By Iminza Keboge
Published February 6, 2016
A Sudanese-American poet has won the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets.
The winner, Safia Elhillo, will receive a US$1000 cash award and publication of her winning manuscript titled Asmaran. The manuscript will be published as part of the African Poetry Book Series by the University of Nebraska Press and released in 2017.
“The poems demonstrate a riveting sense of the power of language,” says Gabeba Baderoon, one of the prize judges, says of Elhillo’s winning manuscript. “They are alert to history and formally compelling as well. The voice is so confident that I trust the speaker to lead me through sensitive and risky territory.”
Safia Elhillo is a Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor at Kinfolks Quarterly. Holder of a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in poetry from New School, Elhillo is a Puschcart Prize nominee and joint winner of the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize. Her chapbook, also titled Asmarani, is forthcoming as part of New Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Tatu), from the African Poetry Book Fund with Akashic Books.
Elhillo is the fourth poet to win the annual Sillerman prize, following 2015 winner Mahtem Shiferraw, whose book, Fuchsia, will be released in April 2016; Ladan Osman, whose book, The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony, was published in 2015; and the inaugural winner of the prize, Clifton Gachagua, whose book, Madman at Kilifi, was released in 2014.
Kwame Dawes, Director of African Poetry Book Fund, says of the process of selecting the winning manuscript, “We never have a set number of finalists, but each year a few manuscripts become serious contenders for the top award and those are important enough for us to name them as finalists. This year there were six such collections, including the winning manuscript. This is very exciting for African poetry.”
The five finalists for the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize were Nick Makoha, born in Uganda and living in London, for his manuscript, Kingdom of Gravity; D M Aderibigbe, of Nigeria, for his manuscript, Becoming My Mother’s Son; Viola Allo, born in Cameroon and living in California, for her manuscript, Schoolgirl from Cameroon; Shittu Fowora, of Nigeria, for his manuscript, Touch Machines; and Nebeolisa Okwudili, of Nigeria, for his manuscript, Country.
“We are especially excited to have had a good showing of women poets in our general pool and among our finalists. We continue to be proactive about seeking out and encouraging women to complete and submit manuscripts for consideration,” Dawes says.
The Sillerman Prize is sponsored by philanthropists Laura and Robert FX Sillerman, whose generosity established and continues to support the work of the African Poetry Book Fund in its publishing and promotion of African poetry.