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How Nigeria’s Irenosen Okojie won £10,000 with ‘Grace Jones’

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How Nigeria’s Irenosen Okojie won £10,000 with ‘Grace Jones’

By Prisca Sam-Duru

It’s all clear that while politicians seem determined to bury what is left of Nigeria’s image with massive corruption, the country’s Creatives are relentlessly earning for her, an enviable place in the world stage.

Since Monday, 27 July 2020, both traditional and social media have been awash with news of the feat recorded by our own Irenosen Okojie after she was announced the winner of the 2020 Ako Caine Prize for African Writing.

Last year, it was Nigerian writer, Lesley Nneka Arimah who won the 2019 Caine Prize for African Writing award which has been adjudged Africa’s leading literary award, for her short story, ‘Skinned’. Skinned was published in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern (Issue 53).

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Helon Habila (2001), Segun Afolabi (2005), EC Osondu (2009), Rotimi Babatunde (2012) and Tope Folarin (2013), are among Nigerians who have won previous editions of the Prize.

To emerge victorious in the competition, the Nigerian-British author, Irenosen Okojie with her story titled, ‘Grace Jones’ from “Nudibranch”, published by Hachette (2019), floored four other writers shortlisted earlier for the prize.

They include: Erica Sugo Anyadike (Tanzania) who’s entry was ‘How to Marry An African President’ published in adda: Commonwealth Stories (2019);  Chikodili Emelumadu (Nigeria & UK) for ‘What to do when your child brings home a Mami Wata’, published in The Shadow Booth: Vol.2 (2018); Jowhor Ile (Nigeria) for ‘Fisherman’s Stew’, published in The Sewanee Review (2019) and Rémy Ngamije (Rwanda & Namibia) for ‘The Neighbourhood Watch’, published in The Johannesburg Review of Books (2019).

‘Grace Jones’, described by the Judges for the prize as “a radical story that plays with logic, time and place”, which is at the same time, “risky, dazzling, imaginative and bold”, narrates the story of “Sidra, a youthful Martinican woman in London, who is wracked with guilt after her whole family dies in a fire that destroys their flat.

In later life, she finds a sense of release working as a celebrity impersonator. Sidra is “hiding under” this mask of Jamaican singer, model, and actress Grace Jones but under the character, she is committing dreadful acts. This leads to a deliberate blurring between the protagonist and her assumed identity.”

‘Grace Jones’ was published in 2019 in Okojie’s book Nudibranch and is her second short story collection and her third book, following her debut novel Butterfly Fish.

While Okojie received £10,000 reward, each writer on 2020 shortlist got £500.

Irenosen Okojie was born in Nigeria and moved to England at the age of eight. She studied Communications and Visual Culture at London Metropolitan University. Along the way, she worked as a freelance writer, Marketing Assistant, and Editorial Assistant. She is a freelance Arts Project Manager and Coordinator.

Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Observer, The Guardian, the BBC, and The Huffington Post amongst other publications. Her short stories have also been published internationally.

She was presented at the London Short Story Festival by Ben Okri as a dynamic writing talent to watch as well as in the Evening Standard Magazine as one of London’s exciting new authors.

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Her debut novel, Butterfly Fish, published by Jacaranda Books won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Edinburgh First Book Award. Her short story collection, Speak Gigantular was shortlisted for the Edgehill Short Story Prize, the Jhalak Prize, the Saboteur Awards, and nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. It was selected by film director Carol Morley as an Observer Summer Read.

Irenosen has been a judge for The Society of Authors, The London Short Story Prize, The Royal Society Of Literature, the Berlin Writing Prize, Henley Literary Festival, and Mslexia Short Story Competition, amongst others.

The AKO Caine Prize for African Writing, awarded annually for African creative writing, is named after the late Sir Michael Caine, former Chairman of Booker plc and Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee for nearly 25 years. Its main sponsor is the AKO Foundation, whose primary focus is the making of grants to projects which promote the arts and improve education.

The Prize is awarded for a short story of 3,000 to 10,000 words by an African writer published in English.


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