By Godwin Okondo
It was the moment of promised stardom for 11 Nigerian writers, as they and their books lined up for applause in a Book Party held for The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2020 edition for prose fiction
BOOK lovers that converged on Eko Hotel, Lagos, on August 8, 2021, had a moment to party with the 11 best novelists to emerge from a pool of 202 entries for The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2020, sponsored by the Nigerian Liquidified Natural Gas Limited (NLNG) in a Book Party organized by the Committee for Relevant Art- (CORA). It was an eclectic audience comprising well known Nigerian actors, producers, filmmakers, and writers, and other cultural workers, who had come to celebrate good writing. There was entertainment with songs and cultural performances, with Jojo Bodybeats stealing the show with his body beat calisthenics, where he employs every of his body part as a musical instrument.
CORA’s Programme Chair, Mr. Jahman Anikulapo, introduced proceedings for the evening before CORA’s Secretary General, Mr. Toyin Akinosho, typically his fashion, read an excerpt from Phebean Ogundipe’s Up Country Girl to set the mood for the book feast.
Then Akinosho addressed the gathering, saying, “The last time we got together was October 8, 2020, on Zoom. Last year’s Book Party was meant to be a symbolic gathering, to make the statement that the pandemic would not defeat the pursuit of a noble cause such as The Nigeria Prize for Literature.
“We know of podcast recordings of conversations between authors and moderators; we are aware of mailed excerpts of new books; we know of grand launchings, but nothing beats a Book Reading, an event at which an author sits and discusses his work with readers in the room. Whoever wins the prize is the most literate Nigerian in the year of his winning.
“The Nigeria Prize for Literature is the biggest cash prize award (USD$100,000) for a literary competition on the continent. The prize money makes the competition to be as keen as some of the most prestigious literature prizes on the planet, but what writers want, primarily, is to distinguish themselves with magical writing and gain a wide audience in the event. Simply put: the recognition is important. The Book Party is one of the series of events in our calendar that preface our annual Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF). We are going to have an exciting time this afternoon, engaging with this star-studded cast of writers.”
Thereafter, the General Manager, External Relations of Nigeria LNG Limited, Mrs. Eyono Fatayi-Williams, took the audience on a journey of her gas company’s commitment to the promotion of literature and writers. In her welcome address, Fatayi-Williams said, “This event provides me some sense of relief and upliftment, knowing that the Nigeria LNG-sponsored literature and science prizes are back on course after the pandemic stalled the call for entries for the 2020 edition of the competitions. Although the competition was truncated last year following the restrictions occasioned by the pandemic which hampered submission of entries within the allowed window, we still found the courage to organise the Book Party, given the huge derivable value that connecting hearts and minds offers our creative thoughts. Even though it was a virtual party, that outing in 2020 was quite interesting and encouraging as it featured presentations from past winners and eminent literary icons in the country. Today, we will be interacting with authors of the top eleven works chosen from 202 submissions on prose fiction for the competition.
“Nigeria LNG has used The Nigeria Prize for Literature to stimulate interest in writing and publishing excellent works. The prize has also contributed to popularising Nigerian Literature in the global literary community, as our celebrated works compare favourably with other distinguished works of literature around the world in terms of content presentation, style, structure, and packaging. Today, Nigeria can showcase works that portray excellent writing, editing, proof-reading, and publishing in Nigeria and these promise to get even better as we continue to promote The Nigeria Prize for Literature. More Nigerians in the diaspora are also making submissions for the competition, a testament that the prize is getting good traction globally.
“So far, the literature prize has enjoyed massive public goodwill which has made it a huge success at home and abroad. We owe a lot of that success to most of you present at this Book Party who identify with the prize either as authors, as administrators, as scholars, or as readers and lovers of literature. Over these years, the literature prize has celebrated Nigerian writers especially winners of the prize, with pump and pageantry and has sponsored several writers on the shortlist on book reading tours in the country, showcasing their works and stimulating public interest in reading. Much of the company’s success with the prize has come from partnerships with prestigious organisations such as CORA, which birthed this Book Party and Terra Culture with whom we have partnered to organise book readings. These partnerships have yielded more positive values to the prize, and we will continue to welcome more mutually beneficial partnerships for the advancement of creative and critical writing in the country.”
THEN tantalizing excerpts from the 11 books vying for the USD$100,000 prize money followed to whet the audience’s appetite. Some of the best actors and filmmakers took charge. They were Charles Ukpong, Francis Onwuche, Tina Mba, Achalugo Ezekobe, and Bimbo Manuel. The books shortlisted include Give Us Each Day by Samuel Monye; Mountains of Yesterday by Tony Nwaka; The Return of Half-Something by Chukwudi Eze; In The Name of Our Father by Olukorede Yishau; Your Church, My Shrine by Ikay Ezeh; Imminent River by Anaele Ihuoma; Neglected by Lucy Chiamaka Okwuna; The Girl With The Louding Voice by Abi Dare; The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia; Delusions of Patriots by Obianuju V. Chukwuanyi, and The Colours of Hatred by Obinna Udenwa.
Writer and broadcaster with AriseTV, Mr. Rufai Oseni, engaged the writers on their journey into writing and how they were able to produce books that made it to a critical stage of the contest.
Nwaka said, “I started writing six years ago. I had read some novels but I never knew I had the passion to write until people who came across my write ups on Facebook would tell me they liked the way I told stories. So, I decided to try my hand at writing. Mountains of Yesterday is a fiction of my thesis, which is about the crises in the Niger Delta.”
Okwuma said, “Writing is a way of exploring people’s life story. Neglected is about the misconception about mental health and how it is handled in Nigeria. This is basically to show readers that mental stress is a serious issue and it’s becoming the killer of youths today.”
Yishau, on his part, said, “In The Name of Our Father is about religious deceit and military dictatorship. I had written and kept it for over 15 years. I gave people to read and they said it’s good for publishing, but I wasn’t convinced until I spoke with Mr. Toni Kan about it and asked him to see if the book was good for the trash. I got a positive reply and published the book in 2018.”
Author of Imminent River, Ihuoma said, “I am a writer, teacher and a journalist. I was born in the midst of storytellers who used music to tell stories and I heard from my family members as well. My book is a love story with the historical angle of the slave trade and native medicine.”
Udenwa declared, “I’m a civil engineer from Abakaliki. The Colours of Hatred is about a Nigerian family and their life-changing experiences in Sudan. They experienced many terrible things and after their return to Nigeria, their father became a politician and began he quest for wealth.”
Give Us Each Day’s author, Monye said, “I was born in Delta in a line of storytellers. I was exposed to a lot of novels and found a passion for it, which transformed into writing. In 2017, I encountered a boy living on the streets in Ibadan while serving and asked him about his life on the streets. I made my research before writing my book and Libya was the perfect fit for the mood.”
According to Chukwuorji, “I studied Electrical Engineering at the university. I also got married while in school and I was employed in a bank immediately I graduated. Delusions of Patriots is about someone who the society has failed, who formed a group that aimed to use counter-force to get the leadership of the country to do the right thing. But like all such noble intentions, things went wrong when splinter groups started and bad things began to happen.”
On his part, Ezeh said, “I overheard a pastor in a nearby church listing the names of people who hadn’t paid tithes, threatening to hold them in church after service until they paid. That was how I got the inspiration to write Your Church, My Shrine. I was working on another story at that moment; I just left the others waiting and started this book.”
Onyemelukwe-Onuobia said, “I’m a lawyer and a professor of law. I run a law firm and an NGO for gender-based violence. The Son of the House tells the story of two women from different backgrounds living life from the 1970s to the 2000s.”
Dare (The Girl With The Louding Voice) was the only writer who was absent was and couldn’t join via Zoom either.
AFTER Rufai Oseni brought the conversation with the 10 writers in attendance to an end, then the party began. The chief host, Fatayi-Williams, matriarch of Nigerian theatre, Mrs. Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, CORA Secretary-General, Mr. Akinosho, filmmaker and documentarist, Mr. Femi Odugbemi, publisher at Parresia, Azafi Omoluabi, and a host of others heeded the call of the live band and took to the floor to really dance. After the hard work by the writers to have penned works that brought them to such high stage, capping it off with music and fun was the best way to bring the evening to an end.
TO bring proceedings to an end, the Manager, Corporate and Public Affairs, Nigeria LNG Limited, Dr. Sophia Horsfall, thanked everyone, saying, “This event has indeed been quite enthralling with the x-ray of these scintillating works of literature. Our interaction tonight brought to life the value of literature to our reading community – enlightenment, entertainment, and education. Listening to the respective authors of the shortlist of eleven, one can tell that these fresh narratives are capable of eliciting scholars’ and readers’ interest in the books. As we wind down this party, I implore us all to make time to read each of these books and to savor the excellent writings.
“I must commend Nigerian writers for continuously and ambitiously raising the bar towards winning the USD$100,000 prize money which The Nigeria Prize for Literature offers and other reputable international prizes as well. Coming this far in the competition also attests to your excellent writing skill. This Book Party sponsored by Nigeria LNG in partnership with CORA, demonstrates how seriously we take writing and literature and how much we value your submissions. Thank you for keeping faith in The Nigeria Prize for Literature by submitting your entries for the competition. We at Nigeria LNG are proud of you and we celebrate your prowess in the industry.”