By Ozoro Opute
EVERY year, The Nigeria Prize for Literature throws up some interesting perspectives on Nigeria’s creative writing. Since the prize was thrown open to Nigerian writers at home and those living and plying their creative trade abroad, the prize has yielded many interesting categories. One thing that has kept endearing the prize to the literary community is the attention the organisers pay to views from stakeholders on ways to better position the prize to keep energising the literary environment. The stunning amount of entries every year (over 250 this year) is a clear testimony that the prize’s popularity among writers is assured.
One such view that was strongly canvassed that eventually got the nod from the organisers is the inclusion of non-academic members in the jury process. Some critics had felt that making only academics as judges was an anomaly, as other members of the society could also performed creditably in that area of determining the best literature being produced from the lot. International literary prizes like the Booker, Commonwealth and Caine do not even have a single academic jury member for a stretch. So, why the penchant for academics for The Nigeria Prize for Literature? It took a while, but eventually in 2018, the first non-academic member and winner of the 2013 poetry prize, Mr. Tade Ipadeola, was sandwiched between two academics, Prof. Ernest Emenyonu and Dr. Razinatu Mohammed, that eventually awarded the prize to late Ikeogu Oke for his collection, The Heresaid.
This year, the non-academic jury members outnumber the academic two to one, as Prof. Emmanuel Egya Sule chairs the 3-man jury that includes Toyin Adewale-Gabriel and Dike Chukwumerije. For some, this is a big victory and they look forward to when the jury will have no academic member at all. But with the Advisory Board still heavy with academics, such wish may seem illusory for now.
Last year when prose fiction was the genre in contest, as many as four female writers made the longlist, with two making the shortlist of three and one of them, Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, eventually winning the top prize with her novel, The Son of the House. This year, only one female writer made the longlist. It will be her second time to advance to this stage in the poetry prize, having done so in 2013 alongside another female writer, Ogochukwu promise. Last time, Iquo DianaAbasi entered with Symphony of Becoming while Promise entered with Wild Letters. While Promise made it to the shortlist of three, DianaAbasi did not progress beyond the longlist stage. It will be interesting to see how she fares this time around.
Another interesting fund fact about this year’s longlist is the dominance of Niger Delta writers. Four Niger Delta poets made the longlist of 11. They are Joe Ushie (Yawns and Belches), Ogaga Ifowodo (Augusta’s Poodle), DianaAbasi (Coming Undone as Stitches Tighten) and Obari Gomba (The Lilt of the Rebel). But unlike before, their works do not necessarily focus on the perennial crusading for environmental justice for the polluted Niger Delta or its marginalised people who live on the margin of the oil wealth which exploitation degrades their land to feed a seemingly an ungrateful country. Although small traces of such writing can still be discerned from their works, it does not form the bulk. Their works seem more introspective and diverse, which some see as a good thing.
However, what is yet to be ascertained is whether there is a creative fatigue in writing about the Niger Delta question as a result of government and the International Oil Companies’ (IOCs) failure to heed entreaties to remedy the plight of the region through their writing. Ken Saro-Wiwa was judiciary murdered for campaigning for Niger Delta environmental justice; the region would then produce an avalanche of creative writing (with Ifowodo and Gomba as some of its vanguards) in defence of the region’s blighted fortunes by the activities of oil companies and a complicit government in Abuja. Whatever is the reason, these writers’ dominance on the longlist in itself makes a statement about the unresolved issues of the maltreated and marginalised Niger Delta people whose region’s oil and gas wealth sustains the country.
As usual also, the big name publisher are missing from the longlist, but for Bookcraft’s presence that came to the rescue. But Bookcraft is not exactly among the big name publishers when one considers the likes of Longman, now LearnAfrica, McMillan, University Press, Spectrum, Nelson Publishers, etc. Bookcraft came into prominence because it is the excusive publisher of Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka. Another writer under Bookcraft stable is U.S.-based Prof. Okey Ndibe. Bookcraft is the publisher of Ogaga Ifowodo’s Augusta’s Poodle, also in the race for the USD$100,000 prize money.
The small, almost unknown publishers have continued to carry the burden of Nigeria’s fiction writing on its slender shoulders, just as the big name publishers have washed their hands off fiction, as they now concentrate only on publishing textbooks. As always, there’s Winepress (Remi Raji’s Wanderer Cantos), whose Idada’s Boom Boom won in 2019, Sehvange/Kikya (Su’eddie Agema’s Memory and the Call of Waters and DianaAbasi’s Coming Undone as Stitches Tighten), Griots’ Lounge (Romeo Oriogun’s Nomad), Fasihi (James Eze’s dispossessed), University of Nebraska Press (Sadiqq Dzugogi’s Your Crib, My Qibla), Craftgriots/Craftbooks (Ushie’s Yawns and Belches), Bookminds (Segun Adekoya’s Ife Testament) and Hornbill House of the Arts (Gomba’s The Lift of the Rebel), which published Tade Ipadeola and whose The Sahara Testament won The Nigeria Prize for Literature (poetry category) in 2013.