On the integrity of Nigerian literary prizes
By Obi Nwakanma
There is no innocent literary prize just as no writing is innocent and free of value. Every piece of writing is a political act, and every prize made to a writer is an act of validation and an expression of a given value – the specific and subjective value of the awarding institution. It has very little universal meaning.
There is a unique convergence of the prize regime with sometimes the cultural and political aims of interested parties, who use very closed systems of prizes to establish a hierarchy of tastes that we writers and critics begin to formulate into a canon; such prizes force us to pay attention both to the writer and to the writing, and in such ways helps to circulate a primary, and a fundamental worldview regnant to the value of the prize itself.
In the last decade for instance of the Caine Prize – the short story prize made and awarded from London to contemporary African writers – we can actually measure, by the tenor of the preponderant values circulated through that prize, a certain sense of an African antinomy.
I call much of the writing that have been validated through the Caine Prize products of the “apostate imagination” – and apostasy here refers to a sense, not of religious heresy, but of persistent melancholy about the condition of Africa; a faithlessness about Africa, a tradition so eminently presaged by Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are not Yet Bornin 1971.
Such prizes out of London and New York continue to validate and sustain a view of Africa defiantly constructed by such highly acclaimed but trashy novels like Uzo Iweala’s Beast of No Nationor Uwem Akpan’s unreadable and utterly reprobate stories, which seem to me, by the attention given to it by Euro-American critics, appealing far more to thevoyeurism of the largely predetermined western mind or reader, secluded say in the suburbs of Sarasota, who still loves to view the societies in Africa from the prism of postcolonial decay and disillusion or from primal innocence.
A place where there are no human rights; journalists are jailed and their imagination stolen; where children are abandoned on the roadsides and child-soldiers are forced to pluck eyes, rape women, or cut limbs; otherwise, it is still the Safari.
Such are the kinds of stories by African writers that get the attention of the publishers in London and New York, and that are now published to acclaim, in the great publishing houses, in spite of the evidence of a broader, richer, and more varied literary community and attitude.
The sustained view of a persistent antinomic African world circulated in Euro-American literary conferences, communities, journals, and classrooms, as the real “canon of contemporary African Literature,” comes from the powerful validation of prizes.
That is also why, many contemporary Nigerian writers are now writing to form, and are now equally, more powerfully seduced by the lure of these prizes certainly for the attention it brings and the legitimacy such prizes confer on their work.
The writer E.C. Osondu, winner of the Caine Prize, did say not too long ago, to a question about the inordinate coddling of his writing to the now increasingly familiar mock sentimentality that traduces his nation, “I do not work for the ministry of Information.” Indeed, he does not. But what is the purpose of the writer in the current era?
To put ozo feathers on melancholy? Even then, I should not quite blame the writers, because writing after all, is like all art. We dare not over-romanticize it. The artist makes his art these days, not for himself but for whoever wants to pay for it.
In the current globalized economy in which the local now seems too bounded and unsatisfying, the artist makes to specification, if he must win that prize. He shapes his art to satisfy a customer. But the writer must be told, in the same words of Ezeulu’s admonition to his sculptor son, Edogo, “beware that you do not carve spirits!”Prizes seem to specify for our writers the shape of their minds and the values they must circulate.
The piper and the pipemeister must always have their day. And yet in a very ironic and providential way, and it is important to say this, without these “international” prizes, no matter what values they circulate or demand of our writers, the attention brought to contemporary African writing, even if some might think the gift a little too left-handed, would be lost.
It has been largely on account of such gestures as the Caine Prize and such others that contemporary African writers have come to some international attention recently. That is good by itself. What might be better however is for there to be a matching of that gesture from the continent – great African prizes awarded from Lagos, Dakar and Johannesburg – to great African writing.
A sort of the “balance of stories.” The Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) started with prizes that were once widely respected. I was awarded that prize myself for my poetry in 1996. Not too long ago, the poet Niyi Osundare dramatically withdrew his work for consideration for the ANA/Cadbury prize. I wrote to remind him that writers of weight like him give significance and validity to Nigerian literary prizes. To withdraw his work was to undermine the integrity of the prize.
Perhaps I was too hasty in coming to that conclusion – since what Osundare may have seen sitting, I could not standing. As it happened, my poems, The Horsemen & other Poemshad been shortlisted for the same prize. It was not awarded the prize, but that’s besides the point.
The real point for me was what, I learnt later was one of the judges statement, about an inability to “understand” the references in my poems – not about the rhetorical strategies or the structure of the work, but the subjective limitations of a literary judge to comprehend metaphor.
I was stunned and it has brought me to the question today, of the integrity or lack thereof of Nigerian prizes that undermines the validity of the awards currently. The ANA prizes have become ghetto prizes. The current LNG prize, which has a large purse, is yet to attract the kind of weight that attends to significant prizes.
In other words, the purse does not make the prize. There is the feeling that the LNG and the ANA prizes are too insular to carry the kind of international weight that should honor contemporary Nigerian writing. These prizes must be reformed, revaluated and refocused.
Part of the place to start is to expand the scope of the individuals who are invited as judges for these prizes. The prize administrators must seek to internationalize that search, and to play up the integrity content as well as the knowledge base of individuals who seek to evaluate writing.
We have great Literary journalists, academic critics, informed and specialized readers, and people of insight across the world who can help create momentum and attract the necessary international weight to these Nigerian prizes.
To keep a narrow field of recycled literary judges, including some who may not be exposed to contemporary literary currents, attitudes, and trends, or understand the cultural politics of prizes, reduces significantly, the power of these prizes. And prizes build our canons. We cannot afford to cede that ground.