By Anote Ajeluorou
As the literary community awaits the final ceremony that would make one its own, Tade Ipadeola, a millionaire by virtue of winning The Nigerian Prize for Literature 2013 worth US$100,000 in the poetry category, a notable literary figure, Prof. Remi Raji-Oyelade, has a word for the prize organisers and sponsors, Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG) company. The professor of English, poet and President, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), who was also in contention for the prize last year, has said the prize sponsors could do more to diversity the prize to the four genres a year instead of just one, as is currently the case.
For Raji-Oyelade, the foremost gas company, with multi-billion dollar holdings, has the resources and wherewithal to award prizes for the four categories - poetry, fiction, drama and children’s literature – in one year rather than the cyclic thing of one category per year. He notes, “So, if we have multiple prizes, so much the better. I mean, with the kind of structures that NLG has now, it can replicate the prize in all the categories – prize for poetry, prize for prose, prize for drama, prize for children’s literature. I think that is what LNG can learn from ANA; that LNG can award the four prizes the same year and not wait for the cyclic thing it does now. And, it’s very easy for them to do. I’m sure those in the administration of LNG needs to look at the prize again. I don’t think money is the problem for LNG”.
Although Raji-Oyelade acknowledges that ANA doesn’t have a tenth of the resources of LNG, it still awards multiple prizes each year to various genres of writing, as a way of carrying the entire literary community along. The fact that ANA members helped the gas company to fashion out the prize system at inception also convinces Raji-Oyelade it ought to take a cue from ANA’s award system that rewards all genres of writing the same year.
According to him, “Among those who actually structured the prize for LNG were ANA members over 12 years ago. The difference is the prize money that goes with it. ANA does not award such a lump sum to just an individual. In fact, ANA does not have that kind of money to give out. I think that one of the ways there will be improvement is to begin to diversify so we can have multiple prizes within the same year so we don’t have to wait for four years in a circle because you can have the best work five years ago and that writer who refused to enter his work would have lost”.
Although he didn’t eventually win the prize, he says making the best eleven poets in the country with his work, Sea of My Mind, was a boost and a vindication that he is still working hard as a poet. His work in 2009 was disqualified on a year that became notorious for a no-winner contest verdict. Raji-Oyelade notes, “This work is a vindication of the fact that one is hard at work; it’s just to prove that writing is an active thing. You don’t just talk it you do it. And that’s what I have achieved and I feel happy and vindicated about it all”.
He also acknowledges that there is some kind of commendable radical change in the prize system in its 10 years of existence of adding value to Nigerian literature, and points out, “I think that the prize on its own has turned attention to the importance of writing, and has giving it some form of direction on how quality writing should be; writing should not just be a localized matter. Our publications should be able to stand not just against the test of time but should stand shoulder to shoulder with what is on offer around the world. There’s a certain form of improvement even in the quality of the published text, and I think LNG among other institutions should be commended for remaining steadfast in spite of certain controversies around it, in spite of arguments for and against The Nigeria Literature Prize. I think when you persevere as an individual or organization you can only get better. I think that’s what the prize has done for Nigerian literature”.
Being among those who argued for the inclusion of foreign-based Nigerian writers in the prize system, Raji-Oyelade says he’s happy the prize is better strengthened today with such inclusion than before when it was merely localised. As he said, “I do not want us to look at it as onshore versus offshore dichotomy between home-based and Diaspora writers. I believe that those who are reading the poems go beyond the covers; the quality speaks for itself. I was one of those who clamoured for the inclusion of American and Europe-based Nigerian writers for the prize. I remember telling a friend back then that I didn’t want to be a big fish in small ocean; I want to contest against the best not just only on the local scene. It should really be a prize for all those who are writing good literature. The issue of the quality, the finishing is also very important”.