An evening resplendent in its array of dramatic events, literary icons and readers led up to the declaration of the Congolese author, Fitson Mwanza Mujila as the winner of the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature, writes Yinka Olatunbosun

If you’ve prepared your heart to read some clichés about the Grand Finale of the Etisalat Prize for Literature, then you’ll be shocked a little to know that there really was no suspense, at least not for those present at the venue. The winning entry, Tram 83, a debut novel, was placed in each carrier bag atop every chair inside the venue at Intercontinental Hotel, Victoria Island long before the winner was announced, last weekend.

But the intrigues, leading up to the announcement of the poet and novelist, Fitson Mwanza Mujila as the winner, collectively added spectacle to the literary night which had been anticipated for months. Mujila made history that night as the first Francophone writer to win the prestigious prize. His trailblazing feat is similar to what the prize itself accomplished by being the first prize for debut fiction books written by African authors.

Originally written in French, Tram 83 was translated into English by Roland Glasser and published by Deep Vellum. Upon winning the contest, Mujila, clad in black suit and a matching bow tie, received a cheque of £15,000, an engraved Montblanc, Meisterstück and an Iphone 6S. In addition, Mujila will enjoy the Etisalat Fellowship, worth £13,000, at the prestigious University of East Anglia, United Kingdom, under the mentorship of Professor Giles Foden.

The winning entry is considered to have aptly captured the 2015 theme of the literary contest, namely, “Representing the Diversity of African Voices’’. Tram 83, is the first novel written by a Congolese writer in the last 20 years which has been translated into English. Its central character, Lucien, is a die-hard idealistic writer who confronts the debauchery of a nightclub, which is a miniature of the decayed structure of his society. Through Tram 83, the author expresses a universal message of moral decadence; with a narrative technique that is brutally honest, and its theatrical presentation, as compared with the two other shortlisted pieces, Penny Busetto’s The Story of Anna P as told by herselfand Rehana Rossouw’s What will People Say, was really outstanding; what within its unconventional plot and picaresque tilt.

Actually, the gathering that evening was a potpourri of sorts; a handful of authors here, a pocket of corporate executives there and a sprinkle of friends from the media as well as those whose interest in such intellectual gathering could be debatable. Amidst the shimmering view of the stage, spot-lights and the magnetic African classics from the DJ, the audience was made to travel through time with the experiences captured in the literary pieces spread across genres and the African continent using two short films and a stage play. It was a two-fold event. The winner of the Etisalat Prize for Flash Fiction was to be announced that same night. Before that, the CEO, Etisalat Nigeria, Matthew Willsher delivered the opening remarks with humour, much of which was lost on the audience.

“We are here to celebrate the tremendous wealth of literary talents not only in Nigeria but in Africa as a whole,’’ he began. “This Etisalat Prize is the first ever to celebrate first time published writers of fiction. It was launched in 2013. The theme for this year is woven around celebrating the diversity of voices across the continent. Maybe, it is the diversity of our network that keeps us delivering qualitative service.

“Diversity is a foundation for innovation. It is something that is very true in the literary world; something that we embrace. Innovation is very important to us in how we deliver our services as it is in the literary world,” he said.
The word about town is that Willsher’s wife is an avid reader and that might have inspired the CEO’s unwavering interest in literary business.

“My wife, Debra, devoured every book in the long list of nine and that kept the house quiet a little bit. I am very grateful for the prize. It is not just about the cheque but it provides the opportunity for scholarship with one of the leading literary mentors. It also recognises that the literary world is not just about authors but that publishers play a vital part of the industry. We also committed as a company to buy a thousand copies of each of the shortlisted books to be distributed in schools and libraries.

“We also provide a book tour to South Africa as well as Kenya to give visibility to the authors. As a company, it is an award that we don’t just invest money; we invest a lot of time in organising it. Once we provide that literary backbone, there are some other people we had to hire because it could not happen without them. I want to thank everyone who had entered for the contest across the continent who aspired to win the prize. I will like to thank the judges. They had committed a huge amount of time to this. They suit the job,” he said.

Now, this is the part that could have been pruned. The Chair of the panel of judges for the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature, Ato Quayson who is a Professor of English Language, was in the mood for a long talk. Hence, he created the “suspense” for the viewers at home while the other co-judges, Molara Wood and Zukiswa Wanner, literarily, looked on. Prior to that, Dr. Yinka Ayodele, who represented the Deputy Governor, Lagos State, Dr. Idiat Olabule, lent her voice to the credibility of the prize and the ultimate goal ahead.

“It is the best way to enhance the reading culture and help develop the writing skills of our youths. It will encourage the spirit of healthy competition while promoting friendship, unity and creative ideas among the youths. In addition, the initiative has the potential of discovering and delivering new talents with creative ideas who can easily relate with socio-political and cultural experiences of the African environment, to tell our own stories from our own perspectives. This occasion also provides the young writers the golden opportunity of meeting with celebrated, high profile writers, literary critics and academics from across the continent that we have admired from afar. It is also encouraging to know that beneficiaries from the award will be enjoined and enjoyed by publishers who will publish one thousand copies of all the shortlisted books to be donated to various libraries and schools across the African continent,’’ she declared.

She wrapped up the delivery with a plea to other corporate organisations to emulate the Etisalat initiative in order to provide opportunities to these young fertile minds as they demonstrate their innate talents.
For the Etisalat Prize for Flash Fiction category, Jacqueline Uche Agweh’s Madness in Degrees, Kuti Ojuolape Modupe’s Gone and John Chidi’s Invincible were shortlisted for the prize but only Kuti went home with the coveted prize. The Chair, Panel of Judges for the Flash Fiction category, Toni Kan gave a short yet meaningful conclusion to the contest which preceeded the Grand literary prize for literature.

“Literary prizes are strange things because every prize often leads to a certain kind of contention because we use very subjective criteria to judge the prize,” he told the audience. @But what defines the prize overtime is the integrity of the process that produces the winners. This prize has proven itself to have some integrity. Overtime, the judges had been seen to have been well-picked and they have in turn picked the right winners. This year, we received over 1300 entries. We didn’t read all of them.
We selected 50 of those entries; those entries expressed emotions and experiences showing the diversity of African life. I want to thank all the writers who sent their entries for this prize this year for their bible faith. The entry we picked as winner is soft and rich, so moving and so short,’’ he said.

The winner, Kuti, seemed to be genuinely dumbstruck by the honour, the applause and the massive dummy cheque.
“I don’t know. I am speechless,” was all she could mutter when the female compere for the evening, Sope Martins asked her. Soon, K-Peace mounted the stage, dazzled all with his famed fuji remix of John Legend’s “All of Me” which he, first, performed in “Saro the Musical”. The performance poet, Efe Paul Azino, in contrast, delivered a near-melancholic piece titled, “Let Our Voices Ring’’ which, understandably, has some Pan-African content just as the literary prize itself.

Mujila, on his part, read some parts of his winning work, Tram 83 in an emotion-laden voice in French while the English version was read simultaneously. Incidentally, Mujila’s award-winning piece will be read simultaneously across Africa with awakened curiosity in every reader seeking to justify his victory at the contest.