I got news of my victory in church – Chika Unigwe, winner, Nigeria Prize for Literature

Chika Unigwe has emerged winner of the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas Limited, NLNGsponsored Nigerian Prize for Literature worth $100, 000, the second biggest literary prize in the world. The announcement was made by Professor Ayo Banjo, Chairman of the Advisory Board for the prize on Thursday at a world press conference held at the Ocean View Restaurant in Victoria Island, Lagos.

Professor Banjo said the prize, instituted in 2004 to reward excellence in literature, received a record 214 entries this year and that Unigwe’s book “is a work of outstanding merit”.

Chika won for her novel, On Black Sisters’ Street, one among the top three on the final shortlist, which also includes: Onaedo: The Blacksmith’s Daughter by Ngozi Achebe and Only a Canvass by Olusola Olugbesan. All three books address issues bothering on the plight of women.

Professor Abiola Irele, Chair of Judges for the prize said, “Chika Unigwe’s novel is an outstanding work that dwells on the terrible trade of trafficking women for prostitution”. Friday Flavour reached the writer, a devout Catholic and she revealed she was in church when the news broke and is “incredibly humbled and deeply honoured” by the win.

Asked if she were intimidated by the big names on the shortlist of 10, Unigwe said many of those on the initial shortlist are writers she admires for their craft and whose works she has read, “and, so getting through to the top three and then winning, was something I never expected”.

Unigwe, who is based in Turnhout, Belgium and is the first foreign-based Nigerian writer to win the prize, which was, until now, reserved for Nigerian writers living in the country, said further that she hopes to put back her winnings into Nigeria. ”I don’t know how yet. I am still reeling from the shock of winning,” she said.

“I have been involved with women like the ones in my book in different ways since the book was written and I hope to continue to do so. It is something I feel strongly about,” she said, responding to whether she would work to impact the lives of such people that her book is based on.

The prize honours the best work in fiction published in the past five years and rotates among four literary genres and this year, the competition focuses on prose fiction.

Unigwe has a Ph.D in literature from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Her debut novel, De Feniks (The Phoenix) was published in 2005 by Meulenhoff and Manteau (of Amsterdam and Antwerp) and was shortlisted for the Vrouw en Kultuur debuutprijs for the Best First Novel by a Female Writer. She is also the author of two children’s books published by Macmillan, London.

She has published short fiction in several anthologies, journals and magazines including Wasafiri (University of London), Moving Worlds (University of Leeds), Per Contra, Voices of the University of Wisconsin and Okike of the University of Nigeria.

In 2003, she was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. In 2004, she won the BBC Short Story Competition and a Commonwealth Short Story Competition award. In the same year, her short story made the top 10 of the Million Writers Award for best online fiction. In 2005, she won the third prize in the Equiano Fiction Contest. Her second novel, Fata Morgana (On Black Sisters’ Street), was published in Dutch in 2008 and has since been released in English. Her first novel, published in Dutch in September 2005, is the first book of fiction, written by a Flemish author of African origin. In 2009, Unigwe’s novel On Black Sisters’ Street, about African prostitutes living and working in Belgium, was published in London by Jonathan Cape. Farafina published the Nigerian edition of her novels.

According to the panel of judges, the following criteria were set for the entries: Quality of editing and production, Relevance to the Nigerian situation, Vivid presentation of character and plot, and Use of language. Chairman, Professor Abiola Irele; Professors Angela Miri, Sophia Ogwude, J.O.J. Nwachukwu-Agbada and Dr, Oyeniyi Okunoye, all members were in attendance at the press conference. Members of the advisory board were also present

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