Who wins this year’s $100,000 Nigeria Prize for Literature? Which poetry collection will clinch the prize? Next month, three works will be picked from the shortlisted 11 entries before the grand finale in October. The CORA-Nigeria Prize for Literature yearly book party held in Lagos provided a platform for a robust engagement with the finalists.
It was a rich harvest of Nigerian poetry. About 11 shortlisted works provided materials for a robust engagement with the authors at their eighth edition of CORA-Nigeria Prize for Literature yearly book party.
Venue was the Terra Kulture Arena on Victoria Island, Lagos.
It was a gathering of the literati, who interacted with the authors. Aside the anxiety over who wins the coveted prize, the evening also provided a platform to discuss issues of critical relevance to the book industry. The dearth of literature in indigenous languages, availability and utility of a functional library system, efficacy of distribution and the profitability of the vocation of writing, among others, were all discussed.
The shortlisted include Tanure Ojaide’s Songs of Myself: Quartet, Abubakar Othman’s Blood Streams in the Desert, Hyginus Ekwuazi’s One Day I’ll Dare to Raise My Middle Finger at the Stork and the Reaper, Obari Gomba’s For Every Homeland, Humphrey Ogu’s Echoes of Neglect, and Ebi Yeibo’s Of Waters and the Wild.
Others are Ogaga Ifowodo’s A Good Mourning, Peter Akinlabi’s Iconography, Jumoke Verissimo’s The Birth of Illusion, Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresaid and Seun Lari-William’s Garri for Breakfast.
Unlike last year’s outing, which was about the female voice in literature, this year’s shortlist comprises mostly male and works of poetry. Last year, eight of the 11 shortlisted were female, a male won.
The NLNG-sponsored Nigeria Prize for Literature picks one literary genre every four years, and it is featuring poetry for the fourth time. The Nigeria Prize for Literature is the biggest cash prize award for a literary competition on the continent. It is worth about $100,000.
According to Secretary-General, Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), Mr. Toyin Akinoso, the book party is more than creating a community of book lovers and an economy around the book trade, as it is to also expand the membership of the community of culture patrons.
Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) General Manager, External Relations, Mr. Kudo Eresia Eke, said the genre for 2017 edition is poetry with 184 entries from a particularly competitive and high quality collection of entries. “The depth and intellect, the pedigree of the competitors, especially those on the shortlist of 11 is apparent,” he said.
Eke said the event signified “the successful advancement of traditional processes related to this edition of the Nigeria LNG sponsored Nigeria Prize for Literature.” He added that a shortlist of three is expected to be drawn from the 11 works in September, and the winner, to be announced in October, will take home $100,000 prize.
“At the end, it is hoped that this prize will continue to improve the quality of writing, editing, proof-reading and publishing in Nigeria and elsewhere. The guiding philosophy behind NLNG’s inauguration of The Nigeria Prize for Literature is to honour and encourage writers,” he said.
The question and answer session was anchored by art writer with Punch, Mr. Akeem Lasisi.
The only female on the shortlist, Jumoke Verissimo, the author of The Birth of Illusion said: “My book is based on my observation in our society in the last ten years. Sometimes it is difficult to believe that we are in our reality. I wrote the poem thinking of our reality as our illusion.”
Asked how she feels being the only female shortlisted for the competition, she said: “Being the only female shortlisted is not an issue. I don’t even care even if I’m the only goat (laughs), we are all poets; writers, and we all got published, that is the most important thing. What I’m really concerned about is excellence.”
For author of Iconography, Peter Akinlabi, getting his first book shortlisted is a source of joy. “I feel good. I feel honoured. Frankly speaking, this is because these authors in the shortlist are the best poets in the country. I am highly honoured,” he said.
Oke said his poems deal with freedom of expression, freedom of worship as well as promoting peace, while Seun Lari-William said his poem focuses on reality of a young Nigerian man like himself.
He said: “A work of poetry, of literature, is first of all a work of beauty. You can be angry, but you have to be angry in a beautiful way.
Don Burness, author of Red Flower in the Sand, says the collection “sings with prophecy, wisdom and lament. The poet explores varied themes including censorship, the single-minded madness of extreme religious fundamentalism and the very nature of skepticism and independent thought”.
Burness says Oke handles heroic couplets like a master swordsman, whose rapier thrusts both provoke and excite.
Beyond the challenge of authors not writing or translating their works into local languages, the disappearing words of mother tongue in literature and authors not using their local languages to convey their messages in their works also took the front burner at the book party.
Renowned author and poet, Mr. Odia Ofeimun, said: “All the languages in the world are one. We are a bit unlucky that we had a colonial language imposed on our main languages. But it was also very great that we have a language that has interacted with so many other languages in the world and acquire gravitas enabling one language to steal words from all the languages in the world and hand it over to use where there is nothing evil. The fear that we treat English as a foreign language is a bit unfortunate.
“You have most of the languages we speak in West Africa actually representing part of that business of coming down from far away and we then moved down south that we are speaking exactly same kind of language. Put Yoruba and Igbo together, they are the same. But when you get to Zulu land in South Africa, you will discover that many of the words in Zulu are actually the same words here.”
Chairman of the panel of judges for this year’s competition is Prof. Ernest Emenyonu, professor of African Studies, University of Michigan-Flint, United States. The panel of judges also comprises Dr Razinat Mohammed, associate professor of Literature, University of Maiduguri, and Tade Ipadeola, a lawyer, poet and winner of The Nigeria Prize for Literature (2013).
The approving Advisory Board comprises Professor Ayo Banjo, two-time Vice-Chancellor of Nigeria’s premier university, University of Ibadan as chairman. Others are former Minister of State for Education and former President of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Prof. Jerry Agada; as well as former President, Nigerian Academy of Letters and president of the West-African Linguistic Society (2004-2013),Professor Emeritus Ben Elugbe.
Since its inception in 2004, the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature has stimulated the publishing of over 1,630 books with 530 representing 32 per cent, works on poetry alone.
In 2005, which was the first run for Poetry, 13 entries were received. That year, the competition produced joint winners, the late Professor Ezenwa Ohaeto and Dr Gabriel Okara for their works titled: Chants of a Minstrel and The Dreamer: His Vision. Two great minds and sources of inspiration and
Recalled that after a four-year round of the competition featuring Prose-Fiction, Drama and Children’s Literature, the next poetry competition in 2009 recorded 160 entries but, unfortunately, produced no winner. The ante was raised in 2013, with a record 201 entries. That year, the prize produced another winning work, The Sahara Testament by Tade Ipadeola who incidentally is on the panel of judges this year.