A Writer’s Stony Path to Choosing Nigeria Literature Prize Laureate

Besides good writing, high-quality editing and publishing, among others, are crucial factors in winning the Nigeria Literature Prize. Toyin Adewale-Gabriel, one of the annual literary prize’s non-ivory tower judges, tells Okechukwu Uwaezuoke 

To think that the winner of this year’s Nigeria Literature Prize was announced on October 14 and that everything appears to be quiet on the literary front! None of the often-anticipated torrents of discontent seems to be forthcoming. Curiously, not even a dissenting comment from any of the most vociferous critics in the scene has been heard ever since the advisory board of the prize—which was instituted in 2004 and sponsored by the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas Limited—announced Romeo Oriogun’s Nomad as the winner of its 2022 cycle, which focused on poetry, during an award ceremony at the Eko Hotel and Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos.

Could this have anything to do with the composition of the judging panel, which had one poet from academia and two non-academic poets (one of whom is a performance poet)? Toyin Adewale-Gabriel, one of the jurors of the just concluded edition, thinks so, and she also believes that the diversity of the judging panel was reflected in the choice of the initial shortlist of 11. “It was a nice balance,” the renowned Nigerian female poet was telling her interviewer. They were at the poolside bar of the Asokoro, Abuja-based Stratton Hotel. “Just look at the choice! You could see the full range of Nigerian poetry! That initial shortlist was reflective of the diversity of Nigerian poets.”

And come to think of it, weren’t all styles of poetic expression and a wide range of trending issues represented in the choice of these 11? Hence, it made sense to her interviewer when she said that their selection represented the diversity of the literary genre in Nigeria. This was after she highlighted the prize’s integrity as one of its qualities earlier in the conversation.

Talking about the prize’s integrity, she disclosed that the sponsors, the NLNG, had gone to great lengths to ensure that. Aside from the fact that the entries were read by both the judges (led by Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida University, Lapai, Niger State-based Sule Emmanuel Egya) and members of the advisory board, as well as an international consultant, each judge was given the chance to defend his or her choice of an entry. “If you won it, it means that you deserved to win, not because of who you know.” 

Being shortlisted for or even winning the prize, according to Adewale-Gabriel, made the Nigeria Literature Prize a platform for launching fresh talents. She also said that the “badge of the prize” would enhance the reputation of the books in the literary scene.

But then, isn’t it sad that out of the 287 books submitted for the 2022 competition, quite a number fell by the wayside just because of poor packaging and poor editing? She recalled that the judges had about 88 entries at one point, from which they sifted 25 and eventually the 11 that made the initial shortlist. 

“It was quite a rigorous process, and I think the entries were robust.” This was an allusion to the relevance of the themes, some of which bordered on climate change, insecurity, and poverty. “It was difficult getting a shortlist from 25 writers. A lot of good entries fell by the wayside. So many good writers couldn’t make the cut. It was even more difficult to get 11 out of the 25. There were also writers I admired who did not make the shortlist of 11. The standard was very rigorous. It was heartbreaking that there were so many good writers who couldn’t make that shortlist.”

This was what made the choice of the three on the final shortlist, which included The Call of Water by Su’eddie Vershima Agema and Your Crib, My Qibla by Saddiq Dzukogi, a cakewalk. Having battled with 25 to get 11, it was quite clear to the judges who the eventual three would be. It also helped that she had kept all of the collections that made it to the 11 and some of the first 25 choices. “There were some new writers I thought were promising because of the range of the subjects,” explained the literary critic, who once worked for The Guardian, Post Express and Daily Times. “These are writers I thought I would be going back to from time to time.”

She highlighted organising seminars for publishers as one approach to potentially enhance the literary prize, which alternates annually between the four literary genres of prose fiction, poetry, theatre, and children’s literature. “You couldn’t have won a prize like the Nigeria Literature Prize on the basis of your good writing alone. Because of poor packaging, some big names were knocked off the race. If you want to win the prize, the book must really be worthy of the prize. If it’s worth $100,000, no expense should be spared in terms of packaging.” 

Still on the poor publishing quality, Adewale-Gabriel disclosed that this was not peculiar to only Nigeria-based writers. There were also many diaspora-based writers, whose packaging knocked them out of the reckoning.

On the poor quality of editing, she recalled seeing books with long prefaces. “It was so bad that some books had different fonts. The editorial process is very important when it comes to putting the book together. The creativity may be strong, but it has to be helped by good editing and publishing. The talent cannot shine if it is not supported by high-quality editing and publishing.”

The Obafemi Awolowo University M.A. Lit. degree holder, who described poetry as “a friend,” had been penning down verses since she was 13 years old. “For me, poetry has always been about heart and soul. It is the ability to provide a vehicle to convey meaning and emotion in a very concise form. A single poem can convey the same meaning as a 500-page novel.”

Among Adewale-Gabriel’s seminal works as an award-winning poet and short fiction writer are Naked Testimonies, 1995; Breaking the Silence, 1996; Inkwells, 1997; Die Aromaforscherin, 1998; Flackernde Kerzen, 1999; 25 New Nigerian Poets, 2000; Aci Cikolata, Gunizi Yayincilik, 2003; and Nigerian Women Short Stories, 2005. For her, things to look out for in a good poem are imagery, metaphors, things that make the reader see the world in a different light, and lines that never leave the reader’s consciousness, among other things. 

The 2022 Nigeria Literature Prize-winning entry, Nomad, was deemed the most technically accomplished for rendering the topical subject of migration in a language laced with lyrical figurations. According to the announcement, “the 67 poems in the collection were held together by a travel motif, marshalled in each poem with equal intensity, and linked to the African past, including the Middle Passage, and the African future.”

Three times since the inception of the literary prize, for three non-consecutive years, the panel of judges was unable to reach a conclusion on a winner, which resulted in the prize not being awarded in 2004, 2009, and 2015.

Back to Adewale-Gabriel: Her advice for poets and aspiring poets was to read a lot. “You don’t have any excuse. Poems can be found on the internet.”

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