By Anote Ajeluorou
How do you feel being on the shortlist?
One is grateful, of course, and gratified. The quality of works on the long list of 11for The Nigeria Prize for Literature sponsored by NLNG is a clear indicator that the shortlist will be even tougher grade to make.
In what ways do you think your poetry reflects, addresses current concerns?
The world is a more unsettled place today than it was a few decades back with stress showing up everywhere from the planet itself to the flora and fauna and ultimately in human life and systems. I believe that a big factor in this is the abandonment of any sense of stewardship by humans for the upkeep of the earth. I started writing The Sahara Testaments shortly before Boko Haram become hydra-headed and before the Arab Spring. The problems in Mali were still a rumour at the time.
Today we know that global warming, climate change, desertification, forced migrations and social displacement are real threats that we cannot afford to ignore. I sometimes feel I stopped too soon with The Sahara Testaments but again one cannot make a map that is as big as the territory. I tried to address as much of the issues as I could. I think it is for critics and scholars now to determine how much success or failure the entire effort has been.
What are your hopes and fears as the countdown begins to October 9, when the winner will be announced?
Naturally, there are expectations in situations like this and managing expectations becomes a daily reality. Having written and submitted works, the matter is really out of the hands of the writer and now firmly in the hands of the judges. One is hopeful, of course, having come this far.
In what better ways perhaps can literary prize systems on the national and continental levels be made stronger to serve the interests of writers better?
There needs to be more literary prizes on the continent and especially for literature done in indigenous languages. Others can learn from developments in the administration of The Nigeria Prize for Literature, for example. I like the fact that new prizes for literature are coming along but Oliver Twisting isn't out of place. The others currently holding back who need to weigh in are public and school libraries. I am in constant touch with my publisher and what we found is that Nigerians buy literature as individuals but Nigerian libraries don't. It is a sad reality. As the prizes bring the books to the fore, libraries should be putting them in accession.
Absence of infrastructure still constitutes a problem on the local and African levels, with books not moving across borders easily. What can prize-organisers do either singularly or collectively in this regard?
Those who endow prizes can only do so much. It costs a tidy sum to administer even a small literary prize satisfactorily. Publishers, bookstores and book clubs have the greater responsibility of using technology more efficiently and delivering content across platforms that contemporary readers use. Books cross borders easier today than they have ever done. Payment is easier today than it has ever been. Readers have a much wider offering in terms of platforms and there is evidence that they are using it. What is shocking is the near absence of newspaper reviews for books these days in Nigerian newspapers. Why is it we never sustain our efforts at newspaper literary supplements?
What might you do with your money when you win it?
It isn't a good idea, is it, to count chicken before they are hatched? But it will be really nice to have that library for poetry from all over the world. It will be nice to have it named after the poet Kofi Awoonor who was killed so cruelly by terrorists in Kenya while engaged in a literary festival. It cannot be too soon to honour great Africans like that. No gesture would be too small or too great toward telling the stories of Africans who gave their all.
If you go to our public libraries today you will leave heartbroken every time. A country with the kind of literary outpouring that we have had in Nigeria needs good libraries.