History was made last Wednesday when The Nigeria Literature Prize produced its first overall winner for the poetry category after almost a decade of its existence. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Suspense and light-heartedness jostled for prominence. Perhaps, the early birds to last Wednesday’s world press conference at the Eko Hotel and Suites’ Ocean View Restaurant might have been anxious to know who the next winner of The Nigeria Literature Prize would be.
But the inevitable conviviality among the literary-minded gathering at the Victoria Island, Lagos-based venue made this not so obvious.
Yet, there was something spectral about the suspense. It stalked the audience and obtruded now and then in their conversation. When eventually it was time to announce the winner for The Nigeria Prize for Literature (2013 edition), it had dissipated its dread-factor.
Not even the attempt by the Nigeria LNG’s General Manager (External Relations), Kudo Eresia-Eke to sustain it during the announcement made any difference.
It’s now known that The Sahara Testaments by Tade Ipadeola was adjudged winner by the Professor Romanus Egudu-led panel of judges.
The judges gushed over the poet’s use of “the Sahara as a metonymy for the problems of Africa and, indeed, the whole of humanity … and [the fact that] the work encompasses vast stores of knowledge in an encyclopaedic dimension.”
They also commended “Ipadeola’s use of poetic language demonstrates a striking marriage of thought and verbal artistry expressed in the blending of sound and sense.
The work is replete with historical, geographical, and literary allusions and tropes. On the whole, the poet demonstrates an outstanding level of intellectual exposure and knowledge, language use, and awareness of literature, which should be beneficial to readers and writers alike.”
Ipadeola, as the prize’s this year’s winner and its first ever single winner in the poetry category, will as the tradition now decrees be presented to the public at a date yet to be announced by Nigeria LNG Limited.
His The Sahara Testaments beat the other 200 books submitted for the competition this year to clinch the $100000 first prize.
To get to the number one position, it had come a long way. From the “initial shortlist” of 50, it joined the chosen 25. It was from out of the latter that the 11 fêted at a recent book party organised by the Committee for Relevant Art (better known by its acronym, CORA) and the Nigeria LNG at the Eko Hotel and Suites emerged.
The final shortlist of three, from which Ipadeola’s book emerged winner, was announced in a press release about a month ago.
The other two books were Through the Window of a Sandcastle by Amu Nnadi and Wild Letters by Promise Ogochukwu. That both were also commended by the judges came as no surprise.
After all, they had survived to this stage. In Ogochukwu’s Wild Letters, the judges celebrated “high human relevance as reflected in her bold treatment of subject-matter such as the persistent menace of Boko Haram.”
Her poems were also commended for consistently alerting “societal leaders on their obligations to the under-privileged, and a message of hope underscore the collection.”
Nnadi’s Through the Window of a Sandcastle, was hailed for its presentation in “elegant, well-crafted language, depicting contrastive experiences of pain, decay, pleasure and beauty.”
The author’s effort also got the thumbs-up sign for “artistic maturity, seriousness of thought, integrity and coherence, as well as the effective use of poetic devices such as imagery, irony and sound.”
With the announcement of a single winner for poetry, the hitherto controversy-ridden prize had exorcised a spectre that had haunted it since its almost a decade existence.
The first time it was awarded for poetry in 2005, it was split between two winners: Okara and Ohaeto for their collections, The Dreamer, His Vision and Chants of a Minstrel, respectively.
The next time was in 2009 when none among the 11 shortlisted poets celebrated at the CORA book party at the Goethe-Institut’s waterfront premises was deemed worthy of the laurel.
Controversy had always stalked the annual prize since its inception in 2004. It had earned itself this quirky reputation for either not being awarded or being split between two winners.
Indeed its maiden edition in 2004 had failed to produce a winner for prose-writing. Then, the $20000 prize was subsequently split following year between Gabriel Okara and Ezenwa Ohaeto.
It would again be shared in 2007 between two of the three shortlists – Mabel Segun and Professor Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo. There was yet again no winner in 2009.
But for the most part, it kept its winner-takes-all promise in its other editions. Thus, the first ever winner was the drama teacher, Professor Ahmed Yerima for the drama category. This was in 2006.
In 2008, Kaine Agary won the prize with her novel, Yellow Yellow. Two years later, the prize produced the first Diaspora Nigerian winner, the late US-based dramatist Esiaba Irobi.
The following year, when the spotlight was beamed on children’s literature, Adeleke Adeyemi (a.k.a. Mainasara) won it. The prize returned to the Nigerians in the Diaspora when, last year, the Belgium-based Chika Unigwe, was adjudged the best.
The Nigeria Prize for Literature since its inception in 2004 rotates annually amongst four literary genres – namely, prose fiction, poetry, drama and children’s literature.
This year would make it the third time the poetry would be the focus.
As for its cash value, it had been upped twice. From $20, 000, it had frog-leaped to $50,000 and currently to $100,000. This partly explains why it has edged its way into the ranks of the world’s top literary prizes and why this year winner calls it “the biggest prize in African literature”. He was reacting to the announcement which had proclaimed him the prize’s latest winner.
“This is joyful news, almost surreal, really great news,” he had said. “This is the biggest prize in African literature and I am happy to share this moment in the life of the prize.”
In its almost a decade-long history, the Nigerian LNG (as the prize’s sponsors) had with admirable sang froid ignored all the recriminations of the local literati, who would wish to cast the prize in their own image. The first accusation hurled at it was that it was “ghetto” prize.
This was just because it had excluded the Nigerian-born writers in the Diaspora from the party. Then, the organisers through the non-award of the prize in 2004 and 2009 inadvertently provided more fodder for critics, many of whom in any case thought they knew better how to organise a literary prize.
Fortunately, they were able, through several meetings with stakeholders, to rein in or pacify some of the prize’s most acerbic critics. This was how this year’s relatively controversy-free shortlists came about.
The Nigeria Prize for Literature, along with The Nigeria Prize for Science, constitutes the Nigeria LNG Limited’s numerous projects, which the management say, are “aimed at helping to build a better Nigeria.”