Literary prizes are strange animals. As subjective as they often are, they usually confer immediate entrée into the rarefied heights of the literary canon. And because they are strange animals, one is almost always never surprised when things go awry or fail to turn out as planned – like Jean-Paul Sarte refusing his Nobel, Dambudzo Marechera throwing plates at the awarding of his Guardian prize, or Helon Habila slagging off a co-Caine prize winner’s debut novel for pandering. In fact as James English highlighted in his The Economy of Prestige, this is often the way in which prizes accumulate their cultural capital.
Strange animals behave strangely and the Etisalat Prize for Literature, the most recent big prize to come out of the African continent, began exhibiting some strangeness right from the get go when it called on readers to vote for their Best Flash Fiction story. A female writer, feeling affronted at being reduced to the status of, say, an X-factor hopeful, instantly withdrew, expressing her umbrage in a very public letter to the organizers. Exposing the flaws in the way the online voting system was organised, she was not, she said, going to take part in a popularity contest. Prizes she argued needed sifting, panels and experts.
But there were experts aplenty to judge. Eghosa Imasuen, author of Fine Boys and COO of Kachifo judged top 20 flash fiction stories selected by readers. The judging panel for Etisilat’s prize for a debut work of fiction was made up of Sarah Ladipo Manyika, author of In Dependence; Billy Kahora, Caine Prize nominee and Managing Editor of Kwani?, the Kenya based Journal and Chair, Pumla Gqola, academic, public intellectual and writer.
The patrons were also heavy hitters including novelist and academic Kole Omotosho and Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, OBE, former Granta editor and veteran of many awards and juries from the Caine to the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre residency. Alongside one of Africa’s greatest female writers Ama Ata Aidoo; Pulitzer prize winner, Dele Olojede; Publisher Margaret Busby, OBE and Novelist and Playwright Zakes Mda.
A shaky start notwithstanding, the Etisalat Prize was successfully concluded at a glitzy event, well attended by members of the Lagos literati, on Sunday February 23, 2014 at the Marquee of the Federal Palace Hotel, Lagos. Here NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names (Chatto & Windus) was announced as winner of the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature – the first Pan-African Prize celebrating debut fiction novels from writers of African citizenship.
Bulawayo who won the Caine Prize in 2011 for an excerpt from her novel, We Need New Names, is also the first African female writer to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She beat off competition for the Etisilat Prize from two other female writers, Yewande Omotoso with Bom Boy (Modjaji Publishers) and Karen Jennings with Finding Soutbek (Holland Park Press) to go home with a £15,000 cash prize, attend the Etisalat Fellowship at the prestigious University of East Anglia (mentored by Giles Foden – Author of The Last King of Scotland) and embark on a three city book tour alongside the other runner up authors.
Before Bulawayo was announced as winner, grand dame of African literature, Ama Ata Aidoo had come on stage to announce the winner of the Etisalat Flash Fiction prize. She commented that flash fiction had been practised for centuries in Africa, but it wasn’t until the advent of the internet than it became recognized as a genre. She also highlighted the immense talent and courage it takes to tell a compelling story in a small space, before awarding the prize to Uche Okonkwo for her story “Neverland.” Uche, a graduate of the Manchester University writing programme, went home with a Samsung Galaxy notebook and £1000.
Another highlight of the award ceremony was a unique performance from celebrated music legend, Youssou N’Dour who thrilled with songs from his repertory as well as Bob Marley’s classic ‘Redemption Song’. The high point of his performance was undoubtedly his duet with Nigerian singer, Ruby, who joined him on stage for his hit song, “7 Seconds” originally done with Neneh Cherry.
As guests milled around after the event, conversation turned to a snafu in the documentary shown during the award ceremony. Ostensibly making a beeline for the canon, the Etisalat Prize attempted to trace the history of the development of African literature.
However, as is always the case with making lists, they left out some notables including Olaudah Equiano and Nigeria’s Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. While one guest argued the omission needed to be seen in the context of the prize’s focus on fiction, another argued that Soyinka wrote novels and Olaudah’s work is the first long narrative by an African. Moreover, as the same guest went on to add, the prize itself is called the Etisalat Prize for Literature not fiction.
Omissions or not, the fact remains that African writers need recognition and nothing confers that faster than a literary prize as made clear by winners of the Caine prize who win a lot more than the £15,000 prize money as they sign book deals and become globally renowned writers.
But the Caine prize, like the discontinued NOMA, which was awarded to deserving works irrespective of genre and the NLNG sponsored Nigerian Prize for Literature continue to attract controversy on account of what they offer and are perceived not to offer.
In the case of the Caine prize, critics wonder why a short story and only one author should win £15,000 and why African writing is being canonized (that word again) by foreign interests.
For the NLNG Prize the issues have been many from its insistence on awarding the prize to only Nigerians living in Nigeria (that rule has been changed) to the rotation of the prize among different genres over a four year cycle.
The administrators of the prizes are taking note and making changes as we hope that the Etisalat prize administrators would do too but while controversy and strange behaviour keep us talking about the Etlisalat Prize, we shouldn’t forget to pay more attention to the writing that the prize was founded to celebrate because blips aside, this new pan-African literary prize has broken new ground and provides a welcome opportunity for literary talent in Africa. Time will tell how well it is sustained and nurtured.