* New N1 million Critical Essay Prize announced
By Anote Ajeluorou
In the last few years, Africa’s biggest literary prize, The Nigeria Prize for Literature, sponsored by Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas company, has consistently reinvented itself to meet the yearnings of writers and critics alike. From opening up the prize to Nigerians in the Diaspora and making the judges known to the public, the prize organisers have shown they are open to ideas and criticisms aimed at improving the prize.
Last week in Lagos at Southern Sun Hotel, Ikoyi, Lagos, the governing board and company officials met with a section of the literary community and art writers with the aim of injecting new ideas into the prize.
In attendance at the meeting were chairman, Prize Board, Emeritus Prof. Ayo Banjo, Prof. Ben Elugbe, Prof. Akachi Ezeigbo and former Association of Nigerian Authors, Dr.Jerry Agada, as members. From the LNG side were Corporate Affairs and Communication Manager, Mr. Ifeanyi Mbanefo, Mrs. Anne-Maria Ikuku-Palmer, Mr. Emeka Agbayi and Prize Consultant, Taiwo Obe. Others were the authors, Mr. Toni Kan and Sam Omatseye, publisher, Mr. Muktar Bakare and editor, The Guardian on Sunday, Mr. Jahman Anikulapo.
It was a robust session that touched on a wide range of ideas and issues around the prestigious prize and how to make it better so that writers can maximally benefit from it. While some wanted the $100,000 (one hundred thousand dollars) prize money to be split amongst the four genres of literature – prose fiction, poetry, drama and children literature so that each genre receives $25,000, others want the present status retained and would not entertain the idea of having the $100,000 shared amongst four writers. The latter group argued that the current size of the prize money ensured credibility and prestige, which splitting it would erode.
Perhaps, those who argued for the prize money split feared that Diaspora writers might consistently win the prize (the last two editions since opening up the prize to Nigerians outside the country have been won by them – Esiaba Irobi won two years ago (Cemetery Road) and this year, Chika Unigwe won with On Black Sisters’ Street). This was so, it was argued, because the quality of books Diaspora writers submit, which are better edited, with quality printing and packaging. But those on the other side of the divide charged local writers to up their game in these critical areas where there are noticeable deficiencies so they could compete with their colleagues residing abroad.
Also, LNG was charged to help expand the country’s literary landscape by investing in schemes that enhance quality writing. With an educational system that has remained poor, the quality of writing has since dropped to the extent that most of the entries submitted for the prize are not worth considering. Such schemes like workshop and training for book editors and even creative writing for writers, it was argued, should be undertaken by the gas company to improve quality.
Bakare, whose Farafina imprint created a revolution in fiction publishing in the country in the last 20 years, amplified the fears of those who routed for a prize split, saying, “As it is, the prize will always be won by outsiders (Nigerians residing and writing abroad). There is no industry in the book sector at the moment; it’s just the passion for book people have that is driving the book business”.
Besides, Kan also argued that Nigerians abroad winning the prize would only serve to enhance the profile of the prize and make it truly global in character. He urged local publishers to step up their act and meet the prize standards, which are known to be very high.
Proponents of this scheme argued that there should be developmental aspect to the prize, in which Nigeria Academy of Letters (NAL) could collaborate with the sponsor to train writers, editors and other allied skills and talents to sustain the vision of the prize. They noted that while it was good to give the lump prize to one individual, the prize would also be better served if the winner didn’t just vanish into thin air soon after.
They stated that part of the post-winning should be for developmental purposes, as a device, scheme to always keep the prize on the consciousness of the public. But those opposed said one-off prize-winners were not unusual the world over and indicated many such writers that went into oblivion shortly after winning various prizes.
But consultant Obe stated that it was not the business of the sponsor, a gas company, to get involved in the training of talents in writing or editing. He urged NAL to either approach LNG for such sponsorship or other organisations to source funds for such trainings. Although he acknowledged the necessity for such training to take place, he couldn’t be sure if such burden should be passed onto LNG, which he said was concerned with giving the prize to the best writer to emerge from the scene.
But Omatseye lamented the near absence of companies interested in promoting literature through sponsorship and called on corporate organisations to look the way of literature with adequate sponsorship.
Ezeigbo opined that too much burden should not be put on LNG alone to solve all the problems of Nigerian literature and tasked literary promoters to seek other avenues of sponsorship for the training of writers and editors. She then commended two state governors, Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State and Muazu Babangida Aliu of Niger State for supporting literature through their annual Garden City Literary Festival and Muazu Babangida Aliu Literary Colloquium respectively. She tasked other state governors to emulate them so as to broaden the literary space to accommodate more talents.
Obe also canvassed for more crusades amongst literary promoters across the country to get more people with resources involved in promoting literature. He charged art writers, newspapers and magazines to open up more literary spaces in the media so as to engage the consciousness of Nigerians to the good literature could do to liberate and elevate their minds. However, his plea also met with the constraints arts pages currently face, as they become the first casualties of advert placements that keep constricting them daily.
For Mbanefo, the rot in the writing input seen in the poor entries submitted for the prize was a reflection of the rot in the educational system. He stated that there was not much LNG could do to redress such anomaly unless there was a holistic approach to salvage Nigeria’s educational system. He restated the company’s faith in the prize board for upholding excellence since its inception, saying the company would do all it could to sustain the prize and make it a showpiece for Nigerian writers.
Banjo expressed happiness at the meeting and the robustness and objectivity in the ideas and criticisms expressed from those in attendance. He said the concern of his board was for the prize to command the respect it truly deserves, noting that opening up the prize for Nigerians abroad was meant to spur local writers to do more to win it
He revealed that from henceforth, a consultant from outside the country would be brought in to complement judges’ efforts, when the final three writers would have been announced and shortlisted. He said this would give the prize both international status and enhanced credibility, so as to obviate the notion of ‘ghetto’ judges (made up mostly university professors) from some quarters. Integrating non-university professors among the judges is about the only idea yet to be assimilated into the prize regime.
Banjo also announced the Critical Essay Prize worth N1 million for a critical essay or review of a Nigerian literary work, but which must be published in a known international journal, as further boost for Nigerian literature.