All Eyes on the Prize



Yinka Olatunbosun

Once again, Lagos partied with the books, bookworms and book sellers at Terra Kulture Arena, Victoria Island, Lagos when the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) in partnership with the Nigeria LNG organised a book party that featured 11 poets on the long list for the 2017 edition of the Nigeria Literature Prize.

Annually, this literary prize, the most prestigious in Africa, honours a writer in any of four genres namely prose, poetry, drama and children’s literature. This year, the poets are to be honoured. Introduced by the MC and culture activist, Jahman Anikulapo, the moderator for the book party, Akeem Lasisi, a poet and veteran journalist, set the tone for the discussions which a lot of people found both interesting and protracted.

Select actors including Bimbo Manuel and Toyin Oshinaike were accompanied with strings from Eda Oto as they took turns in reading excerpts from the collections. On the shortlist are Obari Gomba’s For Every Homeland; Ogaga Ifowodo’s A Good Mourning; Tanure Ojaide’s Songs of Myself Quartet; Abubakar Othman’s Bloodstreams in the desert; Jumoke Verissimo’s The Birth of Illusion; Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresiad; Humphrey Ogu’s Echoes of Neglect; Seun Lari-Williams’ Garri for Breakfast; Ebi Yeibo’s Of Waters and the Wild; Peter Akinlabi’s Iconography and finally, the longest titled collection, One Day I’ll Dare to Raise My Middle Finger At the Stork and the Reaper by Hyginus Ekwuazi.

As expected, the shortlist is a roll call of the lettered, previous winners and finalists in other literary prizes and academics. But the youngest of the lot, Seun Lari-Williams has shattered the norms with his collection, Garri for Breakfast, one of the most sought-after at the book stand at the venue. A graduate of law at the University of Lagos, Lari-Williams’ new voice in poetry is laced with humour, accessible language and snatches of our imaginations. Raised by a poet father and weaned on poetry from the generation of Homer and Shakespeare, this young poet is determined to crystallise everyday reality in poetic form to bridge the gap between his generation and poetic tradition. While many men in his age group favour frivolities, wrapped up in silly conversations on the internet and imposing their presence in ladies’ “DMs” (that is, direct messages), Lari-Williams is changing the narrative for his generation with his 53-poem collection that is “curating drama in the mind of readers”.

Ikeogu Oke, arrived on stage with such dramatic costume. This internationally published poet explored themes of extreme religious fundamentalism, nature of scepticism and other philosophical leanings.

Ojaide, on his part, has won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for the Africa Region (1987) amongst other prizes and Verissimo’s first collection has won AWF/ Carlos Idizia Ahmad first book prize for Poetry 2009. It is only natural for these leading poets to thirst for more recognition.

The big question is: Who wins the Nigeria Prize for Literature 2017? By next month, the 11 contestants for the $100,000 prize will be pruned down to a shortlist of three. And for the last three standing, the prize draws closer.