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26 Feb Written by  Oris Aigbokhaevbolo

Notes on the Etisalat Prize For Literature Ceremony

“And now your host for the evening, Jimmy Sonuga.” A male voiceover at Federal Palace Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos, boomed.

It was 7.13pm when the host for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature came onstage. The shortlist comprising NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, Yewande Omotoso’s Bom Boy and Karen Jennings’s Finding Soutbek was announced in January. All three nominees were present, occupying the front seats.

Mr Sonuga wore a white outfit and a green cap. Not exactly tall, he had presence, his deep clear voice filling the room. He stood at one corner of the stage; centre stage was foregrounded with a huge screen bearing the Etisalat prize logo. He spoke about the “long thrilling journey” of the prize and introduced Etisalat's Acting CEO Matthew Willsher, referring to the telecom company’s boss as 007.

The James Bond theme was played ushering the man who, keeping with his nickname, wore a black suit, white shirt and a bowtie.

“At Etisalat,” he said, we believe in the power of storytelling.”

Both Messrs Sonuga and Willsher spoke without notes, their uniform eloquence suggesting a teleprompter. Hoisted about a dozen feet from the floor, a monitor displayed each speaker’s script. As the event went on and different people took to the stage, speakers would have varying success with the teleprompter, none quite as beguilingly effective as Mr Sonuga.

“I hope you have a good evening,” Mr Willsher concluded.

A band led by Ré Olunuga, sporting his usual full beard and unusual haircut, played live music as Ghanaian writer Ama Aita Aidoo was introduced and helped to a seat onstage. Her climb was heralded with applause.

“It is my honour,” she started, introducing the nominees for the event’s sideshow, the Flash Fiction Prize. Aidoo’s script listed Hemingway and Kafka as writers who worked in the flash fiction subgenre— a move that could be seen as partially in response to the uproar generated by the announcement of the prize last year. The organisers were name dropping astutely as justification for the sideshow’s existence.

A female voiceover read brief sentences from the stories as author names and story titles flashed on the screen, a fitting meta-projection of the subgenre. Offstage, writer Lola Shoneyin walked the aisle. It was 7:30pm.

“And the winner is…” Aidoo crowed as an attendant emerged and presented her with an iPad. “Uche Okonkwo!”

The audience applauded. “Is he here?” Aidoo asked just before noticing a young woman walk towards her. “She’s a girl!” Aidoo beamed. She must have noticed that all three nominees of the main prize were female and the winner of the lesser prize was female as well.

On her part, Uche Okonkwo collected the jumbo-sized cheque, and gave a speech thanking voters on social media, her mother, and Etisalat, saying, “It is hard enough to make it as a writer.”

While she may have been dancing inside, Miss Okonkwo displayed a muted confidence on the outside. She stood, in brown strapped shoes, a red dress, and earrings round like a coin, beside her mother, and posed with a seated Aidoo among others for photos on stage.

The University of Port Harcourt graduate, who works freelance as writer and editor after a stint with Farafina Publishers, would later tell me, “It feels good to be appreciated.”

 

***

A patron of the award, Kole Omotoso, introduced Write of Passage, a piece of music in four movements commissioned by Etisalat and composed by Ré Olunuga. This segment, featuring music, accompanied by still photos onscreen, traced African literature through four generations.

Olunuga’s music didn’t quite cohere, but became progressively better and may have happened on the sublime if African literature could be divided into say, 10 generations. Limited to four, the music’s ascending merit hovered not quite far from the hall’s carpet.

The writers used as representatives of African literature were all deserving, yet may be considered as not encompassing. For the first generation, Thomas Mofolo, Sol Plaatje, DO Fagunwa, Naguib Mahfouz were cited.

For the continent’s second generation: Chinua Achebe, Flora Nwapa, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Bessie Head, Nadine Gordimer, Nuruddin Farah.

On Achebe, the voiceover said, “Things Fall Apart is arguably one of the most important African novels…” Arguably? Was the book’s place in African literature in contention?

Third generation: Ben Okri, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Alain Mabanckou, Leila Aboulela, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Laila Lalami, Damon Galgut.

The fourth generation had one entry: The Future. Presumably the Etisalat Prize was meant to mark the ascension of this generation into the pantheon.

Author photos were accompanied by book covers and a short eulogy which for writers consists, essentially, of prizes won. And when no major prizes had been won by the author, the voiceover spoke of reputation and acclaim, garnered apparently from reviews and the literary grapevine.

Etisalat had created this segment for tradition, to honour older writers and to recognise newer ones. But it is likely to be the one fraught with controversy.

Foremost perhaps: the second generation of writers. The list had Chinua Achebe, but both Wole Soyinka and JP Clark were missing. An unforgivable oversight hard to explain, unless there is a method to the peculiar mess.

What method?

Perhaps the Write of Passage was meant to be representative only of writers who identify, first, as prose fiction writers; if these selected writers had worked in any of the other genres of literature, that received mentioned as well.

Writers working, majorly, in one of the other genres were thus excluded.

With that, Soyinka, mainly a playwright, and Clark, a poet, became inapt for recognition. The selections must have been strange to Nigerians incapable of seeing the country’s literary powerhouses Achebe and Soyinka as distinct entities. And for these ones the list will always be considered eccentric, produced by peculiar exclusion criteria.

Even then, this method raises a question the organisers would have to answer: Why call it a Prize for Literature if only fiction writers are eligible?

***

Back at Federal Palace Hotel, the three judges of the prize, Pumla Gqola, Sarah Manyika and Billy Kahora, were introduced. It was 8pm.

The South African Associate Professor and public intellectual Pumla Gqola came on wearing a décolleté purple gown and three connected circles as earrings, accompanied by the author of In Dependence Sarah Manyika who wore a black gown with a red and black scarf tied around her arms. The lone male judge, Billy Kahora, editor of the literary journal Kwani? wore an open necked black shirt with white trousers— flanked by two women glamorous on the night, he cut an obscure image. He was also shorter than both women; although how much of that was due to the footwear of his colleagues was unclear from the seats.

They spoke in turn about the prize, very conspicuously using the teleprompter.

There had been quibbles about the lack of an established writer— novelist, short story writer, memoirist, essayist— on the judges panel; the only novelist on the panel, Manyika, has written just the one novel, yet she was judging writers exactly like her, and in the case of Ms Bulawayo, considerably more acclaimed. And the closest to being established, Mr Kahora, edits a mostly regional journal.

If they had heard the quibbling, once onstage they didn’t show it.

Again, the female voiceover read excerpts from the nominated novels. In what seemed a pre-emptive coronation, the audience laughed only at the bit from NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names.

The judges stepped off; and the host returned with a different hat. He reminded the audience of the Prize’s benefits: mentorship by author of The Last King of Scotland, Giles Foden; €15,000 prize money; and the tour of African cities. The mentorship by a Booker Prize shortlisted author, a feat equalled already by one of the nominees, came off as the least attractive in the list of benefits and the most open to criticism.

It was time for the publicised music interlude by Youssou N’Dour. Sonuga introduced the singer saying he had mistaken the Senegalese for a woman upon hearing his voice for the first time.

“I fell in love,” Sonuga said. Immediately realising the import of his statement, in light of the recent anti-gay law, he added, needlessly defiant, “I am sorry for admitting that in public but I am still in love with that voice.”

(Clearly a man given to using the word love, Jimmy Sonuga later described to me his connection to the book world in four words, “I love good literature.”)

Nervous titters went through the crowd, quickly replaced by screams of delight as Youssou N’Dour, dressed in a very elegant agbada, came on and entertained, his performance peaking when he invited Nigerian singer Ruby to fill in for Neneh Cherry on his crossover hit duet 7 Seconds.

His music resonated with the audience. Ms Bulawayo swayed in her seat, Ms Omotoso danced in hers; while the artist Victor Ehikhamenor caught the performance with his phone and the writer Toni Kan nodded in time with the music. Tolu Ogunlesi faced his phone, possibly tweeting about a performance others enjoyed.

Youssou N’Dour left the stage at 8.50pm to a standing ovation. “Youssou N’Dour rocks!” Yewande Omotoso told me at the end of the event.

It was time for the announcement. The Chair of the judges, Pumla Gqola, was invited on stage and she in turn invited the patrons of the award and her partners. Now, Billy Kahora had on a suit.

At 8:56pm, NoViolet Bulawayo was announced as the winner of the first Etisalat Prize for Literature.

At a meeting with the press the previous day, Ms Bulawayo was listless and mostly uninterested as her co-nominees read from their books; she’d later say she was jetlagged.

Now as she climbed the stage to receive her prize, she smiled, fully involved with no trace of lethargy. She expressed an appreciation for the music, having never attended a book ceremony with music, “so far that has been the most fun” she said, and added laughing, “I like to dance.” Then she spoke about her love of storytelling: “I’m proud to be part of this amazing tradition.”

The very influential Ellah Allfrey, a patron of the prize garbed in a red gown, presented her with a Mont Blanc pen, urging the Zimbabwean writer to “keep writing.”

Afterwards I asked Ms Bulawayo how winning the award felt. She smiled and said “Exciting,” before she was led towards a camera. Television interviews will be a constant feature in her life so it was only fair she got ample practice.

“It really takes a whole village to write a book,” she had said.

On the night, it would take just the one person to receive the prize. And surely even the village would have it no other way.

Dog