Will Nigerians Again Win International Literary Prizes?

by Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku

The last time any Nigerian won an international prize for short stories was 2019. That writer was Lesley Nneka Arimah who won the Caine Prize for her story, “Skinned”. Her story was published in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern (Issue 53) 2018. ‘Skinned’ is a fictional story about unmarried girls who go about naked to only be covered once they get married. Critics say that that story made calls for gender equality.

There have been others like Tope Folarin (2013), Rotimi Babatunde for “Bombay’s Republic (2012), EE Osondu (2009), and Helon Habila 2001 for “Love Poems”. But after this golden age of Nigerian dominance on the international literary stage, a lull seems to have set in. From 2019 till date, no Nigerian has won either the Caine Prize for African Writing or the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. In looking at the reasons why this is so, I will want to be extremely careful, and to mind my words. One reason why I want to mind my words would be the quarrel that I had with organisers of the Caine many years ago, and for which I decided I would not be entering the Caine. The prize is for ‘African’ writing, a pejorative term in my estimation, and drawing from arguments of old over what kinds of stories are either ‘African’ or non-African. I have held the opinion that stories, books, and literature are about universal themes – love, hate, death, poverty, wars – and that these themes are hardly African but a reflection of the general human condition.

Secondly, after the success stories highlighted above, together with the mouth-watering prizes attached, many Nigerians began to see entering an international literary contest as a short and fast cut to fame, wealth, recognition and fortune. What this has done is that the greed or ambition to be an international literary personality, with the prospect of shaking hands with and dinning with the elite in Europe and the Americas, has opened the leeway to as many interested persons seeking that fame and that kind of fortune. We will not be involved with issues with the local literary contests in Nigeria, where in some cases, judges of a literary contest also throw in their stories and emerge winners.

What this discussion will be about however is the question that I have asked above. In addition, I will try to conduct a postmortem on the fact that in spite of the initial success, our seeming dominant position on the international literary scene has been taken over from us by others who seemed to have taken a cue from and thrown the gauntlet at us.

This is what I think, and why I presume that if we are not putting our books together better than we are doing now, we will not get anywhere near those prizes in the near and distant future. So, I start by saying that around 1992, I was close to the end of my studies in English & Literature in English at UNIBEN. The motto of that department was NOT WHAT BUT HOW. At the first or second semester, our lecturers introduced us to Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, a curious story of a salesman who woke up from sleep one morning to find out that he had changed from being a human being to a giant insect (maybe a cockroach). Thereafter, he began to see the world and humanity from the point of view of an insect.

Kafka’s The Metamorphosis influenced my own book, Secrets of an African Diary, published September 13, 2013 about ten years hence. In this book, the protagonist is not a human being but a diary speaking directly to and revealing the innermost thoughts, feeling and idiosyncrasies of its keeper. The Diary delves in the realms of introspection and stream of consciousness narrative technique that is hardly lineal. This book experimented with the medias rex technique and sometimes too, dancing around the principle of the objective correlative. The themes of Secrets of an African Diary are the eternal themes of death, power, unrequited love, betrayal, family and duty.

Many budding authors have great stories but have no style. Most of the stories are written in the linear, the once-upon-a-time kind of style – no art, no creativity. Many things make a literary or creative attempt stand out. One is the deftness of use of language. Two, narrative technique, three characterizations, four plot and five the setting of the story. In all of these, the pertinent questions discerning minds ask is this: HOW did the author deploy the use language? Is the book or short story deliberately breaking all the rules of grammar (check Amos Tutuola and e.e. cummings)? Is it a mosquito or a tortoise in the deep telling the story? Is the central character the environment or the wind or is it a depraved mind? Is there a preponderance of flat as against round characters? Is there a tragic hero, TH? What is the TH’s SWOT? Is the plot based on causality – not the AND but the WHY of things? Is the author telling the story from the point of view of the first-person narrative, the dramatic or of the Omniscient narrator? HOW did the author put this rubric to work?

For now though, most of our stories do not meet some of these conditions. I do believe this is so because the attraction is the money, not the craft, and not the desire to contribute something to address the human condition with the instrumentality of books and short stories. For our books to be separated from the mundane and move from the madding crowd and become art, the author will have to answer these questions: HOW did you write your book or short story – what separates you from the crowd? What unique literary thing stands your book out? We see many budding authors hire an editor to edit their works prior to publication. That is very good, but editing itself or passing the work through Grammarly may produce a grammatical masterpiece. What about the SENSE (the semantics) and what about the sounds (the phonetics) of the work? I recommend to our authors do more. I suggest as well to our budding authors to join literary groups, to pass their manuscripts through trusted people, and most of all to be avid with their reading of the classics and masterpieces and works of other persons who may have won prizes in the past.

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