Who Wins EPL 2015?
As Nigerian Writers Await First Crown
This might not be unconnected with the recent announcement of the Etisalat Prize for Literature (EPL) Shortlist 2015.
It is the first pan-African prize that is open solely to debut fiction writers of African origin.
The release of the Longlist of nine books in November, and the subsequent shortlist of three books in December, just few weeks apart ,as it is customary with Africa’s most prestigious literary award, is something that has raised the adrenaline of members of the literary community who are awaiting the unveil of the ultimate prize winner.
As expected, the Etisalat Prize for Literature 2015 is coasting home in grandeur. To begin charity right from home: the Longlist of nine had two brilliant Nigerian writers, thus, raising anticipation that this time around, a Nigerian may finally clinch the prestigious literary award. Such sentiments are quite understandable. No Nigerian budding writer has won the prize since its debut in 2013.
NoViolet Bulawayo won the inaugural edition with We Need New Names.
Runners-up were Yewande Omotoso, Bom Boy (Modjaji Books) and Karen Jennings, Finding Soutbek (Holland Park Press). The judges in 2013 were: Zakes Mda, novelist and playwright; Sarah Ladipo Manyika, writer, academic; Pumla Dineo Gqola, writer, academic and Billy Kahora, writer, editor of Kwani?
For the 2014 edition, which was won by Songeziwe Mahlangu’s Penumbra (Kwela Books, imprint of NB Publishers), the judges were: Sarah Ladipo Manyika (chair), Alain Mabanckou, Jamal Mahjoub and Tsitsi Dangarembga.
Nadia Davids, An Imperfect Blessing (Random House Struik-Umuzi) and Chinelo Okparanta, Happiness, Like Water (Granta Books) made the shortlist.
Given the country’s population advantage and the exploits of writers of Nigerian origin across the globe, it is expected that a ‘son or daughter of the soil’ might clinch the star prize.
Leading the Nigerian charge on the Longlist was 29-year-old Chigozie Obioma, an Assistant Professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Obioma’s first novel, The Fishermen, was one of the nine books on the longlist.
The Nigerian author has been called in a New York Times Book Review, “the heir to Chinua Achebe.”
The Fishermen was also on the shortlist for the 2015 Man Booker Prize as well as being the New York Times Sunday Book Review Editor’s Choice selection, one of the American Library Association’s five best debuts of spring 2015, a Publishers Weekly book of the week, and one of Kirkus Review’s 10 Novels to Lose Yourself In.
Beside, Obioma won the inaugural FT/Oppenheimer Funds Emerging Voices Award, was shortlisted for the Centre for Fiction First Novel Prize and also shortlisted for the Edinburgh Festival First Book Award.
The second Nigerian whose book, On the Bank of the River, made the Longlist 2015 was Ifeoluwapo Adeniyi,, an on-air-personality with Ibadan’s first private radio station, Splash FM, and a postgraduate student in Obafemi Awolowo University.
On the Bank of the River is also highly rated across the continent and beyond. The other seven budding talents who made this year’s Longlist include, six South Africans, namely: Penny Busetto, The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself ; Z P Dala, What About Meera; Kurt Ellis, Any Means; Paula Marais, Shadow Self; Masande Ntshanga, The Reactive and Rehana Rossouw, What Will People Say? while Congolese author, Fiston Mwanza Mujila, Tram 83 completed the list.
The euphoria of a Nigerian victory, however, died when the shortlist of three was made. There was no Obioma or Adeniyi. Tram 83 by Mujila; The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself by Busetto, and What Will People Say? by Rossouw made it.
The announcement of the shortlist, many literary commentators and experts say, is a testament to the great efforts by the three esteemed judges — Professor Ato Quayson, Zukiswa Wanner, and Molara Wood — who made the selection of the books that eventually made the long and shortlist respectively. Now they have the unenviable task of picking out just one out of these three great works of literature.
Speaking on the choices for the shortlist, Chair of the judging panel, Professor Ato Quayson, said the variety of styles and subject matter of the books in this year’s shortlist reveal the vitality of contemporary African literature. “They contribute to our understanding of what it is to love, to laugh, to improvise, sometimes to despair, to know and yet be fooled by the assurance of such knowledge, to work for our ablution in the fate of another’s suffering, and ultimately to embrace life in all its bewildering complexities,” he said.
Wanner echoed similar sentiment. According to her, this year’s shortlist showcases the varied voices emerging on the African literary scene, bringing something beautiful and unique to the reading experience.
The third member of the judging panel, Molara Wood, concludes: “The shortlisted books challenge ready notions about new writing from Africa. They expand the field of literary engagement with themes of nationhood and the self. These are highly original voices whose works will charm and astonish new readers, through the Etisalat Prize for Literature, and deservedly so.”
So, what are the chances of these authors and their books winning the grand prize?
THE Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself is set principally in the island of Ponza, off the Italian mainland, but has a haunting South African backstory that edges into the narrative about a fifth of the way in.
The fictional novel won the 2013 European Union Literary Award as well as the 2014 University of Johannesburg Debut Prize.
Busetto was born in Durban, South Africa, and grew up in Cape Town. She moved to Italy when she was 17, where she studied and married. She moved back to Cape Town in 1996, where she lives with her son.
She is currently pursuing her doctorate in English and psychology, and has stated that the title character of her debut novel, Anna P, is somewhat inspired by Anna O, one of the first people to undergo psychoanalysis.
Mujila’s piece, Tram 83, is the story of Requiem, a gangster rapidly gaining power and influence in a fictional, dystopian African city and his friend, Lucien, a writer who visits him and is sucked into Requiem’s corrupt empire and the city’s outrageously extravagant, filthy-glamorous nightlife. The title refers to Tram 83, a nightclub where wealthy tourists, gangsters, miners, and prostitutes (ranging in age from 12 to “ageless”) go every night, all night. The Tram is what holds the crumbling city together — where Requiem, his cohorts, and the city’s prostitutes peddle to wealthy tourists from around the world.
Born in Lubumbashi, Congo DR, in 1981, Mujila studied Literature and Human Sciences at Lubumbashi University. He now lives in Graz, Austria and is pursuing a PhD in Romance Languages. His writing has been awarded with numerous prizes, including, the Gold Medal at the 6th Jeux de la Francophonie in Beirut as well as the Best Text for Theatre (State Theater, Mainz) in 2010
His poems, prose works, and plays are reactions to the political turbulence that has come in the wake of the independence of the Congo and its effect on day-to-day life. His debut novel Tram 83 was a French Voices 2014 grant recipient and won the Grand Prix du Premier Roman des SGDL, and was shortlisted for numerous other awards, including the Prix du Monde. Tram 83 has drawn comparisons to Fitzgerald, Céline, García Márquez, Hunter S. Thompson and even a painting by Hyeronimous Bosch or a piece by Coltrane.
Last, but not least on the Shortlist is Rehana Rossouw’s What Will People Say?, a story of the Fourie family, residents of Hanover Park in the Cape Flats during the height of the struggle era. The main characters include Magda, the churchgoing mother, who doesn’t see what’s going on in front of her; Neville, the concerned and loving but not always effectual father; Suzette, the oldest daughter, who is bound and determined to get away and make a better life for herself via a career in modelling; Nicky, the smart and sensitive middle child, who proves herself capable of making unselfish choices; and Anthony, the naïve and doomed son, who gets caught up with a gang and meets a sad end.
In What Will People Say? The setting is everything, and the author doesn’t stint on the details of the world her characters inhabit.
Readers who have never set foot in Hanover Park will feel they are there, and those who know the place will nod in recognition of the sensory details the author loads into her writing.
Nor does the author shy away from the difficult issues faced by those living in this marginalised and disadvantaged community, which came into being as a result of the forced removals from Cape Town. How these issues affect the members of a particular family and their relationships with one another are the focus of the author’s close-up lens.
Unique in form and content, the Etisalat Prize for Literature apart from promoting talents in Africa, also rewards creative excellence. To this end, all the three shortlisted writers will be rewarded with a sponsored multi-city book tour and will also have 1,000 copies of their books purchased by Etisalat for distribution to schools, libraries and book clubs across the Continent. The winner of the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature will be announced in March 2016 and will receive £15,000, an engraved Montblanc Meisterstück pen. The Prize also includes an Etisalat sponsored fellowship at the University of East Anglia, mentored by Professor Giles Foden, author of The Last King of Scotland.
As the time ticks for the announcement of the ultimate winner of the literature prize, the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature is already a beautiful narration being told across the continents.