On the night of May 20th, acclaimed author and African literary figure Helon Habilah took the stage to announce Jowhor Ile as the 2017 Etisalat Prize for Literature winner. Before the big revelation, Mr. had Habilah described the consensus among the panel about the quality of the shortlisted books. For Jowhor Ile, whose debut, And After Many Days was to carry the shiny new seal of prize winner, Helon stated that the work fulfilled the cardinal rule of writing: show, don’t tell. He also touched on concepts surrounding literature and development in Africa over the course of his speech. While Habila commented on the increasing number of magazines publishing and supporting writing and editorial talent these days, he also dipped into the state of publishing in Africa and expressed hope for the future. Equally, he paid homage to the Etisalat Prize for its unique quality of providing all the sort of support a writer needs: Easing one’s financial burden significantly, providing a platform for promotion on a large scale and continued support for the scholarly development of the craft.
Writers are a special lot. The craft, as old and hallowed as it is, consistently provides one of the lowest returns on investment in today’s society. This is a fact many writers have buttressed while speaking of their craft. Today, a quick online search will find many articles debating whether writing can be taught and if formal education is necessary for the development of a writing career. Chinua Achebe famously stated that he did not teach writing because it could not be taught, but he taught literature for those who wanted to appreciate the craft in a scholarly manner. This could explain why despite the growing number of magazines and the renaissance of African creative culture, there still remains too few platforms that nurture talent and provide writers with a suitable means of livelihood.
Even the winner agreed on these issues. On his prize-winning And After Many Days, he expressed the idea that the book did not come from a need to be popular or win prizes. “I never expected what has happened.” This sentiment is a universal one among writers as success within the field rarely translates to long term career stability. The Etisalat Prize for Literature is therefore triply important because it fulfils its role, not only by operating as a Pan African platform but as seeing that writers like Ile and many others continue to be offered the opportunities to take their craft and writing careers to newer levels.
Before the winner was announced, the evening consisted of entertaining presentations across multicultural platforms. At the entrance of the venue, a small exhibition put together by the African Artists Foundation featured impressive contemporary African photography. Further in, musical darling Falana, entertained with her performances featuring covers of “Lady” by Fela Kuti and Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”, among other songs. Waiters drifted laden with appetizers and drinks.
The ceremony then kicked off. Starting with a performance by Joshua the piano wonder, covering Beethoven’s “Fur Elise”, followed by a speech from the CEO of Etisalat, Matthew Wilsher, who remarks emphasised Etsalat’s continued commitment to the development of the arts. Currently, the prize for literature is the continent’s highest ranked prize – an honour that sees the winner go on book tours and participate in festivals across the continent, in addition to the traditional prize money.
In addition to the literature prize, Etisalat also hosts a popular yearly flash fiction contest and photography competitions via social media platforms. The cross integration of art and technology is by no means new but Etisalat remains one of the few companies consistent in their interaction and promotion of the new norms.
The evening was scheduled with an array of performances. This year, a crop of new and veteran Nollywood talents, under the direction of Ifeoma Fafunwa, performed scenes from each of the shortlisted books. The cast denoted the themes of exploration, internal strife and family dynamics, which spanned all three books despite being set in radically different settings. Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, for instance, is set in small town America and touches on concepts of marriage identity and race relations in the USA. The Seed Thief spans deeply ecological and mythic themes featuring the most colourful theatre display as a character from the book is given a crash course on the gods of African mythology, with a particularly memorable appearance from Osun and Esu. The winning novel is set is suburban Nigeria, a deeply introspective fare that deals with loss and family relations in the midst of Nigeria’s political and social crises.
On his win, Jowhor could only express two syllables: “Happy”. Speaking further, he commented on his lack of expectations during the writing of the book. He didn’t expect the level of success that followed. Since the book’s release, under Random house in the United States and Farafina in Nigeria, it has received positive reception from The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, etc. Jowhor is currently a teaching fellow receiving his Masters of Fine Arts in Boston.
The other nominees also carried just as impressive accomplishments. Julie Iromuanya is a PhD Holder who teaches the creative writing MFA at the University of Arizona and had been nominated for the PEN Faulkner award for fiction and the PEN prize for her debut fiction. Jacqui L’ange is a writer and environmental advocate who was an editor for Oprah’s O magazine.