W ith barely three weeks left until the winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize is announced, let me get you up close and personal with the African writers who made the short list. Of the 21 novelist shortlisted, five are Africans— three Nigerians, a Congolese-South African, and one South Sudanese-Australian (representing Australia). Congrats to all five for representing the continent on such a prestigious literary platform. The Commonwealth Writers is an arm of the Commonwealth Foundation, an organization committed to inspiring writers to promote social change. The commonwealth Book Prize is awarded to the best first book by a novelist in a commonwealth country. The regional winner gets $2,500 while the overall winner goes home with $10,000. On May 31st at the Hay Festival, we will know who the lucky winner is.
Chibundu Onuzo is a Nigerian author living in the UK. Her novel, Spider King’s Daughter, is a dark romance fiction set in Lagos. It is a big-issue novel, tackling the rich-poor divide through the phenomenon of street hawking. But that doesn’t get in the way of the heartbreakingly lovely romance plot. Onuzo is a literary prodigy of sorts. She was signed on as a Faber and Faber author at the age 19 and published Spider King’s Daughter two years after. The UK Guardian recently named her one of Africa’s top women achievers.
Jamala Safari is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo and came to South Africa as a refugee. He speaks four languages, including English which he learned in three months. South African writer, Lauren Beukes, interviewed him to get material for her novel Zoo City. If you’ve read the novel, you’ll recall that the character, Benoit, is a war refugee from the Congo. Safari’s novel, The Great Laughter of the Gods, took him about three years to write and centers on the life of a boy who escapes capture as a child soldier. (source)
Ifeanyi Ajaebgo is the 2005 regional winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. His first novel, Sarah’s House, tells a story of slavery, prostitution, and the possibility of redemption. While he was doing research on the novel, he was shot at by
“an irate pimp.” Writing is certainly not for the fainthearted! Ajaegbo has a day job as a development consultant and is also involved in the rehabilitation and counseling victims of human trafficking.
E. E. Sule is actually a pseudonym of sorts. When he is not writing, Sule goes by the name Sule E. Egya. He teaches literature at the Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida University in northern Nigeria. Being both a novelist and an English professor places him in the company of African literary greats like Soyinka and Ngugi. His debut novel, Sterile Sky, is a family drama set in Kano of the 90s and explores the pressures that external forces of social unrest put on the private domestic domain.
Majok Tulba is being hailed as a new and significant voice in Australian fiction. He lived as a refugee in the South Sudanese and Ugandan border until 16 when he got an Australian visa. Beneath the Darkening Sky is essentially what Tulba’s life would have been if he had not escaped conscription by rebels at the age of nine. It tells the story of two boys, Akot and Obinna, forcefully conscripted by rebel forces. “While Akot almost willingly surrenders to the training, Obinna resists, determined not to be warped by the revolution’s slogans and violence.” Tulba is married with children and lives in Australia.