It’s 2.00pm on Sunday, August 7, 2022. And time for a party. Not a booze party, not a birthday bash or a political party rendezvous. It’s time for the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG)-sponsored The Nigeria Prize for Literature festival. Tagged CORA-The Nigeria Prize for Literature Book Party, 2022; it surpassed all expectations in essence, substance and symbolism.
And what a fitting break from the deceit and tomfoolery of politics. The event was essentially to celebrate authors on a longlist of 11 for The Nigeria Prize for Literature for 2022. The winner would be announced in October. This year’s the 13th in the series. On each occasion, over 200 entries of crispy, intelligent works of literature are received. It’s usually a tough task for the Jury to sieve through the entries to arrive at the list of finalists. The month of October is chosen as the award month simply to commemorate the export of the first ever LNG cargo by NLNG on October 9, 1999, barely five months in the womb of the nation’s now historical 23 months of unbroken democracy.
This year’s edition, holding in an election year, is coming at the most auspicious moment: to douse the din from the political soapbox, and the unpleasant rhymes of statistics and data on the nation’s economy. It was all hairs down and Muson Centre ambience in Lagos provided the most fecund ecosystem for the literary intelligentsia. The festival of literature’s also a feast of knowledge, a watering hole of ideas; and an opportunity to meet the 11 wise ones in this year’s, as we were told, highly competitive edition.
Roll out the red carpet. Spray the confetti for the best 11 out of a crowd of 287 entries for this year: Augusta’s Poodle by Ogaga Ifowodo; Coming Undone As Stitches Tighten by Iquo Diana Abasi (the only female on the longlist); Dispossessed by James Eze; Ife Testament by Olusegun Adekoya; Memory and the Call of Waters by S. Su’eddie Agema; Nomad by Romeo Oriogun; The Lilt of The Rebel by Obari Gomba; The Love Canticles by Chijioke Amu Nnadi; Wanderer Cantos by Remi Raji; Yawns and Belches by Joe Ushie; Your Crib, My Qibla by Saddiq Dzukogi.
The longlist was presented to the Advisory Board in July by the Chairman, Panel of Judges for this year’s prize, Sule Emmanuel Egya, a professor of African Literature and Cultural Studies at Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida University, Lapai, Niger State. There were other judges including Toyin Adewale-Gabriel, the inimitable poet and fiction writer and Dike Chukwumerije, the spoken word whiz, performance poet and award-winning author. That’s the cast that had the huge challenge of combing through a maze of minted words to arrive at the last 11. No mean task. To the judges, the long list of eleven is the “best of contemporary Nigerian poetry, rich in experimentation with language, style and theme.” They are right.
A poet is someone who says so much in a few words. The heart of a poet is a fertile land of ideas; a busy workshop full of suspense and silence. Sometimes, the words unsaid are more than the words scripted; far more than the words penned in clustered spaces. This came to full fore at the Muson when the poets took turns to read from their works. With Kola Tubosun, poet and linguist, as moderator, you’d expect nothing less than a feast of literature. Each of the finalists, aside reading from their works, was asked to explain why they wrote the premier poem in their collections. And that’s the moment any lover of poetry would savour most: the notion of why they set out to write in the first instance, and much more on the subject matter that engirds their themes. It’s at this moment that the poet explodes into several balls of fire; more fiery than the few words originally penned in a constricted space. Listening to Chijioke Amu Nnadi – an unrelenting chronicler of love, nature and humanity – you get the impression that the poet has so much to say than the few literary droplets dancing across those pages. Amu Nnadi has so much to say and to write, so much bottled up inside of him that makes his 148-page collection of 100 poems (The Love Canticles) only just an abridgement of what his heart has to give. True, the poet bears so much inside than we can tell.
In Dispossessed, James Eze strips us of our acquired hearts of steel. He reminds us of our humanity when he dared the beastly assailants who ruptured the pious peace of Ozubulu community in Anambra on that fateful Sunday morning of August 6, 2017.
Some beasts cloned in hell invaded St. Philips Catholic Church, Ozubulu, in the Ekwusigo Local Government Area of Anambra State and shot at worshippers during the first mass, about 6.30am. At the end of the splatter of gunshots, no fewer than 11 worshippers were killed with many more wounded. Sacrilege. Abomination. Alu! Eze reminds us of that horror when the community was dispossessed of its peace, families dispossessed of their loved ones, and the sanctum sanctorum seemingly dispossessed of its iron-cast aura of protection. He reminds us that we’re all dispossessed in a country that has so much possession.
But whether it’s The Love Canticles, Yawns and Belches by Joe Ushie or Segun Adekoya’s Ife Testament, the 2022 longlist of 11 is a cast of brilliance, uncommon courage, unhinged literary licence and poetic flair. In October, only one winner will emerge for the star prize of $100,000. Such a winner is a winner among winners. For in substance and poesy, the 11 longlisters have engraved in our hearts a ticking reminder that in the midst of socio-political and economic discontent that assail our land, there are still oasis of hope and fountains of enlightenment that point us to a brighter tomorrow.
Step forth for your diadem: The NLNG. For its consistency in promoting literature and reading in Nigeria, a sector that many corporates would never dare because it’s not as popular as sports, reality TV shows, et al, the NLNG has redefined corporate social responsibility, taking it beyond corporate benefits to development of the whole concept of humanity and environmental care. Africa’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas has shown that sustainable business is not all about gas or the minding of columns of credits and debits. It’s about caring, giving and lifting others. NLNG has lifted the tenor of literature in Nigeria and the chimes echo across Africa.
When October comes, and a winner is announced, we shall not only drink to the star prize winner, we shall also toast to a corporate citizen who took a path uncharted; who rather walked alone to open new frontiers than pitch in the old tent of sports and entertainment where many dwell in.
NLNG chose to do a complex assignment in a very simple way. They say Nigerians don’t read. NLNG is changing that narrative. The fact that 287 entries were recorded in this year’s edition simply shows there’s a growing army of writers in the land. And where there’re writers, rest assured there are readers waiting across the line to devour the printed matter. Nigeria wins!