A Case For Prizes: Reviewing the contributions of select literary prizes in positioning African writers (pt 1). By Michael Emmanuel

Reacting to their win, Nigeria’s Innocent Ilo said, “This means so much to me. I feel grateful, honoured, proud and humbled at the same time. This is one of those moments that make me look back at all the late nights and piles of rejection emails and say, ‘Maybe, just maybe, this writing thing is worth it’.”

They had just emerged the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner for African region for their story, “When A Woman Renounces Motherhood.” Prior to this announcement, the 23-year-old writer had been a finalist for the Gerald Kraak Award and Short Story Day Africa prize. They had also won the Africa YMCA and the Oxford Festival of the Arts short story contests. Yet, their response to the Commonwealth win was one of elation, of thrill, of immense delight.

Why do writers submit to contests? Does winning a literary prize validate your writerly skills? Should you trust your submissions or not? Particularly, how do literary initiatives from organizations like the Commonwealth Foundation mold a writer’s experience?

Jennifer Makumbi knows how to tell a story properly. Her short fictional work, Let’s Tell This Story Properly, was declared the overall winning entry for the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, making Makumbi the only overall winner from Africa till date. Following the win, Jennifer remarked, “this is a dream. For Uganda, once described as a literary desert, it shows how the country’s literary landscape is changing and I am proud to be a part of it.”

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize, founded in 2012 following the discontinuing of two other prizes sponsored by the Commonwealth Foundation, has awarded ten overall winners and thirty-five regional winners in nine years.

Jennifer Makumbi had been writing long before her Commonwealth win. As the twenty-first century budded, she left for Britain “to study writing properly”, fully persuaded a publishing contract was just beyond the horizon. The horizon would take many years to come around. In that time, Makumbi completed her program, received multiple rejections for her first novel, wrote lots of short stories, and began work on a second manuscript. She gained familiarity with Commonword, a Manchester-based writing development organization, who commissioned her to write a short story. The piece, “The Accidental Seaman,” was her first published story. This was in 2012. A year later, she was awarded the inaugural Kwani? Manuscript Project for her manuscript, The Kintu Saga. The following year, in 2014, Commonwealth happened.

If Kwani? introduced her to the African literary scene, winning Commonwealth compelled the global literary circle to pay attention. In an interview with Africa Book Club, Jennifer observed, “It was the Kwani Manuscript Project, which first brought attention to my writing especially on the African continent. Recently, The Commonwealth Prize has brought the wider world attention.”

The short story prize seeks to “inspire and connect writers and storytellers across the world, bringing personal stories to a global audience.” Having run the Commonwealth Best Book and Best First Book prizes for twenty-five (25) and twenty-three (23) years respectively, with previous African winners including Aminatta Forta, J. M. Coetzee, Helon Habila, and Chimamanda Adichie amongst others, the Commonwealth Foundation has proven – within its utmost abilities – to be a launching pad for writers across Africa.

Following the discontinuation of the book prizes, there might have been slight concerns over the organization’s next plans. Would the short story prize prove as pivotal as the book prizes had been? For over two decades, the book prizes had revealed emerging and established voices across the commonwealth globe, paving ways for winners to build remarkable literary careers. Consider Chimamanda Adichie, whose Best First Book prize win for her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, could not have been more timely. Thus, it was only fair to wonder if the introduction of the short story prize, in 2012, would alter the trajectory of selected winners over the course of years.

Enter Jekwu Anyaegbuna. After a judging process that was undoubtedly intense, Jekwu was declared the inaugural winner for African Region. While Jekwu’s works had appeared in Eclectica and Black Heart Magazine, it would be a leap to, as at the time of his win, suggest his story would make for a delightful win. And though he would not emerge the overall winner of the inaugural edition, his name had been written in the annals of the prize.

Since this (shocking) win, Jekwu has received a fellowship at the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation for Creative Writing in Bulgaria. His works have appeared in Granta, Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, amongst others. A while back, the African literary scene welcomed a disruption with the publication of Jekwu’s controversial story, Little Entertainment Centers. One could debate the appropriateness of Jekwu’s work; however, we must concede that his writing journey would have travelled a different path in the absence of his Commonwealth Win.

No single literary prize can claim to have “made” a writer. However, by inspecting history – which pays reference to the fading past as much as to the recent past – we learn that the right combination of wins, of nominations, of shortlists or longlists, carries a potency that posits a writer within the right audiences at the right times.

Such was Akwaeke’s experience in the wake of their 2017 regional win. Almost unlike Jennifer Makumbi who two years prior to her win didn’t nurse much confidence concerning submitting her work, Akwaeke Emezi was familiar with submissions and wins. Prior to 2017, they had been a recipient of the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship for their manuscript, The Death of Vivek Oji, a book that examines liminal identities around religion, reincarnation, and gender identity/expression. Surprisingly, the novel was only published in August 2020, five years after the Miles Morland win.

Who Is Like God?, their Commonwealth winning story, further highlighted the liminal spaces concerning gender identities. Sequel to the win, they were nominated for a 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction, the first non-binary transgender author to be nominated for the prize. Their debut novel, Freshwater, received a 2019 Nommo Award, an award that recognizes work of speculative fiction by Africans, and a 2019 Otherwise Award.

The lingering question, thus: Why Commonwealth? Are the experiences of Jennifer or Akwaeke sufficient to deduce that the Commonwealth Short Story Prize is an influential award? Perhaps we are asking the wrong question.

Consider this statement by Diana McCaulay, 2012 Regional Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Jamaica: “Though we share many elements of a complex history, we are divided by geography, and Commonwealth Writers provides diverse spaces for the exchange of ideas. I have found Commonwealth Writers invaluable for my writing life.”

Why do writers send in entries for literary prizes? Are you a writer only when your story is declared the winner of a prize such as the Commonwealth Short Story Prize? Possibly not.

Commonwealth Writers, like other bodies invested in literary writing, is interested in documentation of ideas, in audacious storytelling, in providing platforms for writers. As Jennifer concedes, winning a reputable competition like Commonwealth can be a game-changer. Imagine the platform. The nitro-boosted confidence. The dozens of literature-affiliated sites documenting, reviewing, appraising your outstanding win. Imagine the requests for interviews, the flavoured writers’ bio, the buzz, the network that expands right before you…

In nine years of awarding literary stories about us, the CSSP has duly recognised and afforded its winners just the precise dosage of momentum needed to advance a career in writing. Few hours ago, the organisation opened submissions for the 2021 edition (details here). Coincidentally, Jennifer Makumbi’s third published work, A Girl Is a Body of Water (The First Woman) was released. Perfect timing, you may say, considering that only six years ago, Jennifer Makumbi was still relishing her global win.

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