BY JAPHET ALAKAM
On September 6, 2011, NLNG, the organizer of the prestigious Nigeria Prize for Literature announced the final shortlist of three books for the 2011 Nigeria Prize for Literature out of the initial shortlist of six released last October. The three finalists are; ‘Eno’s Story’ by Ayodele Olofintuade, ‘The Missing Clock’ by Mai Nasara and ‘The Great Fall’ by Chinyere Obi-Obasi.
Tomorrow at the Eko Hotel, Lagos, the eventual winner of the mouth watering prize will be announced at a world press conference.
Inaugurated in February 2004, The Nigerian Prize for Literature is an annual literary competition instituted by the nation’s apex gas company, Nigerian Liquified Natural Gas, NLNG in honour of the author of the best book of the current year or the previous three years.
The prize rotates yearly amongst four literary genres vis-a-vis; prose fiction, poetry, drama & children’s literature.
The competition is open only to published works and bestows public recognition and a monetary award of $100, 000 on the winner.
Goals of the award
According to the organisers of the prize, apart from the immediate purpose of rewarding the authors of the best current writing, The Nigerian Prize for Literature has a number of other important goals. It is a means of making known to readers, publishers, booksellers and distributors, literary critics and reviewers, the latest achievements of the best writers in Nigeria.
The competition contributes in a practical way to sustaining the tradition of excellence in Nigerian literature, discovering new authors and keeping older ones in focus.
The competition also serves to deepen awareness, among writers, of what literary excellence entails, by offering models and sources of inspiration. In this regard, the publicised comments of the judges’ report are a means of clarifying what qualities are to be sought in good works of literature.
The publicity that comes with the awards is intended to have benefits beyond the immediate recognition for the winners. Specialists in the field of African literature are alerted to the presence of new works and writers whose achievements are worthy of scholarly attention.
Through channels of information dissemination, such as the Internet, those in the international community interested in contemporary literature are also provided with opportunities to learn about these achievements.
Finally, it is hoped that the prize will encourage publishers to be increasingly active on the literary scene, by bringing out, advertising and distributing more of the best current writings.
Since its inception , the fortunes of many writers have changed.Apart from 2004 and 2009 when no winner emerged , in 2005, the duo of Dr Gabriel Okara and Dr Ezenwa Ohaeto won the prize,they were followed by Prof. Ahmed Yerima who won the prize in 2006 with his drama entry, Hard Ground, while Mabel Segun’s Reading Theatre and Akachi Adimora – Ezeigbo ‘s My Cousin Sammy emerged joint winners of the prestigious prize in 2007
The 2008 prize went to Kaine Agary for her novel, Yellow, Yellow and in 2010, it was a posthumous prize for playwright, Esiaba Irobi, as his work, Cemetery Road, was declared winner entry.
And tomorrow, the winner(s) of the 2011 prize which goes for children’s literature will be announced and the fellow will smile home with the new cash value of USD $100, 000 (One hundred thousand United States Dollars).
Ever since the award was instituted, a cross section of Nigerians, especially the corporate world, the academia and literati have commended the NLNG management for the introduction of this prestigious prize and sustaining it to conform with international standards.
With the prize, it is obvious that writers in Nigeria now have hope and are being given good recognition. But a lot needs to be done in order to actualise the goals for which the prize is instituted.
And in its bid to actualise that ,a lot of reforms have been carried out, like through the decision to accommodating Nigerian writers outside the country for the prize, increasing the prize money from $20,000 to $30,000 in 2006, then to $50,000 in 2008 and now, $100,000 in 2011, making it one of the richest literary prizes in the world.
But despite all these, the big question remains how the award has helped to change the poor reading culture in Nigeria.
Sadly, from sources available it the prize has not done much in changing the perspective of Nigerians towards reading as many Nigerians, including the President are still bent on bringing back the reading culture back to Nigerians.
And as rightly observed by close watchers of the award, there has been too much emphasis on the cash prize when the focus should be on promoting the revival of reading culture for the intellectual development of the Nigerian society.
The award has only succeeded in making the lucky winners richer, but has failed to make much impact on the reading public, because many of the prizes winning books have also failed to reach the majority of Nigerians, except the intelligentsia.
The organisers should borrow a leaf from other literary awards like, The Man Booker Prize, Orange Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Commonwealth Prize and other highly coveted literary awards that increase the public appreciation of the winners and their books, an issue that the Nigeria Prize for Literature has failed to do, making the winners bestsellers and becoming a bestselling author is the dream of every writer.