By Ogova Ondego
Published February 21, 2010
Having produced literary giants like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, there is little doubt that Nigeria’s is neither a fortunate accident nor a flash in the pan. And perhaps nowhere else has this been more evident than in the nomination for international literary prizes like the Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. In fact in 2010, Nigeria has produced two nominees for the Africa regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize’s Africa’s Best Book prize and two others for Africa’s Best First Book.
The only country on the mother continent that appears to be successfully wrestling with the West African nation is South Africa that has even more contestants; it has a whopping five writers short-listed for Africa’s Best Book prize and four for Africa’s First Best Book.
Only South Africa and Nigeria are battling it out for honours of Africa’s Best Book. But Ghana appears all set to have a piece of the pie, too; it has a contestant for Africa’s Best First Book honours. Once again, the short-listing here appears to be a Nigeria and South Africa affair. But then why should anyone be surprised when Nigeria– Africa’s most populous nation and culturally-conscious–and South Africa– the continent’s economic powerhouse–have each produced a Nobel Prize winner for Literature in the names of Akinwande Oluwole “Wole” Soyinka and Nadine Gordimer, respectively? But is that a good enough reason for Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda or Egypt to go down without any resistance?
If one is randomly asked to name at least one African writer, chances are the name that will come up will be either of a Nigerian or a South African: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ben Okri, Helon Habila, Chinua Achebe, John Okigbo, Elechi Amadi, Alex Laguma, Njabulo Simakahle Ndebele, J M Coetzee.
So what gives Nigeria the edge over, say, Zambia, Namibia, or Tanzania? Is it the West African nation’s 250 ethnic groups, 400 languages, numerous indigenous traditions, or is it its 200 million people? What reason can one advance to explain how Nigeria, a country without a French connection whose support for culture and the arts is almost legendary, has a thriving creative and cultural sector in the form of literature, music, theatre, cinema and art?
Like Nigeria, South Africa also embraces its traditions and cultural diversity while countries like Kenya appear to have vowed to discard traditions in the hope of becoming as much western as possible, even if it means having to parody western ways in music, dress, language, literature. Why, then, would any one be surprised when a fake thing fails to stand against a genuine one?
Established in 1987, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize offers “an exceptional opportunity for new writers to demonstrate their talent and for authors already on the literary scene to strengthen their reputation”, according to a joint Press Release from the joint presenters of the 2010 edition of the prize, the Commonwealth Foundation and the Macquarie Group Foundation. “Writers across the region are in pole position to compete with the best authors from the Caribbean and Canada, South Asia and Europe and South East Asia and the Pacific to win the coveted prizes of the Commonwealth’s Best Book and Best First Book.”
The shortlisted writers for Africa’s Best Book are:
- Trespass by Dawn Garisch (South Africa)
- The Double Crown by Mari Heese (South Africa)
- The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)
- Eyo by Abidemi Sanusi (Nigeria)
- Tsamma Season by Rosemund Handler (South Africa)
- Refuge by Andrew Brown (South Africa)
- Kings of the Water by Mark Behr (South Africa)
Those shortlisted for Africa’s Best First Book are:
- I Do Not Come to You by Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani (Nigeria)
- The Shape of Him by Gill Schierhout (South Africa)
- The Shadow of a Smile by Kachi Ozumba (Nigeria)
- Come Sunday by Isla Morley (South Africa)
- Sleepers Wake by Alistair Morgan (South Africa)
- Jelly Dog Days by Erica Emdon (South Africa)
- Harmattan Rain by Aysha Harunna Attah (Ghana)
According to the 2010 presenters, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize “has a strong track record of discovering new international stars. The winners of Best First Book and Best Book will stand alongside some of the biggest names in fiction, including Festus Iyayi, who won Best Book in 1988 for his book Heroes.”
The final programme, starting on April 7, 2010 in Delhi, India, will bring together the finalists from the various regions of the Commonwealth, and the two overall winners will be announced there on April 12, 2010.
The Director of the Commonwealth Foundation, Mark Collins, says, “The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize is distinct and unique in that the books that win often have strong insight, spirit and voice about the incredible diversity, history and society of the Commonwealth. The Prize aims to reward the best of Commonwealth fiction written in English and in doing so, spots rising talent and creates new literary figures from the Commonwealth. This is the Prize to watch for tomorrow’s best-sellers.”
Dan Ojwang, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize regional judge for Africa says, “One of the most remarkable aspects of the entries was the high number that concentrated on stories of human trafficking, child abuse, sexuality, immigration and growing up under conditions of political repression such as apartheid. Given the exceptional depth and variety of books submitted for the competition, the panel is convinced that African stories continue to be told in ways that are likely to evoke empathy and enable readers to grasp the others’ humanity.”
David Clarke, Chairman of the Macquarie Group Foundation, the main sponsor of the Prize, says: “The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize is unique in giving a voice to authors who throw light on evolving social realities. The Macquarie Group Foundation is delighted to be part of recognising literary talent from around the world and to help support emerging writers.”
While the Best Book Prize is worth -10,000, winner of the Best First Book Prize takes home -5,000. Winners of the Best Book Prize and The Best First Book Prize in 2009 were Australian Christos Tsiolkas for The Slap and Pakistani Mohammed Hanif for A Case of Exploding Mangoes, respectively. The 2008 Overall winner was Lawrence Hill of Canada for The Book of Negroes.
The 2010 pan-Commonwealth panel of judges which will decide the overall winners is chaired by Judge Nicholas Hasluck AM (Chair of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize), and comprises the four regional chairpersons: Elinor Sisulu (Africa); Antonia MacDonald-Smythe (Caribbean and Canada); Muneeza Shamsie (South Asia and Europe); and Anne Brewster (South East Asia and Pacific), along with the Delhi-based local judge Makarand Paranjape, twice regional chair of the Prize.