. She is also a past winner of the prize. Adeleke Adeyemi (The Missing Clock) also won in 2011. Lola Shoneyin, Ayodele Olofintuade, and Chinyere Obi-Obasi are some prominent names in children’s writing in the country, who should be appointed jury members.

Also octogenarian writer, Mrs. Ifeoma Okoye, whose children’s stories received rave reviews in the 1980s and 1990s, and who is still actively writing and mentoring young ones on the competent use of English should be judge of children’s literature. Her current English book Go for Gold with Your Writing is a seminal work of language use. The jury current jury composition is an anomaly that should be reversed at once.

This year’s prize jury members include, Prof. Obododinma Oha, who chairs the panel of judges for this year’s Children’s Literature and the Literary Criticism competition. Oha, poet, editor and a translator, is a professor of Semiotics, Stylistics and Creative Writing at the Department of English, University of Ibadan. He writes poems in English and Igbo.

Other members of the panel include Professor Asabe Usman Kabir and Dr. Patrick Okolo. Kabir is a professor of Oral and African Literature at Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, while Oloko, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Lagos, specialises in African Postcolonial Literature, Gender and Cultural studies.

Apart from Asabe, whose background in African oral literature and who probably sat and listened to folktales as a child and could still bring that child-like experience to bear, Oha and Okolo are in fields far removed from children’s writing.

Again, over the years the board has consistently overlooked some of Nigeria’s most serious scholar-writers either practicing within or outside the country. Writers that readily come to mind in this category are Odia Ofeimun, Prof. Niyi Osundare (University of New Orleans, U.S.), Prof. Joe Ushie (University of Uyo), Prof. Harry Garuba (University of Cape Town, South Africa), and Prof. Femi Osofisan (University of Ibadan), Prof. Olu Obafemi (University of Ilorin), Prof. JOJ Nwachukwu-Agbaja (Abia State University, Uturu), Prof. Tony Afejuku (University of Benin, Benin City), Prof. Isidore Diala (Imo State University, Owerri), among several others. These are all scholar-writers whose wealth of creative and critical experiences can enrich the prize jury.

The allure of the prize should not be all about the handsome monetary reward. It should transcend that. The outcome must be able to stand the rigourous standards demanded in prizes of that stature in other climes. Supposedly, that was the idea behind introducing an international judge to give it that authentic ‘expert,’ global stamp.

The board must be seen to preserve that rigorous stamp of authenticity through taking proactive measures that preserve the prize’s avowed claim to excellence. The last two books awarded the prize directly negate excellence in literary craftsmanship.

Also, there are some prominent literary art journalists and critics whose works over the years have helped to enrich the prize’s discourse.

Most of them are not just journalists they are also creative writes in their own rights (Ibrahim won in 2016), who consume most of the literature being produced in the country and outside. They have a wealth of creative and critical experience they can bring to bear in jury process.

More so, there are dedicated consumers of literature in Nigeria who are not scholars or critics, but who just love literature, and who should sometimes be part of the judging process.

Except the Advisory Board does well to avail the current members of the jury the workshop outcome of 2016 on children’s writing on what it takes to write books for children, the prize this year maybe just be heading for another rocky outcome in October when a winner is announced, or not.

For President, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Malam Denja Abdullahi, there is need to go back to the original template for Advisory Board so as to bring needed dynamism to the prize structure.

He said the original template was for ANA and Nigeria Academy of Letters (NAL) to always have representation on the board, but since Prof. Jerry Agada and Prof. Ben Elugbe became members of the board that original idea was jettisoned and the two became permanent members, with Prof. Ayo Banjo seeming to serve as its lifetime chairman.

“The Advisory Board is outdated, it ought to have been changed,” Abdullahi, a drama category finalist for last year with Death and the King’s Grey Hair, said. “Board members ought to be drawn periodically from ANA and NAL. But Banjo has been there now almost since inception. Professor Asabe Usman Kabir has been jury member twice now in three years. The board does not cast widely for jury members. That is why their judgment is always distorted.

Most times, decisions are based on Igbo, Hausa-Fulani, and Yoruba – WAZOBIA considerations. The Advisory Board is due for overhaul; it’s not the Nobel Committee.

According to Elugbe, “the Advisory board job is to ensure the prize’s integrity. The board manages the prize. We receive the entries and handover to panel of judges, that is, a three-man team that adjudicates. However, the external consultant provides finality for the integrity. The name of external consultant is not announced.”

He said the idea of external consultant is to ensure that the winning entry from the judges tallies with that of consultant. If there is no agreement, we try to bring them together to make sure they agree.”

On integrity, he said the process has been made so rigorous that “you must be ready to compromise the judges, the advisory board and the external consultant. Since this process started there hasn’t been any controversy.”

But Port Harcourt-based poet and gender activist, Ekaete George, said, no matter who the board members are, she is sure some would still complain. “I don’t think, because someone is old or has been there a long time, therefore, suggests incompetence,” she said.

She is, however, concerned about the winner takes-all nature of the prize, especially in an impoverished society like Nigeria. She argues that the two runners-up ought to share in the largesse to help cushion their financial burden as it would serve as encouragement for other writers.

Ayo Olofintuade was once finalist in Children’s Literature category, with Eno’s Story, and she believes the prize structure should long have been diversified to reflect current realities.

Olofintuade said women and children who read more are not at the heart of the prize. Like George, she also believes runners-up should not go home empty-handed.

For the lady, Nigeria is not like advanced climes where writers also have other means of independent existence. Such means of livelihood, she notes, includes access to residencies, government buying large number of books from writers, and encouraging readership.

“Make no mistake, it’s a brilliant prize, but the execution is poor,” she speaks from her Ibadan base. “Everything is politicized in this country. Good literature always stands out. All these professors of this and professors of that – all sorts of shenanigans come into play. The board is too conservative. I’m a full time writer and I know what it is. Get longlisted writers to go for residencies.

“Let booksellers make input because they know those who read. Kola Olatunbosun and Ikhide Ikheloa have complained about the structure. They have argued about reducing the cost of administration to free money for writers. Excellence means competence; people are just being Nigerian. The prize is not being run on excellence.”

No doubt, 15 years after the Prize was initiated, there is yet to be a full ecosystem of the book trade, but as Toyin Akinosho, the scribe of Committee for Relevant Art, noted, “it is still possible in spite of the age of twitter, that we can have robust book industry.”

He noted that the Literature Prize, no doubt, has come in as a quality intervention, whose contribution to the book narrative cannot be reduced to mere data and statistics.

An opinion also raised by Andy Odeh, manager, Corporate Communication and Public Affairs. He noted that NLNG has come in to reward excellence.

“At NLNG, we believe that the award is to celebrate excellence in literary accomplishments and also bring authors to public attention and. With or without the Prize, people will write.”

He noted that NLNG believes that the prize will improve the quality of writing, editing, proof reading, and publishing in the country.