Sustainability of literary prizes, as new one debuts

L-R: Dele Olojede, Pumla Gqola and Steven Evans at the Etisalat Prize for Literature launch in Lagos.

A lot of issues came up at the Lagos unveiling of the first Pan-African Prize for Literature; an innovation to literary arts awards which was launched on June 5 by Etisalat Nigeria. Chief among them was the machinery put in place to sustain the award since such laudable initiatives in the country have in the past turned out dormant after holding one or two editions.

Mr. Steven Evans, the Chief Executive Officer of Etisalat Nigeria, a telecommunications company which operates in at least 10 African countries, said at the event that the company’s new literary prize worth £15,000 is to encourage creative writing on the continent.

“Etisalat operates in 15 countries around the Middle East, Africa and Asia, and 10 of those countries are in Africa. The Etisalat Prize for Literature has been created with this in mind and entries are open to writers from all of these countries and the rest of Africa”, he said.

He explained that the prize is the first ever pan-African prize in literature celebrating first-time writers of published fiction novels “and it is our objective to encourage creative writing throughout the continent”.

There is of course another pan-African prize, the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa worth $20,000 and also run out of Nigeria; however, it is biennial and not restricted to the first novel. Sponsored by Lumina Foundation, it was instituted in 2006 and the last edition was awarded in 2012 to South African writer Sizifo Mzobe for his book, ** Young Blood**.

Then there is the Nigeria Prize for Literature, which is open to only Nigerians no matter where they stay in the world. Instituted by Nigeria LNG in partnership with the Nigerian Academy of Letters, the prize is worth $100,000 and rotates among four genres of fiction, poetry, drama and children’s literature.

There is no gainsaying that Nigerian writers, who have done very well globally, can look forward to winning The Nigeria LNG Prize, the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and the just instituted Etisalat Prize for Literature. The first two, who like the Etisalat Prize is open to only published writers, have attracted a lot of entries and the organisers clearly have no trouble with sustainability.

Responding to the question of sustainability, Evans said that there was no doubt that the prize would outlive his tenure as CEO of Etisalat Nigeria.

“Most of the things that we are doing, whether they are in the area of arts and culture or theatre arts are usually long term. For example, only four weeks ago, we launched the master’s degree in Quantum Engineering at the Ahmadu Bello University, ABU, Zaria”, he said.

Evans also revealed that his company has a contractual five-year commitment to support five lecturers from the university who will go for a two-year course at universities abroad and obtain Ph.Ds in Communication Engineering as well as commitment for 15 to 20 new master’s students emerging into Nigeria’s employment market, providing a foundation for future expertise.

“(So), our culture goes far beyond any individual. It relies very heavily on board members who bring continuity in this aspect of the business. I can say that we see this Pan-African prize for literature as being very much a start of a journey. We believe that this is something that we could grow overtime to become the sort of prize, from our perspective, we would like to be associated with it for centuries”, he explained.

Evans said that is why care was taken in the choice of the group of people that the company brought together as patrons and judges for the prize. “I think they guarantee the continuity which goes far beyond an individual. We are beginning something new, which is like a relay race where the baton will be handed on from time to time but of course, we will have a group of people that will ensure that we maintain the idea of the spirit of what we are beginning here today”, he said.

On whether the stories will have a pan- African focus since the prize itself is pan- African, Pumla Gqola, the chair of the panel of four judges said they were primarily concerned with the quality and the skill of the writing. “The panel will not limit the content…it is important not to pre-empt the content of the (works). One of the things that will emerge from the prize deliberately and inevitably is what the many faces of African writing are today”, Gqola said. Gqola is associate professor in the Department of African Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. The other judges are Zaks Mda, Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Ohio and winner of the Commonwealth Prize; Billy Kahora, Managing Editor of Kwani Trust, of the literary Journal Kwani and Sarah Ladipo Manyika, writer and academic. They will work together to select the long list as well as a shortlist of three novels and finally the winner who will be announced in February of 2014.

On eligibility, Kole Omotoso, a member of the panel of patrons, said it was open to “any African, anywhere in the world writing in English”. This is the case with the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa.

Other patrons include: Dele Olojede, the first African-born winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Margret Busby, youngest and first black woman publisher and cofounder of Allison & Busby and Ellah Alfrey, a Zimbabwewan, who is the deputy editor of Granta Magazine. Olojede said everyone should understand that the prize was an evolving thing “so it may very well be that this thing evolves into giving prizes in African languages like Swahili, Hausa or Igbo or any other language. This is a start”.

The other prizes mentioned earlier, which are awarded in English, have remained that way over the years. Professor Stella Okagbue, a board member of the company capped it up by saying that the board was in complete support of the initiative. “It is a venture in which we are trying to promote not only creative writing. But also, trying to promote the reading habit, which is lacking in this country (I can’t speak for the rest of the African continent). We want to encourage people to read because a writer without an audience is not going to be fulfilled”, she said.

Entries for the Fiction Novel category opened on the day of the launch, June 5, to publishers who have published a minimum of 10 authors in the last three years and closes on August 30. Submitted works must be the writer’s first English language fiction novel of over 30,000 words, published in the last 24 months. Evans explained that this first edition may accept works only in English but the intention is to have the said works translated into other languages. “There will be a prize ultimately for novels in other languages but the initial incarnation of this prize is in the English language. That is something that we will be looking at whether it should be established in other languages”, he said. Also, the company is to launch a flash fiction prize later in the year of no more than 300 words with a 500 pounds prize and a Samsung Galaxy Note.

The long list will be announced on December 11, while January 15, 2014 will be the day the shortlist will be unveiled.

The prize aims to discover new creative talent from Africa as well as promote the continent’s publishing industry and authors, who must be of African origin as well as their publishers can be based anywhere in the world. African writers with dual nationalities are eligible. The winner of the Etisalat Prize for Literature will receive £15,000 and a Samsung Galaxy Note, while the telecommunication company will sponsor a book tour by the winning writer to three African cities. The winner will also embark on the Etisalat fellowship at the University of East Anglia mentored by Professor Giles Foden (author of The Last King of Scotland), which will include significant opportunities to meet other writers, publishers and most importantly work on their second book. Etisalat will purchase 1000 copies of all shortlisted books which will be donated to various schools, book clubs and libraries across the African continent.

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