Ifeanyi Mbanefo is Manager, Communication and Public Relations at Nigeria LNG limited, and has been a key part, conception; design; and implementation of the Nigeria Prizes for Science and Literature over the past eight years
The Nigeria LNG Sponsored prizes are quite literally, ‘the gold standard’ in literature and science on the African continent today. It is without doubt the toughest competition to prepare for.
We have an active and constructive engagement with the literature community which we cherish and nurture.
Many years after, will you say The Nigeria Prize for Literature has been a success – and why?
Well, it is really not in our place to draw that kind of conclusion. We prefer to leave that judgment to the public and to the experts. The only thing that I can say is that when we started these prizes, science and literature looked a bit sickly and down. I think our prizes have cheered them up, and made them more vibrant. We have included science and literature in our national discourse. We got everybody’s attention for them. I don’t think this country has a more eminent gathering than the audience at literature and science prize award nights.
Has it fulfilled the purpose for which it was established?
These prizes are work in progress. There is really no water mark at which we can say our goals have been met and fold our tents. If you view them from those lenses, then prizes are marathons rather than 100 metres dash.
As for purpose, everyone knows that prizes are powerful forces for change. Nigeria LNG Limited wishes to use them to re-establish a creative environment in Nigeria, use their transformative powers to rekindle interest in education and learning, make writers and scientists the new role models.
The Nigeria Prize for Literature and The Nigeria Prize for Science are high profile competitions used to draw attention to the seriousness of some of our national problems and to provide incentive to innovators and creative minds willing to engage some of these problems. These are some of the objectives. However, some people view our goals and contributions much more expansively. It’s really the story of the elephant and the six blind men. You can describe the benefits of these prizes in so many different ways and still be correct. For instance, competing for these prizes improves the skills of entrants. This is why our advisory boards led by emeritus professors Ayo Banjo and Umaru Shehu made participation a primary objective; the competitive process is as important as the outcome. This explains why the boards have been expanding the eligibility rules, whilst still ensuring that the standards are maintained. These prizes used to be for only Nigerians resident in Nigeria. Now Nigerians everywhere around the globe are free to participate. Hopefully, it will one day be a prize for people of African descent.
This is the second run for children’s literature, how would you assess the entries and the level of excitement?
The Nigeria LNG Sponsored prizes are quite literally, ‘the gold standard’ in literature and science on the African continent today. It is without doubt the toughest competition to prepare for. I have been personally involved in these competitions from conception, design, and implementation over the past eight years and I have seen many people take one look at the call for entries advertisement, the list of previous ‘casualties’, the size and breadth of the field, and the huge prize money and be completely intimidated.
It is a prize for the best book in a particular genre in the past four years, which means you have up to four years to prepare. At the outset of this competition, we used to get inquiries from writers on what topics to write for. Thankfully, this has considerably died down; only writers who know their onions contemplate entering for these competitions.
Many writers withdraw their books or exchange them with new versions when they realise that their entries are not as strong as they initially thought.
So, in answer to your question, there have been remarkable improvements from the time we had so many poor entries to now that we have so many prize-worthy books. I am not a judge, but it is fascinating watching them debate the merits and demerits of books on the shortlist. Finally, the country has been waiting with bathed-breath; the writing community has been delirious with anticipation. It’s getting to me also.
In your experience, will the focus on children’s literature for instance lead to an improvement in activity for that sub sector?
Permit me to repeat what the judges said about our focus on children’s literature in 2007:
“Stories are, of course, central to the acculturation of young people. Their powerful effect on the impressionistic minds of young people makes them an especially powerful instrument for the shaping of character and the development of a sense of morality and fair play, as well as bridging the separate worlds of children and adults. We dare to add that indeed a competition on children’s literature is of far greater value for the strengthening of family values and for laying the future foundation for nation building than competitions for adult literature. But this utilitarian view of literature for the young is subordinate to its purely imaginative quality; for literature is of little value without this entertaining value, this product of the imagination. This competition is important and justifiable for this reason alone.”
This is precisely why we promote children’s literature. There are other gains, such as promoting literacy, strengthening the book value chain, and shining the light on the lives of the under-represented sections in our society. What is it like being a child in Lagos? What is it like being a child in the Niger Delta? What is it like being a child in Maiduguri under the shadow of Boko Haram? I grew up with so many friends I met travelling between book covers. Oliver Twist, Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Ikemefuna, Eze (Eze Goes to School), Akin the Drummer Boy, Wilson Tagbo (One Week One Trouble). My children are making their own friends. They are also learning how other children survive this difficult country. And finally, writing for children is the most exerting of all the genres. Anybody who can grab and keep a child’s attention for an entire story must be doing something right. He should be encouraged.
The prize money has been considerably increased, making it one of the world’s biggest at $100, 000 – what informed this decision?
This is not the first time the prize money has been raised. This is however the first time it has been doubled. There are many reasons for raising the prize money. The first and foremost reason is respect and recognition for what writers and scientists do. There is a sense of nobodiness afflicting the writers and scientists that we should all fight because they are the future of this country. So prizes that bring them to public attention are welcome; prizes that lift the veil of obscurity should be encouraged; prizes that give them a decent shot at progress should be supported. In the world today, there are about 5,000 big prizes covering all aspects of human endeavour – bigness defined here as a function of the prize money. Africa did not feature on that list until the increment of our prize money.
The largest award ever for a single book is the Premio Planeta de Novela which is which has an $850,000 pay-off. Nigeria Prize for Literature is 22nd biggest literary prize in the world after the likes of Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s book ($273,000) and Sheikh Zayed Book Award ($222,222). The Man Booker Prize is the 28th biggest literary prize on the list. Increasing the prize money was a huge milestone for Africa; for Nigeria. It is huge progress, even if it is merely symbolic.
Joining the big league gives us a sense of pride that cannot be quantified by money. There is also a real possibility that this prize will further grow and its eligibility widened to Africa and people of African descent. I will love to see the day that writers of African descent come to be certified in Nigeria; where Nigerian intellectuals have a major voice in determining the African literary canon, the same way that Booker prize does for Commonwealth countries and Nobel for the world. In a sense that will be like returning to the good old days of Achebe editing the African Writers Series. That project, in a way, defined African literature and made it available to the world.
It is important to say that we will be missing the point if we judge prizes on just cash values alone. It is obviously not money that motivates writers and scientists to do the kind of work they do. There are deeper motivations that money cannot account for; cannot pay for, cannot buy. It is sometimes a sense of obligation to the society, to humanity. At the conference room of Nigeria Academy of Letter in University of Ibadan, there is a quote on the wall, I can’t say the exact words now, but it is something to the effect that if you want to be remembered after your death, either do something worth writing about or write something worth reading. It says absolutely nothing about money. That gives you a sense of the motivation of these patriots. The popular saying that it is not everything that counts that can be counted applies here.
However, far from operating outside economic logic, in a realm of CSR, prize award entails an impulse to balance our books with a segment of the society – writers and scientists, in this case. And what comes out in a sense is shared symbolic profit.
Getting down to the basics, prizes, whether local or international, always turn out to involve more work, more workers, more expense than the public realises. Someone oversees it, someone sets eligibility rules, someone appoints judges, someone publicises the call for entries, someone accepts submissions, and does the actual judging. Someone runs the secretariat. The sheer burden of award prizes can be expensive and a problem, which is why prizes cost far more than their advertised cash values. But in meeting all these expenses, thoughts, must be spared for the writer or scientist on whose behalf these events are held. How much does he go home with? Let’s not build a cottage industry around him and leave him stranded. He is the star of this project.
Finally, there is the human element of the prize that must be acknowledged. Essentially, prizes appear to us in an idealised way which often blinds us to the immense suffering they inflict on competitors: the sweat, the preparations, the cost of submission, the waiting, the tension, and the attendant unhappiness that greets the announcement of the shortlist and the winners, especially for the writers that don’t win who are excluded from the celebration and the victory dances. This is especially sad when the runners-up have produced prize-worthy works. These human elements have costs as well. It is about the whole economy of prestige. Prestige is costly.
Companies get into sponsorships and endowments for a variety of reasons – what is the Nigeria LNG’s motivation in this case?
Apart from providing cooking gas – which is also a CSR project to crash prices and make gas available to Nigerians – we have absolutely nothing to sell in Nigeria. So in essence, we have nothing to sell that requires using The Nigeria Prize for Literature and The Nigeria Prize for Science as platforms to promote or to push into the market or to advertise. Our stated purpose for promoting these prizes is our motivation. Our motto says helping to build a better Nigeria. That is all we are after. We have no hidden agenda.
There has been some controversy around the literature prize – why is this the case?
Tell me a prestigious prize anywhere in the world that is not controversial. It goes with the territory. Historically, it is difficult to find anyone of stature in the world of arts and letters who speaks with unalloyed respect for prizes. Many writers and scientists are dismissive of prizes. It is a tendency that becomes stronger rather than weaker as the prize in question becomes more valuable and the field of its application more elevated or culturally legitimate. In its editorial in October 19, 1982 Times of London wrote: “The Booker is rubbish.” Newsweek once wrote that “everyone hates the Pulitzers, while Daily Telegraph in November 1995 wrote that “The Turner Prize is an odious and disgusting scandal.”
There has been considerable controversy over The Nobel, easily the world’s foremost prize. Till date The Nobel is still struggling with what many scholars describe as “scandalous blindness to great art; inability to mark a distinction between truly extraordinary and relatively undistinguished work”. The list of pre-eminent writers passed over includes Tolstoy, Hardy, Ibsen, Proust, Kafka and Joycee. You can add Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and so many others.
What steps does the Nigeria LNG continue to undertake to engage the literature community?
More than any other prize or company I know, the Nigeria LNG Limited engages the literary community actively. Contestants for the prize are drawn from the literature community (you can see the noise over the divisive residency clause that has been removed); the membership of the committee is drawn from that community, the judges, the winners and the runners-up. From time to time we call a stakeholders meeting to discuss the future of the prize. The yearly shortlist, I gather, feeds the University General Studies curriculum. We have an active and constructive engagement with the literature community which we cherish and nurture. We are in partnership with the Association of Nigerian Authors and other stakeholders.
What is the process of judging that led to these finalists?
The judging process is pretty simple. The advisory boards appoint judges. Every judge gets a copy of every book entered for the competition when entries close. They go away with the books and reconvene to agree on a first shortlist of 100 books. Everyone defends his list. This process is repeated until they decide to produce an official shortlist of say six, 10 or 12 books as the case may be. There is a rigorous debate to agree on the books that will make the shortlist. Then, finally, a shortlist of three. After this, the judges allow themselves time, sometimes a month or more, to reread the three books on the shortlist. It is from here a winner emerges. It is actually a simple, straightforward process. Allowing enough time to peruse a book will reveal its strength and its weaknesses. We are talking about the best book in Nigeria, the judges are allowed ample time to get it right.
How many entries did you receive for this year and how impressed were you by the quality?
We received 126 books. It is a mixed bag, some are of very good quality others are not so good. But the standard is very high. You also have to realise that writing for children is not a gift available to everyone. This is a special calling.
What are your thoughts about the shortlisted writers?
I wish them the best of luck. What we have are prize-worthy books. May the most deserving writer win! I read all of the books with my daughters. We thoroughly enjoyed them.
What about the Science prize – what was the response and quality of entries this year?
Science is lagging behind. Not much of science is going on here. But where you find some work, they are usually serious and worthy of consideration. This year we got 26 entries. The judges are still working. When they are done, the works are sent to independent assessors for second opinion. Science is after all universal. There is no Nigerian standard.
When will the winner be announced for the Literature prize and will there be an award ceremony?
The winners for The Nigeria Prize for Literature and The Nigeria Prize for Science will be announced on the 10th of October 2011 at a world press conference scheduled at Eko Hotel, Lagos.
What’s in the future for the Nigeria Prize for Literature?
In the immediate foreseeable future, this prize will continue to be run professionally. We shall also continue to work for it to be endowed. Y!