10 Days of Unravelling: What the Farafina Trust Workshop Taught Me – Ama Asantewa Diaka

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Ama Asantewa Diaka

When Ghana-based Nigerian singer, Villy, told me that taxi drivers in Ghana are ready to cheat you the minute they detect foreignness in your voice, I didn’t believe him. I remember telling him Ghanaians and Nigerians are siblings, and all he needs to do is speak pidgin. He laughed at my naivety and told me that the only reason they couldn’t cheat him was because he knew his way around.

I didn’t know my way around. I landed at Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos, my ignorance obvious.

A woman in a grey suit and flats rushed to help me with my luggage before asking if I needed a cab. I told her I needed to make a phone call first. She whipped out an old Nokia and I read Okey Adichie’s number for her off my phone. After a few seconds of talking to Okey she announced that we were going to Lekki.

“You get naira?”she asked as she wheeled my bag behind her.

That was when I made my first mistake: I replied in fine fine English instead of pidgin. My second mistake was not converting my cedis to naira before getting on the plane. The woman told me it would cost 200 cedis to take me to Lekki. I told her it was too expensive.

“You’re lucky o!” she said. “Some people, we charge them plenty dollars.”

I knew I was being cheated but I also knew there was nothing I could do about it. I had to get to Lekki.

The drive to Lekki took almost two hours. After getting lost twice, the cab driver, who kept calling me aunty and apologizing for his bad cough, finally found Lekki Waterside Hotel.

I was here.

#

I had applied for the Farafina Trust workshop last year. I didn’t get in, but I got an email informing me that I had made the shortlist of 70 from which the final 25 were chosen, and encouraging me to keep writing. It was the kind of confidence boost that gave me the right to admit to myself that I was a writer.

And so this year, when I got the email saying that I had been selected as a participant, I let out a loud shriek and did a 10-second dance.

And so even though Arik Air had stressed me out, even though I was overcharged for the cab ride, I was here.

#

On the first day of the workshop we met Chimamanda, and I watched her with quiet wonder. We took turns introducing ourselves and it was beautiful listening to everybody gush over her. When it was my turn I had few words, not because I wasn’t blown away by her presence, but because I wanted the taste of her influence to linger in my mouth longer.

The next 10 days were an unravelling.

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Farafina Trust 2016 workshop participants, with facilitators Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Eghosa Imasuen

You can often taste the sweetness of alasa right from the first suck. But until you have eaten out the flesh and chewed it into gum, you cannot truthfully judge how good the fruit is. This is what the people I met at the workshop were like. In the first few days, I knew I had met people I could call nice; but by the time we left the workshop, I had bonded with people I wouldn’t mind being stuck on an island with. (I refuse it IJN by the way. Already struggling with dumsor, I don’t need to be stuck on an island to test my level of madness.)

Sometimes you idolize someone from a distance, and then when you meet them their humanness further confirms their godliness – not the distant memory of a god kind of godliness, but the kind that sits in your head and feels familiar – the kind you discover in yourself. Chimamanda rolled her eyes, laughed the most, loved the hardest, offered herself as a safe space and taught us what she knew with all the badassness her being could contain. She recognized bullshit and called it as it was.

We had three facilitators in addition to Chimamanda – Aslak, Binyavanga and Eghosa. What struck me most about Aslak was the passion with which he spoke of words. His love for literature was so evident in his speech and his clear blue eyes that at the end of the class I was fired up to write something so good that it would elicit a similar emotion from others.

There was something about the way Binyavanga appraised your work that made you want to give your very best. He didn’t need to dissect a story before you knew it was flawed; he let you know if a piece of writing made him fall in love or if it bored him to death.

I hope every writer has someone like Eghosa in their life: to critique, to jest, to gently insult, to praise, to encourage and to let you know how silly you look using a font an editor can barely read.

Halfway through the workshop I was overwhelmed by all I was learning and I wished there were more workshops like that of Farafina Trust, in Ghana and in Africa as a whole.

The workshop taught me to go where it hurts, because it is only then that it matters. It taught me that as a writer my responsibility is first to the story; not to society, not to friends, not to family, but to the story.

It taught me that my normal is enough.

That writing makes me god.

That detail gives my text credibility.

That there are no rules if I can get away with it.

That you can find safe spaces in people.

And that there are stories everywhere, all you have to do is look closely.

 

Imaginary Conversations @ Ake by Chuma Nwokolo

Chuma Nwoloko, author of Diaries of a Dead African, and brilliant humorist, was at the Ake Arts and Book Festival. HE went with his camera, and he did not leave his wit behind. See below for a series of photos depicting the festival from another angle.

Warning: These pictures are real enough, but the conversations only occurred within the precincts of a writerly imagination.

Lola Shoneyin, Molara Wood, Lewis?, and a "CIA Agent".

Lola Shoneyin, Molara Wood, Lewis?, and a “CIA Agent”.

Richard Ali, Lola Shoneyin, Pius Adesanmi, Remi Raji.

Richard Ali, Lola Shoneyin, Pius Adesanmi, Remi Raji.

Toads for Supper!

Toads for Supper!

Presidential Plot!

“Oh come on, President Rem Raj, Your fellow writers will never sign up to a Third-Term-Agenda!”
“True, I don’t know what’s got into me. Must be this Abeokuta wine…”

Seriously. One Day I Will Also Write About This Airline ~ Binyavanga Wainaina

Seriously. One Day I Will Also Write About This Airline ~ Binyavanga Wainaina

"So I said to her: my name is Eghosa Imasuen, I am a Warripolitan, and she said to me: which kain Waripolitan? You dey drink red wine? Dem born you for New York Siri?"

“So I said to her: my name is Eghosa Imasuen, I am a Warripolitan, and she said to me: which kain Waripolitan? You dey drink red wine? Dem born you for New York Siri?”

Efe Paul Azino

Efe Paul Azino

Chuma Nwokolo & Ikhide Ikheloa.

Chuma Nwokolo & Ikhide Ikheloa.

Teju Cole & Tolu Ogunlesi

Teju Cole & Tolu Ogunlesi

Lolo Shoneyin, The Secret Lives of African Writers.

Lola Shoneyin, The Secret Lives of African Writers.

AKE ART AND BOOK FESTIVAL IS UNDERWAY

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The Ake Art and Book Festival kicked off on Tuesday 19th November and no one is more excited than us! We really, really would like to meet you at the Festival. Five of our Authors, Igoni Barrett, Abraham Oshoko, Binyavanga Wainaina, Olusegun Adeniyi and Eghosa Imasuen along with other literary voices, Teju Cole, Yewande Omotoso, Molara Wood, Victor Ehikamenor and others will be buzzing about at the various discussion panels and events.

If that’s not enough, the will be art exhibitions and plays; including the stage adaptation of the Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives based on the book by author and Festival organiser, Lola Shoneyin.

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Cast of #BabaSegi’s at rehearsal

The Festival ends on Sunday 24th November after a truly amazing weekend line up. Checheck out the full programme here.

For directions to the Festival click here.

Want to know more about the Festival?  Read on…

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Question: What is the Ake Arts and Book Festival all about?

Answer: The Ake Arts and Book Festival is a six-day programme of cultural, artistic and literary events. These will include readings, master classes, workshops, performances and talks delivered by both Nigerian and international authors, thinkers, poets, filmmakers, actors, artists and academics.Events will also include a comprehensive book fair, schools visits, a stage play, film showings, a musical concert, and library openings to pupils, publishers and book-buyers will be invited. Members of the public will be invited to participate in these events to promote social inclusion.

Question: Do I need an invitation to attend the festival?

Answer: No, you do not need an invitation to attend the festival. However, you need to register and registration costs N1000/ $6.50. Registration gives you access to the festival venue and to some of the free events. You will also be entitled to the festival welcome package. The registration fee is a one-off payment. We have both free events and events that can be booked and paid for online/in person prior to the event or in person at the venue. Because of the generosity of sponsors, most events are free.

Question: How do I register for the master classes?

Answer: You apply on the website, and you are required to have foundational knowledge of the classes you wish to apply for. You will be notified if you have been accepted by October. Please note that the selections will be made by the facilitators on a first come, first serve basis. We encourage you to apply early.

Question: How can I participate in the online competitions?

Answer: The online competitions is open to everyone. All you have to do is create an account on the website and you can start sending in your answers. You will be notified by email if you are one of our lucky winners.

Question: Will the books of participating authors be available at the festival?

Answer: Yes, books written by visiting authors will be available at the festival and you will be able to get your books autographed. From October if you are interested in a particular author, you will be able to buy the books online, or pick them up at our Lagos office or the Ibadan or Abuja depot.

Question: Is it only the books that I buy at the book fair that the authors will autograph?

Answer: No. You can come with copies you bought previously or the books that you ordered before the festival.

Question: I am an author and I would like to participate in the festival and showcase my work, how can I do this?

Answer: Please send an email to office@akefestival.org. We invite our guests to participate ten months before the actual festival.It is unlikely that you will be invited to the 2013 festival but there’s always next year. Each year, we will have a different theme. It is important that your work is in line with our criteria, and that your work is given the go-ahead by our guest selection committee.

 

Selected Writers for 2013 Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop

Chimamanda Adichie

In April, Farafina Trust called for entries for the 2013 Farafina Trust creative writing workshop, inviting writers from all over the world to submit their short pieces. From the numerous applicants, twenty-five outstanding writers have been selected to participate in the workshop this year, which will be taught by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Eghosa Imasuen, Binyavanga Wainaina and other writers of note.

The selected writers this year are:

1. Zenique Gardner (USA)
2. Maryam  Shuaib (Minna)
3. Tolu Agunbiade (Ketu)
4. Timendu Aghahowa (Ikeja)
5. Abdulrashid Muhammad (Abuja)
6. Uchenna Ude (Lagos)
7. Udoh Charles Rapulu (Onitsha)
8. Gbolahan Adeola (USA)
9. Lilian Izuorah (Minna)
10. Suleiman Agbonkhianmen ( Lagos)
11. Nicholas Ochiel (Kenya)
12. Yakubu Damilola Daniel (Kwara)
13. Kelechi Njoku (Abuja)
14. Lesley Nneka Arimah (USA)
15. Tajudeen Sagaya (Lagos)
16. Adaora Nwankwo (Onitsha)
17. Chidinma Nnamani (Enugu)
18. Arinze Daniel Ifeakandu (Kano)
19. Okpanachi Eyo Michael (Zaria)
20. Okechukwu Otukwu (Delta)
21. Dami Adeleke (Lagos)
22. Faith Tissa (Anambra)
23. Sifa Asani Gowon (Jos)
24. Efe Paul Azino (Lagos)
25. Aima Ojehomor (PH)

‘Fine Boys’ goes to Bayelsa

The 2nd Bayelsa Book and Craft Fair is scheduled to hold on April 18 and 19, 2013. Themed ‘Africa as One,’ the fair will host artists from several disciplines.

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Catch Farafina author, Eghosa Imasuen, at the Fair where he will be on two panels talking about writing, and his second book, Fine Boys.

Fine Boys tells the story of Ewaen and his friends as they navigate the treacherous waters of the Nigerian university system, even as the country spirals into political unrest. A honest, heartfelt book, Fine Boys is a must-read.

Other Nigerian authors who will be at the fair include Toni Kan, Professors Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, Chukwuemeka Ike, Nze Ifedigbo Sylva, Ayodele Arigbabu, Ayodele Morocco-Clarke, and Ayodele Olofintuade.

The Fair will also host Nollywood director, Charles Novia, who will launch his memoir, Nollywood Till November and speak about the joy of documentation.

Bayelsa Book & Craft Fair is the brainchild of the Africa Film Academy and Blues & Hills Consultancy.

Copies of Fine Boys will be on sale at the Fair.

Wet Hair by Eghosa Imasuen

“That is not dead, which can eternal lie.
Yet with strange eons, even death may die”
HP Lovecraft.


Why do you turn away from me, Papa?

Why do you ignore me? This is not like before. This is not my melancholia, not more evidence of my unhappiness.

Listen to me, Papa. Let me tell you what happened.

I ran through the bush. I ran till I felt my heart burst inside my chest. And I ran some more. My torn wrapper felt wet beneath the white shirt. Branches – canes and flogging sticks not yet plucked from the mangrove saplings – left bright wheals on my face and my arms, slapping me as I ran away from him. My blood formed a dark stain that spread from between my legs, through the wrapper and unto the outside of the shirt. This shirt, a gift from my new husband. My prince, Rafayel. The one you chose for me, Papa.

Tonye!

Pietro called after me as he pursued me through the soggy footholds of our swamps. He told me to stop; that he meant no harm; that he loved me and that everything would be alright.

Why had I been so foolish? When Pietro met me at the farm, why had I followed him? Why had I believed Rafayel had sent for me? Why had I believed anything Pietro said? When Pietro smiled at me with his brown broken teeth dancing around his tongue, like restless bats in the afternoon, why did I not remember the last time, the many times, I had seen him smile that smile? That smile of teeth stained brown by the smoke from the death-leaf that Rafayel told me his people burn and inhale. That smile that always left my stomach feeling like the devil had defecated in it.

Tonye!

Run, princess, run. He will not catch you. You are of the Ijaw. You are the daughter of warriors. 

Pietro attacked me. I followed him away from the path to where he said my Rafayel waited for me. Where he said his white hairy smelly brothers needed more of my medicine for the green fever that ate away at their faces; the green fever that left solid masses in their sides.

And I believed him. And he raped me.

Ah, but I fought him. I bit. I scratched. And then I ran. The village was not far. My father’s hamlet was not far. It was early evening yet, the full moon still fighting from behind pregnant clouds for supremacy with the red, dimming sun. I would meet the men gathered around the Amananaowei’s hut; your house, Papa, huddled and arguing loudly in the inner glow of gin-filled happiness about how to share the latest trinkets from the strangers from across the sea. Trinkets and shiny things exchanged for slaves from deeper in the bush; exchanged for nuts from the father of all trees, the palm. Yes, I would make it home. I would escape the snapping branches and the loud curses from this pale animal behind me. I would tell you what had happened. I would say what this friend of your friend had done to your daughter. I would smile when you swung your cutlass and lopped his head off. There was just the river to cross. Just the stream by whose bank my canoe lay.

But my canoe was not at the spot I had left it. I screamed. For help, for someone, for you, Papa, for Rafayel, for my brother, Dienye. But the only ones who answered back were frogs and owls and bush-babies. Pietro caught me halfway across the creek.

*

Why the screaming, Papa? Why do the women wail? I have not even told of everything? Turn away from the river and look at me, Papa.

I remember Pietro’s hands on my head pushing me into the water, deeper and deeper. I begged him. I shouted, “Please, don’t do this.” I remembered to say these words in the little I knew of his language, Portuguese. I held my breath. I tasted the mud of the creeks.

My wrapper loosened, my breasts now brushing against the white shiny shirt Rafayel gave me as a gift. The shirt now brown with water stained by the stilted roots of the mangrove. Fight him. Pull him in too. But why am I so weak.

“Please die,” he said. Through quivering lips the urgent pleading for me to depart this life. Through the miasma of dancing images – the water above my eyes, the lilies, my hair, strands stretched out by the hot comb and carried in eddies, and the mud-speckled waves of my floating white shirt – I saw his eyes. I thought I saw them smile.

*

Can you not hear me? What is this you drag out of the water? Another suicide? Is that why the women cry? Is this why you tear at your clothes, Papa? Where is Rafayel, Papa?

Pietro’s teeth were the last things I remember. And then the knives. A thousand blades of hot steel slammed into the back of my head as the water entered me and then I sank. Falling away from Pietro’s Hands, falling away from the floating roots of the hyacinth and the lilies. Then nothing.

*

I sank in darkness, seeing nothing, hearing only the rush of whispers as the water beat against the river bank, transmitted to me in waves.

Shafts of straight silver. The moon had risen. Like stripes from a horsewhip, they contorted me, arching my back, piercing pain and glorious pleasure. And I rose, not looking down, hypnotized in wonder by the moon-play on the underside of the river’s surface.

I heard voices? Indistinct, Papa, but who could mistake your voice? I came to you. I saw you with the men gathered not around your hut but at the river bank. I saw my canoe at your feet. I saw the question in your eyes. And I heard you call, I heard you all call.

“Tonye! Tonye . . .”

I heard you call, Papa. Why do you not hear me? The body you and Dienye pull out of the water distracts you. Why does Dienye cry? Who is the bloated, naked person wearing the stained-brown cloth of the foreigners?

Papa, I notice something new. Are you listening, Papa? I can swim without moving. I am waist-high in the water. My arms, slick like the oil from palm nuts, do not do any work, yet I swim. Below the surface I see nothing but the reflection of my naked breasts, and my hair, damp and strangely straight like that of the woman whose image hangs on the wall of the big room in Rafayel’s iron war-canoe. It is as though I end where the water begins.

Rafayel comes. Rafayel, thank the gods you are safe! Papa does not hear me. I come to tell you of your captain, your Pietro; of what he has stolen from me. My honour, Rafayel, my honour. Look, Rafayel, Pietro is behind you. See how he tries to hide his right hand. I choked on the chunk of flesh I bit off him.

Rafayel!

Rafayel!!

Rafayel!!!

Ah, Pietro turns. He hears me. The rapist hears me. See how the hairs on the back of his sun-burned, red neck stand like bristles on a porcupine. Oh, you are distracted too, Rafayel. By the body my people pull out of the water? Another drowning? Those have become common because of the fire-water you visitors sell. Turn the body over quickly and be done with your fascination with death. Turn the corpse over and I will give you good reason for a killing; Pietro’s death. Pietro who smiled at my pain. Pietro who thinks he has killed –

*

Is this me? Still wearing the foreigner’s shirt and cradled in the roots of the mangrove surrounded by my brother; my father, the Amananaowei; and my lover, the father of my unborn child, Rafayel? Did I die by Pietro’s hand; did I drown in the deep?

I see my white husband, tears in his eyes; I see him push my father and brother away. I see Rafayel take my face in his hands. Those hands. I see him breath into my lips, but I cannot feel him from here in the water. I rush at them all, stopping when I notice I have passed them already, drifted through them, no substance. No, it cannot be.

I stop and I see my father’s eyes. I hear what my father says, what my brother interprets for the Portuguese to understand. “It is a curse. A dark omen that one so young would take her own life. But she had always been sad, not content with what her people could give.”

That is not true. That is not true.

I see my father look at the white foreign dogs with new eyes, trusting eyes. I see that he has new sons already, to replace the daughter he has just lost. The daughter he lost when he handed me as a gift to the leader of the visitors from across the sea. There will be no Igbadai for me, no inquiry into the cause of this tragedy. I am lost.

*

Time passes.

I drift with it. What is time to my kind but the now, the present? My kind. I am joined by others. Floating spirits, some green-eyed, blazing little pots of fire behind half-closed eyelids, seductresses; others pale, tall giantesses with golden hair and golden-scaled fish tails below the waist; and the dark and lithe phantoms like me and with straightened hair like mine. They tell me stories, these women, these spectres, these undead. They tell me of the names the living call us, us wronged women. They tell me of the Rusalka of the cold north; the fish-women of Rafayel’s land; the Yemoja, goddesses of the slaves that my people sell; the Jengu from across the mountains to the east, progeny of Mojele and Moto. My sisters, my Onwuamapu, tell me of what we are meant to do. Stories of young lost men drawn into our embrace and our kisses. Stories of cold revenge and liquid fulfilment under moonlit nights. I do not want this existence so I drift, forever.

Weeks, years, decades, an age I spend on the shoreline singing my song. And I am worshipped with sacrifices and masqueraded festivals in the weeks before the full moon. Sacrifices given before the time when the silver shafts fill my veins with glorious light; when the children, receptive all, tell tales of me and my sisters. When the sensitive claim that they hear my songs. I see my people farm on dark putrid brown loam. I see the men fish. I see some of the new breed, offspring of Rafayel and his ilk. Like my unborn child would have been.

My people stand on the riverbank, a wonder-filled mixture of skin hues. Strange ashen men in white gowns, with bars of wood crossed topsy-turvy, chant inanities in my water; they bathe my people in short episodes, still speaking in their strange dead tongue. My people adopt a corruption of this high tongue. And soon I am given a new name. Mammy-Water. 

They start to forget me.

Strange new iron canoes inhabit my waters, with round sharp circular paddles churning up the surf, leaving in their wake a spray I find pleasant. I dance with these new ones. New bronze rods pierce my depths, shiny but soon scarred with barnacles from my teeth. They leak dark oil that stains my water. Kills the fish; drives away most of my sisters. But I do not care; I live only for the moonlight and I sit on the mangrove roots watching my people change. They do not farm anymore. I see no war canoes with cargo of captured slaves for the pale Potokri. I see no dark loam, only sterile white sand. I sing my songs alone. My people forget me. They forget that I am the river who feeds them. I start to dwindle into shadow, the full moon weaker and weaker in its power to revivify me. My songs dim, becoming wind blown strings dismissively interpreted by the new priests and shamans as the whistling of sussurating pines. My sisters pass me by, urging that I become what I am meant to be; but they know not to take from those I protect. I keep my promise: there shall be no vengeance for his girl. Until –

*

Rafayel, I see him alone, breathing fire and smoke from a thin reed that he kisses. How long has it been? Under the full moon he is still dark, still pale, still handsome, and still horrid. I am drawn to him. He sits alone on top of one of the platforms that the new stilts suspend, forlorn, his foot treading the water. I ignore the loud drums and strings and horns I hear from elsewhere, from where the rest of his people rejoice in revelry. I rise up with the water and he sees me.

No not Rafayel, he says, when I call his name.

No, not Rafayel. Not Pietro either. This one is paler, thicker, and with golden, almost white, hair. His eyes fascinate me, grey like the northern tribe of sisters, the Rusalka. Grey and sad. He speaks like a frog and lacks the syrupy skill of Rafayel’s tongue.

“What are you?” he asks. “What do you want?”

“You,” I say. I sing my song.

He is enthralled and reaches out to me, pulling me out of the water. His touch gives substance to my incorporeal nightmare, my fingertips form in contact with his, an effect like the moon-rise. My long wavy hair, my breasts, my heat. He wants me, this lovelorn white boy; homesick for one he calls Inga.

And I kiss him. Desire is a fever in me. I do not want him dead. No, my sisters. No soul for a soul. I want some of his heat, his essence that I see pulsing within him. He gasps and I feel it leeching into me. I laugh, trashing his face with my hair. I cannot stop, my eyes closed, my long hair caressing his shoulders as I slip down with him unto the cold metal floor.

I hear the voices.

“Hey, Köln. Where’s Dirk?”

“Not at your side? Then probably with one of the local girls in a private room on the platform.”

“Private room? That one. He is too shy. Says he’s got a lovely thing in Amsterdam.”

“Then check by the pressure pumps. The edge, where he hangs out with a ciggy, now and then.”

I turn to go but he grasps my hand. I look at him now. He is grey, now. His lips a shadow of white still wet with my water. “Who are you?” he asks.

Tell them Mammy-Water. Tell them Yemoja. Tell them LaSiren.

I look back as I slip into the water, dissolving once more into liquid death. I see his brothers rush to him, this Dirk. I see him breathe his last. And I smile. ♥

*Eghosa Imasuen was born on 19 May 1976, and grew up in Warri. He is a medical doctor, bank executive, husband of Eniye Osawe-Imasuen and father of twin boys. Fine Boys is available for purchase from the iBookstoreKindle USKindle UK (Nigerians can purchase here)Smashwords, Kachifo (via orders@kachifo.com and 08077364217, or visit our store at 253 Herbert Macaulay Way, Alagomeji, Yaba) and all major bookstores.

Stanley Azuakola: the NLNG Prize Can Be So Much Bigger and Better

But if I had the opportunity to ask the judges one question, it would be this: How on earth did Teju Cole’s Open City and Eghosa Imasuen’s Fine Boys fail to make that initial ten-man shortlist? How?

“Petty cash.”

That was how the critic Molara Wood, then an editor at the defunct newspaper 234Next, described the then $50,000 prize money, which was supposed to, but was not awarded to any winner of the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2009. Granted, she was speaking about the value of the prize to the company awarding it and not its value to a prospective winner. Since Ms. Wood wrote that article criticising what many in the literary community perceived as shabby treatment of writers during its 2009 edition, the prize has doubled in value, promising a payout of $100,000 to winners.

Even more prestigious awards like the Man Booker Prize ($50,000) or the American National Book Awards ($10,000) are not worth that much. At $100,000 (sixteen million naira), the NLNG prize money makes it the 22nd biggest literary prize in the world and the biggest in Africa. In the opinion of this writer this is welcome; and it makes no difference whether the prize is the “NLNG’s hush money.” The value of the prize is the least of its problems.

The NLNG award is a high value award, which is why it is surprising that save for a few sponsored events and pieces, not much discussion, criticism or scrutiny of it goes on. Conversations about the award – where they exist – seem contrived and are never sustained.

Congratulations to Chika Unigwe, the winner of the 2012 edition of the award for her book, On Black Sisters Street. I have read it and it is a very good book. However, it is the award itself, and not Unigwe or her book, which is the subject here. This piece raises questions which are not meant to – nor can they – take away from Unigwe’s sweet victory.

214 books were submitted for consideration this year. I’ve read four out of the ten shortlisted and seen reviews for most of the others. I particularly loved Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s witty and readable book, I Do Not Come To You By Chance, which the judges didn’t think was good enough to make the final three.

But if I had the opportunity to ask the judges one question, it would be this: How on earth did Teju Cole’sOpen City and Eghosa Imasuen’s Fine Boys fail to make that initial ten-man shortlist? How?

Tastes are different, and any literary award worth its salt would often generate controversy over which books made the cut and which didn’t. But it’s hard to look objectively at the prose fiction landscape in the past four years and not rate those two among the top ten.

Cole’s book was one of the most celebrated books in the world in 2011. You read that right – in the whole world. The Economist, Time, Slate, Ikhide Ikheloa, everyone was falling over themselves to pen flattering reviews of the book. Imasuen’s book, locally published by Farafina, is the quintessential Nigerian novel. Bold, witty and shorn of pretences, it was, in my opinion,the best locally published novel in the last four years.

One possible reason the two books were no-shows on the judges’ shortlist could be that their publishers did not send in copies for consideration. In that case, rules are rules and the rule currently states that books must be sent in. The NLNG Prize Board might however do well to borrow a leaf from the American National Book Awards, which, I think, is an excellent award to model after.

One of the rules of that award states that: “The chairpersons of each judging panel may ‘call in’ titles through the [National Book Award] Foundation office that have not been submitted by publishers. The Foundation then asks publishers to submit these titles for consideration, assuming they meet eligibility requirements. Publishers may submit at their own discretion.” In other words, the judges who must be actively aware of the goings-on in the literary scene can decide to call in a book which they believe merits consideration but which wasn’t sent by the publishers. This makes sense, especially since the ultimate aim is to ensure that the best books in the period under consideration are placed in the pot.

Even as I write this, I know that there is little or no chance the suggestion in the last paragraph would be taken. Not because the organisers are averse to accepting suggestions, but if truth be told, how many of the judges really read contemporary fiction? The organisers of the award like to boast that “all the judges appointed are professors of proven integrity and academic excellence.” In that boast lies one of the main challenges of the award. These professor judges are usually so ensconced in their ivory towers that they seldom know what’s happening in the literary world outside their universities’ recommended books. They would not even know which books to call in if they had the chance. It would be a shock to find any of the judges who’d read more than one of the shortlisted books prior to being announced as a judge.

It is time for the board to dice things up a bit. When I looked at the composition of the judges, I could see, but not accept, why Imasuen’s Fine Boys did not make the cut. The judges – conservative purveyors of orthodoxy that they are – would loathe recognising Imasuen who uses words like mumu, oyibo, yansh, play-play in his work and doesn’t bother to italicise or explain them.

I do not seek to cast doubts on the integrity of those well read gentlemen and ladies but reality calls, let’s face it. What time do they even have to read these books? One of last year’s judges wrote in her judging report that they were given only one month to read 43 books and prune to 20, and another two weeks to prune to the final three. Among the judges that year was a university vice chancellor whose own report was so sketchy that any discerning mind would know he couldn’t possibly have done a thorough job. Of course the blame for the short reading time isn’t the judges’ but that of the organisers.

Whether my reservations about the judges are unfounded or not, there’s still a good case for the judging panel to be a mixed blend. Academia alone doesn’t cut it. The Booker Prize, for instance, added an actor last year to its panel (he wasn’t just some shallow actor; he studied literature.) Other prizes have publishers, writers (who aren’t necessarily professors), and other important subgroups in their panels.

Something else worth pondering for the organisers is the rotation policy among the four genres of prose fiction, poetry, drama and children’s literature. This year the award was for prose fiction; the next time that’s going to be the case would be the year of the next US presidential elections. The NLNG says the policy gives authors in any particular genre “up to four years to prepare.” In reality, the organisers are just afraid that if they start handing out yearly awards for the four genres, there might not be a consistent pool of strong books to choose from every year since Nigerian authors don’t publish that many good books. But the other side of the argument is what happens to authors who release more than one book in four years? Presently they’re expected to submit just one. Are we saying an author cannot release two or more award winning books in four years? J K Rowlings did it with her Harry Potter series; and so did Hillary Mantel, winner of the Booker prize in 2009 (Wolf Hall) and 2012 (Bring up the bodies.)

There are many more questions I’ll love to raise. Questions like: Why does the NLNG even award a literary prize for drama? Is it sensible to give awards to plays which have not yet been performed or produced in the theatre? And wouldn’t it be more worthwhile to split the $100,000 prize money, in order to also offer financial rewards to the two runner-ups? I would leave the details of these for some other time.

The NLNG Literary Prize has successfully gone through another season without the kind of outrage which followed its 2009 edition. It’s gradually stabilising as a worthy literary prize. But we know it could be so much better. ♥

This article was published with permission from YNaija.com

Editor’s Notes

Farafina Books submitted Fine Boys as an entry for the 2012 NLNG Prize and received acknowledgement from the organisers, our entry was received. Fine Boys received glowing reviews from home and abroad.

‘In Fine Boys, Imasuen writes fearlessly and beautifully of
friendship, love, loss, and betrayal.  It is thought-provoking,
perfectly paced, uniformly delightful, compassionate, full of 
humour but also heart-breaking. Eghosa Imasuen has remarkable 
gifts.’
—Chika Unigwe,
2012 NLNG Prize Winner.

 

‘Fine Boys is the first African novel I know that takes us deep into
the world of the children of IMF:  those post-Berlin wall Africans,
like myself, who came of age in the days of The Conditionalities,
those imposed tools and policies that made our countries feral;
the days that turned good people into beasts, the days that
witnessed the great implosion and scattering of the middle classes
of a whole continent. Fine Boys takes us deep into the lives of the
notorious gangs that took over universities all over Nigeria in the
1990s and early this century. We saw our universities collapse,
and we struggled to educate ourselves through very harsh times.
It is a beautifully written novel, heartfelt, deeply knowledgeable,
funny, a love story, a tragedy; an important book, a book of our
times; a book for all Africans everywhere.’
—Binyavanga Wainaina,
Author of One Day I Will Write about This Place.

 

We were surprised and very disappointed not to have made the shortlist. We invite readers to read Fine Boys and judge for themselves. Fine Boys is available for purchase from us (orders@kachifo.com, visit our store at 253 Herbert Macaulay Way, Alagomeji, Yaba, or call us on 08077364217. ) and all major bookstores.