By Anote Ajeluorou
- ‘The prize has really grown value of Nigerian literature, impacted publishing, editing’
- ‘Past winners should satisfy their fans by producing more books’
NOVELIST, literary theorist and academic, Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, after winning the prize and being a jury member, currently sits on the Advisory Board as chairperson after succeeding Prof. Ayo Banjo, and is poised to bring innovations to the coveted prize jury process. In this interview, she tells AnoteArtHub the quantum of impact the prize has had on writing and the publishing ecosystem in the country and beyond since inception some 16 years ago, as Nigerian writers are set to contest the USD$100,000 worth poetry prize.
The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2022 has opened for poetry category. What are the basic requirements for poets intending to enter for the prize?
People should submit only published work. We do not accept manuscripts, but of course, this year, we are also asking that people, apart from submitting the published works, should also submit their work online, galley proof of their books. We are asking for this because of obvious reasons. Nowadays, most things are done electronically, even meetings; so, we also want to have electronic copies of people’s books, but we insist also on 12 copies of the published book to be submitted.
The galley proof (ready-to-print format) to be submitted online (www.thenigeriaprize.org) is just like a backup to the normal 12 hard copy prints, isn’t it?
Yes, it’s a backup, plus indicating the online platform in which the book can be obtained for those who want to buy. The 12 published copies must be submitted, and the address is there on the advert (NLNG office in Port Harcourt). You can take the books there, and you can also send them through post, courier, or whichever way you can afford, but there is a deadline. You must submit by April 8, 2022. Any book that comes after then will not be accepted.
So this year’s prize is poetry. Please, take us through the prize process once more.
This prize rotates among four genres – that is prose, poetry, drama and children’s literature. Last year was prose and this year is for poetry, and only published poetry collections are acceptable. We do not even accept anthologies or journal poetry collections; it has to be in form of books, and we have a time span. Only books that were published from January 2018 – 2022; that’s a four-year span are eligible. Anything published before then will not be accepted.
Let’s look at the jury. This year, there is a bit of a shift from purely academic judges to a mix of judges. Are you happy with that?
In fact, a friend of mine who saw this described it as revolutionary. We considered a number of things in selecting the panel of judges for this year. There are three of them – Prof. Sule Emmanuel Egya; he is a very well known scholar, academic, and a writer himself. He is a poet and novel writer, too. So, he’s highly qualified to be chair of this year’s judges’ panel. We have Toyin Adewale-Gabriel who has published internationally, and her poems have been translated into German, and she is also a very well known poet in Nigeria. In fact, she was instrumental to the founding of Women Writers Association in Nigeria with Omowunmi Segun in the 1990s, and Toyin has proven to be a very competent poet. And we thought and believed that she is qualified to be judge. We are very gender-sensitive. We needed to have a kind of gender balance in the selection, and Toyin fills that gap very well.
But some critics will say though Toyin is a good poet and writer, but she hasn’t been in the radar for close to a decade or more, and she hasn’t published anything new. So, are there no other contemporary person’s you could have filed that position with?
Well, we had chosen professors who are not creative writers but are critics, as judges in the past. They are consumers for a particular genre which they are selected. For Toyin, I know she is visible on other platforms; so, I think she is qualified to be a member of this judging panel. Once a poet, always a poet. We also considered the peer influence and the influence of the people who were chosen, how influential they are in the media and that kind of thing, and the kind of platforms they belong to. These are issues we considered because we know many of those who are interested in this prize are young people, and we have that at the back of our mind also when we are selecting. We want to select people who will be widely acceptable. That is what I believe this year’s panel of judges constitutes.
If you look at Dike Chukwumerije, he is more of a performance poet, and worldwide performance poetry is gaining grounds, and we believe that having somebody with that background will do this prize a lot of good. Chukwumerije is widely accepted. He is very good, sound and intelligent, and he performs good poetry, and we believe that he being on the panel of judges will do a lot of good for this year’s judging process, and he also has a wide following on social media. So, we thought about that.
Well then, we will look out for more revolutionary changes to the prize structure while you are there as the first female chairperson of the Advisory Board for the prize…
And then the international consultant is a very well known poet from Uganda, Prof. Susan Kiguli. She is a published poet, and academic, a scholar. She trained at Leeds University, U.K., and has had a number of fellowships abroad. So, we thought she is qualified to be the international consultant. Usually, we give preference to people from Africa, or Africans in the diaspora, but when we can’t find someone suitable, then we look elsewhere. We are very pleased that we were able to get Kiguli from Uganda to fill the position this year.
You have transited from being a prize winner to the chair of the advisory board, after also being a judge. That means you have been part of the prize almost for as long as memory can go. In your estimation, how deep do you think the prize is ingrained among the reading public? How much awareness do you think the prize has garnered for itself and how much further do you think such awareness can be driven for Nigerians to properly own it?
The prize has always been widely advertised and publicized since it was instituted in 2004, both the science and literature prizes. Prize sponsor, Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG) Limited, does a lot of work regarding this. But if you notice what is happening this year, the prize sponsor has decided to beef up publicity regarding the prize, and that is part of what we are doing now. They want more Nigerians to know about it. This is a Nigerian prize, and it is open to Nigerians who are here and in the diaspora, so anybody who is a Nigerian citizen is qualified to enter their work, whether they live in or outside Nigeria. If that person is a poet with a collection published within this period of time, that person is qualified to submit.
Prize sponsor, NLNG, is determined to widen publicity for the prize, so that more people know about it. It becomes a household prize, so that no matter your background, if you’re a writer, then you have the right to submit your work. If you’ve written in the genre that is in consideration for that year, then you have the right to submit your work, and of course, this will not in any way affect standard. NLNG insists on excellence, and that is the watchword. Every judge who is appointed knows this, and I believe this is going to be the guiding principle also. It was started by the founding judges, and those of us who came later continued it. If you remember what happened last year, the panel of judges was very thorough and very competent, and we believe that this year would be the same, and in the years to come, excellence will always be the guiding principle for determining the winner of this prize.
Speaking of revolutionising the prize, there is a sub-genre which is ignored globally, the collection of short stories. Going forward, would that category be considered for a prize on its own, for those who are writing short stories, by a single writer, like you?
I believe that short stories are lumped together with prose fiction. Short stories are a form of prose fiction, like the novel, but people submit but winning it is another matter. I remember last year, when it was prose, there were one or two (collections of) short stories submitted. Short story is prose — it’s like children’s stories, and so far, the books that have always won are single prose fiction. They submit poetry books but they’ve never won, and the prize is for children’s literature; it has not excluded any, whether it’s short story, poetry or prose. Remember, Mabel Segun’s book that jointly won with mine was a collection of plays for children, and mine was prose. However, I don’t know if NLNG is interested in having a fifth prize category like short stories.
There’re pros and cons about the exact impact of the prize in the literary community in Nigeria. Just how much impact do you think the prize has made so far?
Well, I think so far it has made a great impact. For instance, let’s look at it from the perspective of the winners. A number of people who won this prize have gone on to do other things, write other books, and also the money is there and it has been very useful to them. Some of them set up literary structures. I know Chika Unigwe (On Black Sisters Street), for instance, who won in 2016, she set up a foundation and she gives prizes to writers every year in her Awele Prize. And I remember that Tade Ipadeola (The Sahara Testament) said he was going to set up a library or something like that. Adeleke Adeyemi (Mai Nasara) (The Missing Clock) who won in 2011; he’s in the U.S. now, and I know he is doing a lot of things there with children’s books. It was the money he won that helped him to migrate. So too was Soji Cole (Embers), who relocated to Canada.
These people who have won the prize have really done well. Mine also gave me a lot, but of course, then the money was smaller. Remember that the naira has become so devalued, so much so that the worth of what is being won now, you wonder if it’s as much as what was won in the past. But I know what I was able to do with my own money. So, from the perspective of winners it creates impact.
We can also look at it from other perspectives; for instance, the number of submissions. Before, it was under 100, but last year, despite the pandemic and the fact that a lot of people didn’t submit because of lockdown, we had over 200 submissions. So, a lot of people are eager to write well. The prize is really growing the value of Nigerian literature. It’s also improving the book chain. Publishers want to publish, and sometimes, it’s the publishers that actually submit for the prize, and I know some publishers who have submitted. They make inquiries and they submit for their authors.
True, it’s impacting on publishing, even the impact on editing. Before, it was difficult to publish a book in Nigeria where you didn’t find errors, but I looked at some of the books that were submitted last year, and some of them were actually error-free, which means better editing.
Even the books produced locally?
Yes. Some publishers have improved their editorial activities and expertise. So that’s also another impact this prize has made, and it looks like more and more people want to submit, and therefore we are having more writers, people who are eager to write because they want to submit. I’m not saying we should only write for prizes, but it’s a way to motivate people. It’s like the Booker Prize in the U.K., and everyday we have more writers submitting.
So, a good prize would normally encourage more people to write, or submit their work, and I think awarding prizes is a way to motivate writers, to reward them for the work they are doing. So, I think The Nigeria Prize for Literature, sponsored by NLNG, has made a lot of impact on people, and I’m sure that with the effort being put in this year, more and more people will get to know about this prize.
There is a fellow who works with a ministry in Ebonyi State, who was taking me to the airport the other day, and I mentioned the prize to him. He said he had never heard of this prize. He said he has a daughter who writes and he was going to encourage her. I asked him to go online and find out more about it. So, more people are going to find out about the prize and we are going to get better.
Writers who have won the prize tend to not write, as a some of them have not produced any work worth while since winning. Does this worry you?
I’ve heard people say this, but I don’t know if they’re right. I know there could be one or two who won it and stopped writing. There’s someone I know who won the prize but hasn’t published in a while, like Kaine Agary (Yellow Yellow). Who knows? She might have a lot of manuscripts she hasn’t published, but there are many others who are still active. You know we lost some of them who won – Ezenwa Ohaeto (Chants of Minstrel), Gabriel Okara (The Dreamer: His Vision) Esiaba Irobi (Cemetery Road), Oke Ikeogwu (The Heresiad), and Sam Ukala (Iredi War); these are painful losses. I’ve also looked at the history of the Booker Prize. There are some people who won the prize, like Kazuo Ishiguro, the British-Japanese writer, and I don’t think he’s still writing actively, and he’s a fine writer, if you’ve read his books.
Sometimes, winning a prize may make a writer work harder. Soyinka also came up with a novel recently. Isn’t it amazing? A Nobel laureate for that matter! Now that you’re saying it, I think we should encourage our winners. Winning this prize gives them a lot of publicity, and they should satisfy their fans by producing more books. I think that can be part of our plea for them to keep writing.
Prize sponsor buying a thousand copies of the winning book and distributing them to schools, I think, is good for the process, but they probably stopped, or what happened?
I don’t think they stopped. They did it with Jude Idada’s book (Boom Boom) in 2019 and my book when I won as well.
Is such offer only limited to children’s literature then?
Yes, I think NLNG made 1000 copies of my book and distributed to schools, especially in Bonny Island area.
So, what are your expectations for this year’s prize as the Advisory Board Chairperson?
We are hoping that we are going to get a lot of submissions. It’s poetry, and a lot more people write poetry than any other genre. Though most readers would go for prose, but poetry seems to be the more popular genre. I don’t know why, but you will see the number of works that would be submitted this year. We are hoping that all our poets who have published would submit their works, and we promised that the panel of judges will ensure that every due process will be followed, and whoever emerges winner the people will be happy with the work selected.
Recently, a critic declared that Nigerian literature is dead. Only last week, five Nigerian poets emerged best finalists across Africa in the English category in the Pan-African Writers Association’s (PAWA) Poetry Prize 2022 where Obari Gomba won with his collection, The Lilt of the Rebel. Yet a critic is declaring such literature dead. How do you respond to that charge?
People have a right to their opinion, but I disagree with them. Nigerian literature, or whatever they choose to call it, is not dead. People are writing better and better. I’m not saying everything written is perfect, but there are many good works emerging from Nigerians in Nigeria, from Africans in the continent, and those in the diaspora, and you can even see the way new writers are emerging, and some of them are gaining popularity. We have quite a number of Africans coming up now, locally and internationally, and we have a number of Nigerian writers who are writing well. So, I’m really baffled that someone could be saying that.
Well, the point of his argument is that in the days of Wole Soyinak, Chinua Achebe, Ali Mazrui, Chinweizu, etc, there used to be big arguments, quarrels about literary issues, but that is no longer the case. So, how should quarrel between or among writers be equated to good literature?
One thing I do, as an individual, and this has nothing to do with either being chair or a member of the Advisory Board, or being a lecturer. What I’m saying is, I travel abroad every year, especially to the U.K., and one of the things I do is that I always read books that won prizes there, especially the Booker Prize. I always read the shortlisted books. I can’t read everything, but I always identify the shortlist of Booker every year. When I go there, I also attend writers’ meetings, because the people I stay with are literary people.
One thing I noticed is that they do not politicize literature, as we do here. In the U.K., for instance, hundreds of books come out every month, and you go to the bookshops and you see new books all the time. Over there, most books are given like two to three months’ shelf life, and if they don’t do well, they move them out, because more books are coming out. So, how can someone be talking about writers quarreling? Do they have time for that?
There, people read because they want to. Something else I noticed is that a lot of people don’t buy books individually, because the libraries get equipped with new books all the time, so you don’t need to spend your money buying books. The way books are coming in, you won’t have space in your house. Books are also sold in charity shops — that’s one way to dispose of your books. The books that are sold for £10 in bookshops are sold for £2, so a lot of people buy their books from such shops.
So, if you keep buying books the way they are coming out there, you won’t have space for them and you would spend a lot of money. You can borrow as much as 10 books a week as long as you would return them, and if a book is needed, they will write you. They have a system that works. But here, do we even have a functional library? How many people can boast of going to the library to borrow a recently published book? But there, like my book (A Million Bullets and a Rose) that has just been released in the U.K., bookshops are already ordering it. There is a literary festival now, in Oxford, and they display books. We need to develop this kind of culture.
Despite what NLNG is doing in creating awareness, we as individuals, can also create awareness by having literary activities, festivals and also bookshops, as well as publishers publishing good books. I don’t know why someone would think we need to be quarreling amongst ourselves before we can promote our literature.
Another thing I noticed with books in the U.K., many of them may not even be writing to criticize politics or government. Most of the books are based on personal experiences, but because we don’t have a system that works, we are very critical. We want to know our pain. It’s like someone coming from South Africa and writing about apartheid, because that was the pain they had. So we have problem with our politics here, the way we organize ourselves; so, our writers will continue to write about these things. Whereas most of the books coming out abroad are about personal issues, relationships, and that kind of thing.
So, what bothers a people is what concerns them, and of course, writers are also good at writing about what is current. But I noticed also in the U.K. that many of them like recreating historical moments, like the lady (Hilary Mantel) that won the Booker Prize; she wrote a story about Henry VIII, a historical novel (The Mirror and the Light) that explores the past.