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A former winner, two outsiders in contention for the Nigerian Prize For Literature 2016

By Anote Ajeluorou
02 October 2016   |   3:20 am
In fact, the contest is between a former winner, Unigwe, who won with On Black Sister Street in 2012, and two outsiders to the prize, Ibrahim (Season of Crimson Blossom) and John (Born on a Tuesday).
Chika Unigwe

Chika Unigwe

Expectations is building towards October 9, when the winner of The Nigerian Prize for Literature 2016, sponsored by Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG), will be announced to the literary community, to crown the start of another circle of Nigeria’s coveted literary prize. Interestingly, the three contenders for the USD$100,000 prize money – Chika Unigwe, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Elnathan John – have novels with grim, dark themes that portray rich slices of Nigeria’s turbulent social, cultural and religious landscape.

In fact, the contest is between a former winner, Unigwe, who won with On Black Sister Street in 2012, and two outsiders to the prize, Ibrahim (Season of Crimson Blossom) and John (Born on a Tuesday). However, Ibrahim and John are not new to prizes; they have had shots at the Caine Prize (based in London, the U.K.) with their respective short stories. John’s short story, ‘Bayan Layi,’ was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2013 and forms the first chapter, which he fully developed into the novel in contention, Born on a Tuesday. Ibrahim, too, had his ‘The Whispering Trees’ shortlisted for the Caine Prize also in 2013.

Ironically, Ibrahim and John both downplayed the monetary side of the prize at the CORA/NLNG-organised Book Party in July for the 11 longlisted writers, and actually accused event moderator and poet, Dr. Dami Ajayi, of playing to the poverty narrative. They declined to say what they might do with the prize money if they were to win. Ajayi had asked the two writers, who joined the party via Skype, what they would do with the money if they won. While Ifeoma Okoye and others said they would devote a part of it to social causes, Ibrahim and John would not be drawn into what they considered a silly issue. Yet now, the prize is only days away from possibly coming to any of them. Unigwe could not join the Book Party from her U.S. base though.

In fact, this year’s long list was dominated by women, eight women and just three men. The other writers in the long list included Yejide Kilanko (Daughters Who Walk This Path), U.S.-based Dr. Mansim Okafor (The Parable of the Lost Shepherds), Aramide Segun (author of Eniitan – Daughter of Destiny), Maryam Awaisu (Burning Bright), Ifeoluwa Adeniyi (On the Bank of the River), Ifeoma Okoye (The Fourth World), Ogochukwu Promise (Sorrow’s Joy) and Sefi Atta (A Bit of a Difference), who have all dropped out of the race for the last three.

Now, however, it is one woman against two men; not a fair contest, you’d say. But Unigwe has grit as a novelist and had survived a previous scare, when she stood toe-to-toe with the likes of Onuorah Nzekwu (octogenarian author of Troubled Dust) in 2012, a novel based on the Nigerian Civil War, which many considered robust enough that could have also claimed the prize. This year, Unigwe’s Night Dancer is on a topical issue about the dispossession African women continue to suffer as a result of a patriarchical system that is heavily rigged against them; it strikes a deep cord with readers. Here is the story of a woman, who, unable to bear a male child, and displaced from making meaningful use of her life, loses her place to another woman. She leaves her marriage with her only daughter, who is also considered a pariah without a father-figure as her guardian. When the mother dies, the daughter embarks on a journey to discover her paternal roots. Her mother’s letters reveal to her what happened and why she is all alone. In an African society that privileges men over women, Unigwe’s sensitive probing deeply delves into forbidden areas and unmasks the unimaginable. Hers is a cry of many modern African women to be treated with dignity and respect; that women, too, are human beings deserving of due rights and privileges that men enjoy.

Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossom also deals with the place of women in conservative Northern Nigeria and its constricting religious and cultural obligations that limit the space given a woman to navigate. Although Unigwe’s women in the Southern Nigeria can afford to walk out of their marriages and endure the insults hauled against them, even a widow in the North is still not expected to have any kind of liberty to live life the way she deems fit. And so when Hajiya Binta permits herself the luxury of sexual indulgence, she is made to account for her sexual liberty in the most tragic manner. Her daughter’s struggle for a measure of space to mark a departure that is in tune with modern era different from her mother’s generation experiences serious tension, as a society that is deeply steeped in religious and cultural norms pulls her down into its suffocating folds. Also foregrounded against the hideous religious conflagration that consumed the author’s beloved city of Jos, Season of Crimson Blossom makes The Nigerian Prize for Literature 2016 all the more interesting.

In fact, between Unigwe and Ibrahim, there is a definitive portraiture of conditions of women in the North and South of Nigeria and how manacled social and cultural norms hold them. While Unigwe’s is set far back in time in the 1970s, Ibrahim’s is contemporary, just a few years ago. Both books make compelling comparative analysis in two distinctive regions of the same country. But they are just an aspect of the story that makes Nigeria such a diverse social space.

John’s Born on a Tuesday is another piece of fictional proposition entirely; this time, it is youth engagement also in Northern Nigeria and how its misuse can have disastrous consequences for everyone, North and South. Tangentially, it tackles the current Boko Haram insurgence with penetrating insight and insider mastery. How do insurgents gain such wide following in a country with so many military and paramilitary forces? What is the place of intelligence in the buildup of a religious sect to a point where it declares its own caliphate in parts of a country? John does the unusual by going behind the enemy lines, as it were, to unearth the great religious debates that took place, and are taking place, under the nose of Nigeria’s intelligence forces. It is fictional, but a recreation of a possible route that should not have been allowed to blossom. What john comes up with is the creation of murderous fanatics like the Shekaus, whose anthem is bloodbath. Having been created, they become difficult to dismantle. This is partly the story of North-eastern Nigeria and the scourge of insurgency.

NIGHT Dancer, Season of Crimson Blossom and Born on a Tuesday are three incredible novels. It is, indeed, Nigeria’s finest hour for the fiction genre. This is made more so delicious by the fact that two home-based writers – Ibrahim and John – are making a very strong showing against a diaspora writer, who still has her feet firmly planted back home. If Unigwe wins, she would have created a record of wining The Nigerian Prize for Literature back to back, which will be no small feat. No doubt, Ibrahim and John are in a race against a formidable woman, which clearly makes it is a tough call for the judges. Led by eminent but elderly literary critic and jury chair, Prof. Dan Izevbaye, who is assisted by professors Isidore Diala (Imo State University, Owerri) and Asabe Usman Kabir (Uthmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto), a winner would certainly emerge this year as opposed to last year’s zero verdict on account of poor showing by writers of children’s literature.

So, Izevbaye, Diala and Asabe are the three literary gods either Unigwe, Ibrahim or John’s muse must appease to cross the river of life for the coveted prize!