• Thursday, July 18, 2024
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‘The significance of the Nigerian Prize for Literature is bigger than the verdict of the jury’

‘The significance of the Nigerian Prize for Literature is bigger than the verdict of the jury’

Obari Gomba is an Associate Dean of Humanities at the University of Port Harcourt where he teaches Literature and Creative Writing.

The poet and playwright is on the Three Shortlist for the Nigerian Prize for Literature 2023 worth $100,000 for the winner.

In the last 10 years, he has been listed for the prize five times.

In this interview, he bares his mind to Obinna Emelike on his writings, his many past attempts at the prize, possibility of wining the prize this year, the sponsors and the literary sector.


How do you feel about making the Three Shortlist for the Nigerian Prize for Literature this year?

It is a good feeling and a good experience. When you write a book and you get into a competition, you are hopeful that it will go far. When that happens you are happy about it.

I am happy that the work has gone this far.

It is a defining moment for this work and I think that people who are reading the work generally feel that there is a measure of significance in it that counts for creativity.

Between the platform and the prize money, which matters most to you in this competition?

That is not an easy question. On August 6th I said something at the book party. The significance of the Nigerian prize for Literature is bigger than the verdict of the jury for two reasons.

First, this is the best support system that the literary space in Nigeria has and it is the most rewarding.

It is a wonderful thing that Nigerian LNG has sustained it over the years. I pray that we can look back 100 years from now and say that this prize has been kept alive.

The second thing is that every year you get a number of writers who are brought to public attention regardless of what their previous popularity or disability have been.

It is not just the writers, but their books too.

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There is a story this tells because if you look at the way things have been configured over the years, you will see that the writers that have emerged cut across generations. It is exciting to tell people that the creative spirit in Nigeria is not tied to a particular age bracket, you can look at every generation and tell that Nigerians are producing works of excellence.

So, for those two factors, I think that the platform is important. The money is also important, but it is not the only story.

If you have a shot at the money and did not get it, you should understand that the bigger narrative is that the literary space is being enriched by the prize administration.

What are your chances of winning at the grand finale in October?

I believe that I have proved myself as a writer over time. I was listed in the Nigerian Prize for Literature for the first time in 2013 and this is 2023, 10 years ago.

In the last 10 years I have been listed for this prize five times and that is significant.

Between 2013 and 2018, I was listed for the prize three times.

l don’t think there is a Nigerian writer who has been listed in this prize on the Longlist of 11 or Shortlist of Three like me.

I am also the only Nigerian writer who has been listed back to back twice in 2017 and 2018, 2022 and 2023.

I have proved myself with different books, different years and different jury. Each of these books I have entered into the competition has gone ahead to win prizes for other competitions.

My ability as a writer has been established. As I have always said to people, improvement is the largest room in the world. So, I have not come to a point in my life where I say that I don’t have to improve; there is always room for improvement.

My thinking is that if I am going to compete in this prize next year, in the next two or three years, I want to be able to put in a book that will be better than the one I have written now.

That is the standard I have set for myself and I have to constantly improve myself.

What is your book all about?

It is a play about a family and politics. Two brothers who have troubled experiences have retired from the Army and come back to their family.

One is a lawyer, the other a career soldier and both want to engage in partisan politics and they could not agree on how to move forward because of certain things that have happened in their family. Their mother had been killed by political thugs and it appears that the elder of the two wants to align with the political party the family believes was responsible for the death of their mother.

But the younger brother insists that the elder cannot align with that party rather he should go as an independent candidate. It comes to a point of crisis and the father made effort to mediate between them

and it did not work because all the while, there are powerful actors in the community who want the brothers to collide. They succeeded, but the brothers suffered for it and the community also.

You can read the play at multiple levels; family and societal conflict, but both are interwoven.

How does the title reflect the play?

There are two ways to define Grit; courage to confront the system and speak truth to power and then the capacity of the system itself that breaks

people who confront it.

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How does the prize impact writers?

I guess the impact will be different from writer to writer. Let’s take a writer like Tade Ipadiola who won in 2013. That was his first attempt and he will be in a better position to say how that has shaped his life. Romeo won it last year and that was his first attempt.

I think that significantly, the money is good; it can help you fix a few things. But much more than that, the prize also gives visibility.

So, there are two ways to look at the measure of impact the prize has made on the life of the writer. You can look at the economic perspective of what the money enables the writer to accomplish and you can also look at the visibility the prize itself brings to the writer.

Every writer who wins gets to take the money and do a few things with it and the book gets to be more known by Nigerians. I think that is very rewarding for the level of investment that the administrator has made in the prize. Every year you get a book that stands out and literature is sustained in public conversation by the virtue of that investment.

The other thing to look at is how does the prize impact the publisher because they are part of the book chain. We need to come to a point where we can have a total conversion where publishers of winning books will be on a panel to discuss how that book has impacted their trade visibility, how it has impacted their sales and more.

There are people in the chain that need to come in the narrative; the people that did the layout for the book, the cover designers and even the editors.

We need to get to a point where we can bring all these people together and ask the editor how did your business receive a boost after editing the book that won the Nigerian Prize for Literature. From competition, the prize is not designed to impact the writers alone. It is meant to impact the book chain, everyone in the industry from author, to editor, printer to bookseller and publishers. The booksellers should be able to tell their own stories of how the book performed in the wining year.

Why is that most of your entries that did not win the LNG prize, went ahead to win other literature prizes?

Most times I enter the books simultaneously. The call for Nigerian Prize happens almost at the same time with the call for the Association of Nigerian Authors prizes and their longlist and shortlist come out at almost the same time and prize announcement too, but the judges are different.

But you cannot take anything away from the significance of being on of the Nigerian Prize for Literature even if it just gives you a bragging right. It is a great platform.

Do you think many books churn out for the prize have impacted reading culture?

I get worried a bit when we discuss reading culture in Nigeria because our conversation is never statistical. The general opinion is that Nigerians don’t read and I don’t want to run with that opinion because I believe that there are more literate Nigerians today than they were in 1960. Then if people assume that they were more Nigerians reading in 1960 than we are reading now, I will hold that kind of thought with suspension unless there is statistics to support that. But we have not leveraged on our reading potential properly because in a country where you have many literate people, we should be able to sell many books.

The problem is not the readership but the chain itself. if you look at the capacity of the publishing houses in Nigeria, by global standard they are small preses even the best of our publishing press. This means that if you produce a book their capacity to market and promote is small. If you promote in a small way, there is a likelihood that your outcome will be small. A great deal of what happens to sales begins with how the publishers are able to pitch the book.

Many of the books that are published in Nigeria are funded by the authors, only a few persons get traditional contracts in Nigeria. What that means is that the authors are to fund the publications and be part of the distribution chain and all that, which distract them from the craft. So, if a business entity does not have the capacity to scale distribution to a 100 percent, you can imagine how difficult it will be for a single individual who is an author. The way around it is to keep challenging ourselves across all the units in the book chain.

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But who really are you?

My name is Obari Gomba. I am a poet and playwright. I teach Literature and Creative Writing at University of Port Harcourt and I am an Associate Dean of Humanities at the University of Port Harcourt. I am a visiting professor, I am an Honorary Fellow in Writing at University of Iowa. I have published a number of plays and poetry collections. I have a book of essy that is on the way and my essys have been published in many journals. I have not restricted myself to a particular genre and what accounts for that is maybe because I teach Creative Writing. I have to be able to demonstrate prowess in a number of genres since I to talk to students about them.

How do you feel about NLNG sustained support for Nigerian literature?

It is great and I want them to continue. I also pray that other individuals and organisations will learn from what NLNG is doing to make investments in literature.

Much of the pressure you have on the Nigerian Prize for Literature is because it is about the only one-of-its-kind that is available. Two years ago the Anambra State government started the Achebe Prize for Literature. The first runner up for the Nigerian Prize went on to win the Achebe Prize for Literature and that book was rewarded and the author felt a sense of gratification that he won something. We need more of such prizes and people should institute more of them.

Some guys in Akwa State are trying to start what they called the Akwa Ibom Prize for Literature, which will be open for writers from the state. It is a wonderful thing. Some other guys from the South-West have started a prize for literature designed for wirings in Yoruba.

All these efforts are inspired by what the NLNG has done. The success story, the significance of what the NLNG has done has inspired some individuals and organisations to start their own prizes. But we are not there yet because there are a lot of organisations that can do more. Why shouldn’t we have The Shell Prize, The Chevron Prize, The MTN Prize and it doesn’t have to be the same prize money. The Etisalat Prize has gone down and needs to come back, we need individuals to endow prizes. Let’s do it, let’s keep the literary space on fire and let’s encourage people to produce literature that has quality to compete and win. If you see the quality of books people submit for the Nigerian Prize for Literature, you will see a delibratenes in the design, gone are the days Nigerian authors will go to any printer to print, we don’t do that anymore, people are very particular about quality and what they want the book to do. Apart from the content, the shelve appeal is very important to the writers and you give that credit to the NLNG. People also understand that you have to meet certain threshold of quality to be able to compete for the Nigerian Prize for Literature. So, it has raised the bar for literary creativity in Nigeria and it will continue to do so.

What we need to do is to get the people who are wining the prizes to invest a little in the promotion of their books.