The NLNG Prize for literature: Honoring phantom books, laziness, and mediocrity

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

The final shortlist for the 2013 NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature is out.  Sincere Congratulations to the lucky three:  Tade Ipadeola (The Sahara Testaments), Amu Nnadi (through the window of a sandcastle), and Promise Ogochukwu (Wild Letters). This year, the prize is for poetry and the purse remains a whopping $100,000 (US dollars, a Nigerian prize offered in US dollars, that is another story in itself).

Last month, eleven poets graced a thoughtful longlist: Afam Akeh, Amatoritsero Ede, G’ebinyo Egbewo, Iquo Eke, Obari Gamba, Tade Ipadeola, Okinba Launko (Femi Osofisan), Amu Nnadi,  Obi Nwakanma, Promise Ogochukwu and Remi Raji. I thought it was a great list with pretty much everyone a strong contender.  

But this is what struck me after the longlist was announced. I have great respect for the longlisted writers. However, of the eleven books, just TWO were available for sale online or anywhere – Afam Akeh’s Letter Home & Biafran Nights and Amatoritsero’s Globetrotter & Hitler’s Children. Shortly after Iquo Eke’s Symphony of Becoming joined the group online, followed by Tade Ipadeola’s The Sahara Testaments. I would like to own each of these eleven books.

Several of my friends are on the ground in Nigeria looking for the books in bookstores. My friends are either lying to me (possible, but highly unlikely) or these books are simply not available for sale. They are definitely available for prize sponsors. I own and have read Akeh’s Letter Home & Biafran Nights, Ede’s Globetrotter & Hitler’s Children and Ipadeola’s The Sahara Testaments. They are beautiful books deserving of the recognition that they have gotten from the NLNG folks. However, I cannot tell how many copies of these books have been sold at home, worldwide or even on Mars; it is not the fault of the NLNG folks, but it is the truth. We need a conversation about the (lack of a) distribution network of books in Nigeria.

Of the three shortlisted books, only Ipadeola’s The Sahara Testaments is available for sale or review anywhere I can think of. My friends are hunting for the other two books. I am sure the books exist, how else would the judges have judged them worthy of consideration for $100,000? As things currently stand, this is not a literary prize; this is a lottery, a jackpot for one lucky writer. Let me just say this: It is quite simply appalling, no, disgraceful, that the NLNG Prize is in danger of being given to a book that no one else but the judges has seen.

It is a mockery of literature and a huge farce that the NLNG will spend $850,000 annually to honor what amounts to laziness on the part of book publishers and writers. In the 21st century, it is not hard to sell a book on the Internet. There is absolutely no excuse for this farce. It is not too much to ask that between now and October 9th, 2013 when the winner will be announced, that Nnadi’s through the window of a sandcastle, and Ogochukwu’s Wild Letters be made available to the general public online and elsewhere. It would be nice if the publishers would go online to announce where these books may be bought by regular readers like me. We would like to buy the books; we would like to see with our own eyes, what the judges saw in the books. This is what obtains elsewhere with real prizes. When the shortlist is announced, there is usually a run on the books. And trust me, no prize sponsor worth its name would dare put on a shortlist a book that only the writer, his/her publisher and friends have seen or read. They definitely would not be getting $100,000. Nonsense. 

It bears repeating: It is hard to justify giving $100,000 to an author for a book that only 20 or fewer people have read. Again, the NLNG prize costs $850,000 to administer yearly. We really need to have a conversation about how best to use that money to honor our writers – and to support our literature. The publishing industry could use some of that money. What is wrong with us?

The press release announcing the shortlist says this of previous prize winners:

“The Nigeria Prize for Literature has since 2004 rewarded eminent writers such as Gabriel Okara for his volume of poetry The Dreamer, His Vision (co-winner 2004 – poetry); Professor Ezenwa Ohaeto, for his volume of poetry Chants of a Minstrel (co-winner 2004 poetry); Ahmed Yerima (2005 – drama) for his book Hard Ground;  Mabel Segun (co-winner 2007 – children’s literature) for her collection of short plays Reader’s Theatre; Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo (co-winner 2007 – children’s literature) with her book, My Cousin Sammy; Kaine Agary (2008 – prose) for her novel Yellow Yellow; Esiaba Irobi (2010 – drama) who clinched the prize posthumously with his book Cemetery Road; Adeleke Adeyemi (2011 – children’s literature) with his book The Missing Clock and Chika Unigwe (2012 – prose), with her novel, On Black Sisters’ Street.”

And dear reader, just in case you think, I am picking on this year’s prize, try this game; please go to any bookstore online and try to find any of these books that won previously. If you are in Nigeria, go to as many bookstores as your energy can muster and look for the books. Come back and tell me how many you found. I know the answer but I am trying hard to make a point, that we have to find a way to use the NLNG funds wisely. The NLNG folks are wasting money that could be better utilized to help our ailing publishing industry for instance. Do not get me wrong, I have said this ad nauseam, many of these writers deserve to be honored and rewarded for a lifetime of work in the service of our literature, but that is not what the NLNG Prize is currently doing. It is honoring books that are remarkable mostly by their absence from the market. That is absurd. There has to be a structural way to ensure that our  writers are not hurriedly stapling things together just to meet the deadline of a jackpot er literary prize.

And I have another suggestion for the NLNG folks. I know Nigeria honors patriarchy and gerontocracy but the NLNG prize does not have to replicate such foolishness. There is nothing wrong with having one or two elderly professors on the judge’s panel but for heavens’ sake please include some young people who actually read contemporary literature, I am saying include someone really young and knowledgeable, who does not actually use bifocals to read stuff. I doubt that there is anyone on that judges’ list that knows what a blog is. Don’t get me wrong, I have grown fond of the NLNG Prize but I think that there has to be a concerted effort by readers, writers, and publishers to ensure that the money allocated to this laudable activity yearly is well spent. Right now, I believe it is shaping up to be an annual farce.

What do I really think of the shortlist? Well, Ipadeola’s book sings. The Sahara Testaments is quite simply drop-dead gorgeous poetry. I am sure that Nnadi’s and Ogochukwu’s are similarly drop-dead gorgeous, offering awesome writing and deeply profound vision. It is just that we have not seen them.*cycles away slowly*