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Idada, Olatunde and Begho battle for $100,000 NLNG literature prize

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The winner of the prestigious Nigeria Prize for Literature sponsored by NLNG for 2019 will be announced on October 11. The winner will emerge from three finalists, selected from an initial pool of 173 authors. Jude Idada’s Boom Boom, Dunni Olatunde’s Mystery at Ebenezer Lodge and O. T. Begho’s The Great Wall of Benin sailed through to the finals after making the longlist of 11 books. 

For the three finalists, there was a consistent theme of literary excellence that the NLNG-sponsored award seeks to honour. Whether it’s a book that deals with sickle cell anaemia, or the story of mystery-solving kids or a magical journey towards saving Benin, it was a veritable bump up from 2015, the last time the award cycled onto the children’s literature genre.

The Nigeria Prize for Literature in its 15 years of recognising excellence in Nigerian Literature, rotates yearly among four genres: prose fiction, drama, poetry, and children’s literature. In 2015, Professor Ayo Banjo, the chairman of the advisory board of the award said that the submissions that year were incompetent in their use of language, hence there was no winner.

Jude Idada, the author of Boom Boom, a shortlisted book for the Nigeria Prize for Literature, said he wrote the book after participating in a writing workshop sponsored by NLNG, where they were taught how to “really write children’s literature.” 

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The book draws inspiration from the story of his friends that have passed on due to sickle cell anaemia and another friend who has two daughters that have sickle cell.

Interestingly, Idada is an award-winning screenwriter, producer and actor, as well as a runner-up of The Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2014 (Drama). He said he is able to keep up with the demands of the different creative spheres through compartmentalisation. 

“I am compartmentalised in the way I think, the way I manage my artistic pursuits,” Idada said. 

“So I also follow the story in looking at it as a sacrosanct expression of self. I give the story that credence when it comes to me. I decide, should I tell this story as a poem, should I tell it as a work of prose, like a novel or thereabout or as a stage play or as a film. The minute I do that I readjust my head.”

Member of the advisory board, Professor Emeritus Ben Elugbe said the board was happy with the quality of the materials this time.

“The advisory board are happy that we don’t have to go back to the sponsors and say, we’re sorry, yet again we couldn’t find a winner,” Professor Elugbe said.

“This time we asked the panel, the judges, are you sure you have something you can stand on to say this is a deserving winner? They said yes, on that we are very happy. We noticed that this year there were more entries than we usually had for children’s literature. That was pleasing.”

Despite fears from the board that writers of children’s literature could be discouraged from submitting their entries, 2019 had a 59% increase in the number of submissions compared to 2015.

With the welcomed increase in submissions, the lofty standards have not wavered with the focus still on the celebration of excellence in language use, creativity and book quality.

“In 2015, when there was no award at least people weren’t saying it is because of this or that,” Prof Elugbe said. 

“They knew that we had followed a near incorruptible, actually we believe it is an incorruptible process because NLNG insists on something that is perfect and excellent.

“We can look at it [the book] and say: is this well-published, can it stay on a shelf abroad or in Nigeria? Those that cannot receive yes for that question are thrown aside. So there are really quite a number of books that don’t survive our first meeting.”

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To ensure the process of the selection of the winner is as foolproof as possible, the advisory board member said they employ international consultants to offer another opinion on the quality of the selection.

“We send copies of these three (books) to the international consultants because we just want to be sure that there is another opinion, which is not in Nigeria to place side by side with the Nigerian opinion,” Prof. Elugbe said.

“In most cases, they are all in agreement both the international and the Nigerian (judges).”

Managing editor of Farafina Books Enajite Efemuaye said Mystery at Ebenezer Lodge. which is the first in the Ilesanmi twins series, was an exciting project for her right from when she saw the draft.

“I grew up reading a lot of adventure books and detective series around children which is what Mystery of Ebenezer Lodge is. It is a detective series, really. It was interesting to see a Nigerian take on children who go about solving different things and see how she [Dunni] managed to do that.

“It’s a lot of work. This book took close to three years to work on before it was finally published. So it is a very long process and the end of the day when you have something like this, you’re happy about it. And it gets shortlisted for the Nigeria Prize for Literature then you know finally that you did a good job.”

The winner of The Nigeria Prize for Literature will receive $100,000, the biggest monetary reward for literary excellence in Africa and one of the largest in the World.  

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