Oriogun, Agema, Dzokugi point inclusive, future prospects for The Nigeria Prize for Literature

by anote
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Ndibe, Raji, others want prizes for poetry, drama, prose, children literature awarded same year, every year

By Anote Ajeluorou

‘There’s no point in paying USD$100,000 to a writer in Nigeria if other things don’t add up. The way I look at it is, if you have USD$100,000 to play with, why don’t you give USD$15,000 prize every year to prose, every year to poetry, every year to drama, (every year to children’s literature)?’ – Ndibe

‘I think that, over time, the Nigeria LNG has listened to the constructive criticisms of the literary circles in and outside of the country… There are still rooms for improvement towards excellence and achieving greater impact. Also, an endowment of The Nigeria Prize for Literature with all categories awarded in same year, every year, will give more leverage and stature to the prize’ – Raji

ALTHOUGH only one poet was declared winner and got the applause, three writers actually won on Friday, October 14, 2022. But this would not be known to dignitaries that sat in the glittering hall to enjoy the cosy ambience of the lavish Award Gala Nite held in the Banquet Hall of the Eko Hotel & Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos.
Romeo Oriogun was declared winner of The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2022 for his poetry collection, Nomad, but he will not go home with the entire USD$100,000 prize money. Oriogun in his post-win speech declared to the amazement and loud applause of the guests that his co-finalists — Su’eddie Vershima Agema (Memory and the Call of Waters) and Saddiq Dzukogi (Your Crib, My Qibla), would also share in the prize money as runners up. Each of them will get USD$10,000, said Oriogun.

This is strange and exciting in the history of any prize anywhere. Long before the award was given, the three friends had agreed among themselves that whoever won would share part of the money with the other two. Agema, who was the only one of the three finalists in the audience that night, confirmed the agreement.
Certainly not bad for coming joint second in a contest that has no official reward for the second and third positions. The closest prize organisers have come in this regard is jointly awarding the prize that saw Ezenwa Ohaeto and Gabriel Okara winning it for poetry in 2005 and in 2007 when Akachi Ezeigbo and Mabel Segun won it for children’s literature. Ever since, the prize has been won by individual writers whenever it’s awarded.

Romeo Oriogun with Saddiq Dzukogi in the background

With the gesture, the need to democratise the prize money has been better put. The argument has been raging for a while now that the runners up deserve a cut of the huge prize money, but the sponsors of the prize, including its counterpart Literary Criticism and Science Prizes, Nigeria LNG Ltd, has been shy about it and would not be persuaded on its merit, preferring the winner-takes-all format. What Oriogun and his co-traveller poets have done is simply to unofficially rewrite the rules.

But will prize sponsors, Nigeria LNG Ltd listen once again as it has done in other respects? Interestingly, those in the academia can now heave a sigh of satisfaction as the prize sponsor would seem to have listened and raised the monetary value for Literary Criticism from N1m to USD$10,000. It starts with the winner of this year’s criticism prize Dr. Sakiru Adebayo who went home with a handsome USD$10,000 for his critical essays.

PERIODICALLY, sponsors of The Nigeria Prize for Literature, Nigeria LNG Limited, would invite stakeholders to a roundtable to review both the impact of the prize on the literary community and ways to make it serve the community better and make impact generally through innovative ideas and criticisms. This is usually backed by the reigning MD/CEO, who at each prize award ceremony, reaffirms and reassures of the gas company’s commitment to the continuity of the prize to animate the creative space. The last such engagement in February 2022 had Nigeria LNG’s senior management official, Dr. Sophia Horsfall, in attendance in Lagos. What the management of the company, however, does with the reports of the review is entirely their decision.

In the run up to this year’s prize awards, some of the longlisted poets spoke their minds, stating how the prize could benefit more than just one declared winner. Suggestions ranged from making the last three writers winners also by allotting some money to them for coming that far in the contest. Others suggested that the sponsor could purchase a sizeable number of books from the longlisted writers as a way of encouragement.
The clincher perhaps comes from respected novelist and teacher, Prof. Okey Ndibe, weighing in and giving a global perspective. He spoke on how to make the prize assume the preeminent status it rightly deserves among global literary prizes, but which he said The Nigeria Prize for Literature was still struggling to attain on account of certain organisational short-comings.

One of the longlisted poets in the 2022 edition of the prize, Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo (Augusta’s Poodle) acknowledged that the prize organiser always listened to criticism and is ready to make amends regarding improving the prize.

According to him, “I did have an opinion at the beginning when the prize was first announced, in particular on the controversial decision to limit it to home-based writers. I felt that a prize as ambitious as it set out to be, which even at USD$20,000 initially was already a big prize, and calling itself The Nigerian literature prize, should have every living Nigerian writer eligible for it, no matter where he or she resided. But that was happily reversed and the prize has since grown in stature to become the most coveted one on the continent and one of the biggest ever anywhere.”

For Iquo DianaAbasi (Coming Undone as the Stitches Tighten), The Nigeria Prize for Literature has done well in terms of longevity, but noted that it could still do more in deepening reading engagements, adding, “18 years of sustained commitment is commendable. My humble opinion is that it would be more memorable if the run up to the prize (award) could involve country-wide engagement with the authors and their books. This could take different forms – regional readings, more virtual engagements, purchase of the books for university libraries where readings with the authors could hold, etc. Still, The Nigeria Prize for Literature must be applauded for doing this prize for this long.”

Saddiq Dzukogi (left) and Su’eddie Agema

Professor of English and longlisted poet, Joseph Ushie (Yawns and Belches), desires that the last three writers in the shortlist should be made to benefit and not just one writer taking all the money home, among other suggestions.

“On suggestions for improvement, I have often been wondering why the prize should be on a winner-take-all all basis instead of recognizing at least the last three winners since it is for one particular work of art and not for the author’s total oeuvre as we have in the case of the Nobel Prize for Literature,” he said. “Secondly, if it wouldn’t be too much for the NLNG, I would suggest the organization should also think of some competition strictly for the unpublished manuscripts of the younger writers, and the reward should be mainly the financing of the publishing of the winning ones. I say this because I know of many younger Nigerians whose excellent manuscripts are gathering dust and cobwebs in boxes all because of lack of money to have them published. Such a gesture, if doable by the NLNG, would take Nigerian literary writing to the skies.”

Professor of English and longlisted poet, Segun Adekoya (Ife Testament), is concerned that the prize money for literary criticism needs to be enlarged and also extended to published critical books, noting that “The prize activities are increasingly engaging and visible. I would like the prize for criticism to be hiked and extended to published books.”

Another professor of English and longlisted poet, Remi Raji (Wanderer Cantos), like Ifowodo, also commended the prize sponsors for always listening to criticisms. But awarding the prize every year for the four genres of literature – poetry, prose, drama and children’s literature – according to Raji, is what would help deepen the impact of the prize alongside supporting an international literary festival in the country.

“I think that, over time, the Nigeria LNG has listened to the constructive criticisms of the literary circles in and outside of the country,” Raji said. “There are still rooms for improvement towards excellence and achieving greater impact. I think that The Nigeria Prize for Literature will do well to improve on pushing the visibility of the winning books more than it presently does.

“Also, an endowment of The Nigeria Prize for Literature with all categories awarded in same year, every year, will give more leverage and stature to the prize. The Nigeria Prize for Literature is in real vantage position to support the establishment of at least one international literary festival in this country. I will like us to invite other writers to this country the way we have been invited to other international literary festivals (litfests). The socio-cultural, even economic, dividend will be huge for Nigeria.”

For Agema (Memory and the Call of Waters), who will now benefit from an unofficially democratised prize money, said, “The prize is a prestigious one that anyone would be proud of. Like most Nigerian writers, I really wish that the sponsors of The Nigeria Prize for Literature, Nigeria LNG Limited will work towards promoting the books on the longlist by perhaps organising readings – more than one – possibly sponsoring a tour and picking copies of the books of the 11 longlisted writers. If the prize also concentrates on promoting the winners, it will do a lot of good for everyone.

“Case in point is that of some deceased winners whose works you almost cannot find anywhere. Of all the winners, the few people whose books are readily accessible everywhere are Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Season of Crimson Blossom – 2016), Jude Idada (Boom Boom – 2019) and Cheluchi Onyemelukwe (The Son of the House – 2020). The availability is largely due to the hard work of the authors and their publishers. Thus, it will be great if the management considers putting in funds to promote the works of their winners.

“Furthermore, it might help to also give those on the shortlist something to take home, no matter how little. But, overall, it is the prerogative of NLNG to do as they wish with their funds and up to us, everyone else, to find ways to support them. Nothing stops us from helping promote the works of the winners and the long- and shortlisted writers.”

Another shortlisted poet Dzukogi (Your Crib, My Qibla), also a beneficiary of Oriogun’s beneficence, has a word for the prize organisers, when he said, “I think the prize should facilitate the purchase of the longlisted books and ensure they are distributed to all libraries across the country. I will also encourage other corporations to invest in the cultural and artistic production in a similar way as the NLNG to spearhead more growth in the arts.”

MEANWHILE, also giving global perspective on the prize was Nigerian professor of English and Shearing Fellow at Black Mountain Institute, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, US, Okey Ndibe (Foreign Gods Inc.). He laid out what he believes The Nigeria Prize for Literature should achieve if the concept of the prize could be recalibrated to elevate it to the status of the monetary value being given out. In a recent conversation anchored by Rudolf (Kenyan) and Chido (Nigerian) tagged ‘Ninety Minutes Africa’ and on the section on ‘Nigerian Literature and the Role of the Writer,’ Ndibe stated what he believes the prize organisers should do with the huge prize money to internationalise the prize beyond its current status.

According to Ndibe, “The Nigeria Prize for Literature that offers USD$100,000 doesn’t have as much prestige as The Caine Prize that offers only £10,000. My take on The Nigeria Prize for Literature is that it’s a very, in my view, misconceived prize. There’s no point in paying USD$100,000 to a writer in Nigeria if other things don’t add up. The way I look at it is, if you have USD$100,000 to play with, why don’t you give USD$15,000 prize every year to prose, every year to poetry, every year to drama, (every year to children’s literature)?

“Or even make it USD$10,000 (to) each (genre), and then use the (remaining) USD$70,000 to support the publication of these books? There are publishers in England that you can engage in partnership with, so that the winners of the prize is in Nigeria, but you then find them publishers in these spaces as well. I mean, of course, some of the books that win are already published abroad, but if it’s a book published in Nigeria that wins, then you should be able to strike some agreement where you defray the cost of the publisher or you offer an amount for them to do promotion of this winner, so he or she becomes part of their list that enables him or her go to certain conferences and literary festivals around the world.”

Ndibe anchored his suggestion on the fact that the reputation of the prize is yet to go global, and that marketing winning books abroad should be one way of internationalising the status of the prize for global impact.

Romeo Oriogun with Su’eddie Agema in the background

“We have a prize in Nigeria that pays USD$100,000 to the winner, and apart from Nigerian newspapers or one or two African websites that report it, nothing more is heard about the prize elsewhere,” Ndibe said. “But The Caine Prize was in every major newspaper in the UK, Oprah Magazine had it, and so on. So there’s something also, just the way you conceive the story, just the way you tell the story; again one of those issues with Nigeria is not being able to package itself well, not being able to tell its story well. Because you have USD$100,000 as one of the richest prizes that books get anywhere in the world, but we have failed to tell that story, we have failed to tell the story of the winner, to make that winner matter as a writer in the world.”

However, in summing up the pros and cons of expanding The Nigeria Prize for Literature scope, a poet and culture scholar at the University of Florida, Gainsville US, Dr. Kole Odutola speaking on ‘Kulture Train’, an online literary arts platform anchored by the former Arts Editor of The Guardian, Jahman Anikulapo, and aired every Saturday on Spirit of Nigeria Radio, had submitted that for any headway to be had in this conversation, perhaps the sponsors, NigeriaLNG should be approached to find out its original intention for the prize, whether the winner-takes-all format fulfills that intention or not. He argued that if it does, as he suspects, then any argument as to expanding the prize award beyond one winner would be an exercise in futulity. What could however be done in order to get the prize sponsors’ buy-in, he further argued, would be to approach the Nigerian Academy of Letters (NAL), which initially mediated in instituting the prize to weigh in and persuade Nigeria LNG Ltd to broaden the prize scope to include the two runners up in the monetary award. That way, he said, it would be a win-win for all parties – the prize sponsors and the literary community agitating for expansion and inclusiveness.

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