In less than a fortnight, the eventual winner of the 2016 edition of NLNG’s $100,000 Nigeria Prize For Literature, out of the three names on the final shortlist, will be announced at a World Press Conference. The three names are: Elnathan John (author of Born On A Tuesday); Chika Unigwe, (author of Night Dancer), and, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (author of Season of Crimson Blossoms). A total of 173 authors of prose fiction entered for the competition this year, having at the head of its judging panel Prof. Dan Izevbaye, the renowned professor of Literature and literary critic. The other judges include Asabe Usman Kabir, professor of Oral and African Literatures at Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto and Isidore Diala, professor of African Literature in the Department of English, Imo State University, Owerri.
Celebrating literary excellence for the twelfth year running, the Nigeria Prize for Literature has since 2004 rewarded eminent writers such as Gabriel Okara for his volume, The Dreamer, His Vision (co-winner of the 2005 prize, awarded in the genre of poetry); Ezenwa Ohaeto, for Chants of a Minstrel (co-winner in 2005 for poetry); Ahmed Yerima (2006, drama) for Hard Ground; Mabel Segun (co-winner in 2007, awarded for children’s literature) for her collection of short plays Reader’s Theatre; and Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo (co-winner in 2007, children’s literature) with My Cousin Sammy. Also, Kaine Agary (in 2008, for prose) for her novel, Yellow Yellow; Esiaba Irobi (2010, for drama) who won the prize posthumously with Cemetery Road; Adeleke Adeyemi (2011, children’s literature) with The Missing Clock and Chika Unigwe (2012, prose), with her novel, On Black Sisters’ Street, Tade Ipadeola (2013, for poetry) with his collection of poems, The Sahara Testaments and Sam Ukala (2014, drama) with his play, Iredi War.
The Nigeria Prize for Literature rotates yearly amongst four literary genres – prose fiction, poetry, drama and children’s literature. The 2016 Prize is for prose fiction and comes with a cash prize of $100, 000. Next year’s prize will be for poetry.
Prologue to the PREMIUM TIMES Conversation With the 3 Shortlisted Novelists
Sometime in August of this year, I wandered into a bookstore in Enugu and bought for myself a number of novels and poetry volumes. Amidst the pile of purchased books were three novels by Nigerian writers whose works I had read in the past and really enjoyed: Night Dancer by Chika Unigwe, Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John and Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim. The said books, initially part of the first shortlist of eleven novels released for the 2016 edition of NLNG’s Nigeria Prize for Literature, were later announced to be on the final shortlist of three novels being considered for the $100, 000 literary prize.
I was not fortunate enough to come across the other eight books in the interval between the announcements of the respective shortlists. It is my belief that those other novels are fine works as well. That said, after reading the three books in my possession, which made the final shortlist, I must confess that I have no regrets whatsoever for buying them. Reading them was a rewarding experience for me, and I must say kudos to the people behind the above literary prize for singling them out for special recognition this year.
Night Dancer was the first of the three books that I read. I had read Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street sometimes in 2012 – a story about four women eking out a living of sorts in the cold womb of Europe. It did not surprise me when the latter novel won the Nigeria Prize for Literature that year. The first impression one gets upon moving past the opening pages of Night Dancer is that the book is the creation of a literary master. Unigwe, a crafts-person par excellence and peerless storyteller hardly, if ever, wastes her words. Bernadine Evaristo, in her review of the book in The Guardian (UK) on August 3, 2012, declares that the writer “continues her project of tackling big issues through superb portrayals of complex female characters”. Although the scene of the encounter between Mma, the lead character, and Madam Gold, the bosom friend of Mma’s deceased mother, in the early part of the work, did not really engage me, the story got me hooked once the narrative took off in earnest after those first pages. I found myself turning the leaves of the book with eager fingers, licking my lips with eyes roving hungrily over the lines.
This story of a young woman dealing with the death of a mother whom she had loved and loathed in equal measure, as well as with the subsequent events and revelations, which alter her views of her mother and many other things, was as delicious as a bowl of egusi soup. I was through with the novel in a matter of a few hours.
I loved how the book is divided into three parts, like the three acts of a powerful play, each part preceded by an apt local proverb which goes to the heart of the narrative following it. I also enjoyed Chika Unigwe’s deft use of point-of-view, her crystalline language, and also her usage of flashbacks and free indirect speech. Her portrayal of the lead character’s complicated feelings towards, and also the relationship with, her mother, Ezi, is nicely done. It is also a bonus that the female characters in the book are not depicted in stereotypical light but are rather given nuance and handled with intelligent compassion which humanises them, however despicable some of their actions tend to appear.
The male characters, on the other hand, are a different affair – sadly so. Ezi is the character that I loved more than any other in the book. She is like a hero out of an ancient Greek play. Her “harmatia” – if one may term her love for freedom and independence thus – is as clear as the sign of Cain on her forehead, her strength of character and the middle finger which she holds perpetually up against a world determined to clip her wings, leaving me breathless in admiration and pity as I followed her tragic progress through the pages. Most of all, I enjoyed the Enugu portrayed in Unigwe’s book. It is the Enugu of the 80s and 90s, as I experienced it. It is the Enugu of that bygone era, replete with its sights, smells, sounds and prejudices. It is Enugu, I must also say, as it once was before democracy, the Fourth Republic and the new millennium altered it in so many ways. I did not feel the Kaduna painted in the book half as much.
Done with the first novel, I moved over to Born On a Tuesday. Elnathan John is a vibrant personality (I got to meet him online) blessed with a pen that can cut through iron and even adamantium. I was expecting to come across a lot of biting, obvious satire in the book, something I had come to associate with John’s style. However, the restraint and the subtlety I encountered – almost Achebe-like – left me shaking my head in amazed respect. Elnathan John is a wonderful writer. He takes control of the voice of his lead character, Ahmad Dantala, from the first section of the book. We see, hear and think things mainly through the filters of that first-person narrator, a young al-majirai in Northern Nigeria. Elnathan offers us the North, as only those who have lived in and come to love it, somewhat know it.
His bildungsroman took me on a journey through physical, mental, romantic, social and religious spaces. Reading it was like riding in the back of a lorry up North with a clear-eyed storyteller. The few bumps and jerks experienced along the way, making the narrator’s voice wobble sometimes, appeared forgivable; even beside the point. I bathed in the beauty of the book’s unadorned prose.
Dantala getting to learn English is beautifully unfolded. His steps are tentative at first but get firmer as he moves along. It is also in the same way that he gets to learn of life. By the time I moved from the madrassa dropout and street kid/party thug in “Bayan Layi” to the diffident follower of the Sheikh (and the potential Jihadist recruit of Mallam Abdul-nur) in “Sokoto”, and then got to the end of the book where a life-bitten Dantala, fresh from the gulag, wanders the militarised streets of the North, I felt as if I had watched a teenage boy grow into a real man right before my very eyes.
Bad things happen to the lead character in the course of the novel, including the death of his mother and a case of love gone sour, but the wonder of it is that they do not break his resolve nor destroy his hope in a better future. I do not know if this book is “the Northern Nigerian novel we have been waiting for” as put by Molara Wood in one of the blurbs at the back of the book, but anyone who wishes to have his horizons on life expanded, as well as those seeking to understand better certain things about the contemporary North (its culture, places, people, politics, religion, the birth of extremism, et cetera), should pick up this book and read it. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read.
The third novel on the shortlist is a worthy companion to the other two. Season of Crimson Blossoms is one of those books one could end up buying solely on the strength of its beautiful covers. This is the second offering in book-form from Abubakar Adam Ibrahim that I have had the pleasure of coming across. The Whispering Trees, a collection of short stories by the same author, was an unforgettable experience when I bought and devoured it in 2012. I detected a pleasing evolution in the writer’s art in Crimson Blossoms. It is as if Abubakar Adam Ibrahim has matured greatly since writing those earlier stories, has dug deeper into his artistic well, and come up with something truly “career-defining” – as Toni Kan enthuses in a blurb on the book’s back-cover. The prose, from the very first line, wrapped round me like a welcome blanket on a cold, rainy night. It suffused my being with warmth.
The Marquez-like conceit of the smell of cockroaches preceding some important events in the book, as well as the italicising of speech made by the characters in the English language and the entire kidnap section in the second-half of the novel, do not impress me much. However, the beautiful language – like crimson petals falling off the page – filled my mind with scent as I moved from line to line. The novelist’s handling of a middle-aged woman discovering love after years of widowhood is masterly. Reza, the unlikely beau of this prim and proper Hausa Muslim matriarch (Hajiyya Binta), has a roguish charm one comes to love as one learns more about him. The dusky affair between the two lovers is believable, and I found myself, despite the discouraging portents, hoping for a “happily ever after” for the foredoomed couple.
But it was the minor characters of the book that blew me away. Fa’iza with her friends, the twins Kareema and Abida, dreaming of love with movie stars, reading romantic novels and trying on the tools of female seduction – like so many millions of their ilk all over the world. Fa’iza with her issue of PTSD as well. Gattuso, the ever-faithful right-hand man of the top dog, Reza, having the latter’s back at all times, even as Reza is unworthy of such loyalty. The Senator, a perfect incarnation of the “banality of evil”, so different from the “godfather” characters one runs into in Nollywood films. Hureira, the somewhat Lawrentian daughter of Hajiyya Binta, a damsel fated for a lifetime of love-discontent. Munkaila of Maitama twirling car-keys in his fingers and with his nose upturned during his visits home. The enlightened Ustaz Nura and his ways. Mallam Haruna and his powerful radio. San Siro with its charms and lively air, reeking of songs, cannabis and sex. Northern Nigeria by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim comes across as potpourri, universe, human kaleidoscope. By the time I got to the end of the book, as in the other two cases, I wanted more like the clichéd Oliver Twist.
No one, after reading the above three books, would query their appearance on the shortlist of a literary prose prize anywhere in the world. I must say that they remind me, quality-wise, of the final shortlist for the 2013 Nigeria Prize for Literature. I am not in any way saying that the books are perfect – I could fill pages with some of the faults I detected in the trio. But other readers elsewhere have done justice to these things.
Let me say, by way of concluding, that if Nigerian writers and publishers keep producing works like the above three in the future, and prize-giving organisations like the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) keep singling out such books for special honour, all would be well with the Nigerian literary scene. Congrats to Unigwe, John and Ibrahim. Congrats to the pulishers, Parresia and Cassava Republic. Congrats to the peerless editors of those books. May the best book win this year.
A compilation by Contributing Editor on Arts & Culture, Chiedu Ezeanah, the next installments will focus on what the three authors have to say about their lives and art.