Everyone knows that the best part of participating in a literary prize is winning. So big congrats to Sudanese-American poet Safia Elhillo, who recently won the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets.

The African Poetry Book Fund made the announcement, in collaboration with Prairie Schoonerearlier this month. Elhillo comes out the winner in a tight race with five other brilliant poetsNick Makoha (Uganda), D.M. Aderibigbe (Nigerian), Viola Allo (Cameroon), Shittu Fowora (Nigerian), and Nebeolisa Okwudili (Nigeria).

Her win comes as no surprise. What is remarkable and worth celebrating is the fact that she is getting all this recognition for her amazingly experimental work.

Winning seems to be effortless for Elhillo. Last year, she was one of two winners of the prestigious Brunel University African Poetry Prize. [read here if you missed it]

Winning these prizes shows that Elhillo is on the rise as a major voice in African poetry. But that is only half the story. Elhillo is part of a growing community of African writers producing experimental work and gaining recognition for it.

In “Quarantine With Abdelhalim Hafez,” one of the poems that won her the Brunel prize, Elhillo uses a mix of Arabic script and English, in addition to a playful typographic structure to create a powerful poetic meditation on language itself. Her poems put pressure on language in interesting ways and pushes the boundaries on African writing. Gabeba Baderoon, who served on the panel of judges, confirms this when she remarks that Elhillo’s poems “demonstrate a riveting sense of the power of language.”

Elhillo’s openness to experiment with language and form is important, especially, at a time when African writers are under pressure to conform to conventional expectations about what good African writing is. It is refreshing to see a young and gifted writer forging her way in a highly competitive global literary landscape. It is, however, infinitely more important that she is doing this on her own terms by producing boundary pushing work.

Thanks to her Sillerman win, she is 1000 dollars richer, and her poetry collection titled Asmarani is set for a 2017 publication. The collection will be “part of the New Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Tatu), from the African Poetry Book Fund with Akashic Books.”

Kudos to the organizers and backers of the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and congrats to Elhillo. She is certainly one to watch out for!

Get a taste of Elhillo’s work in a performance she gave at TedxNewYork



Image from artist’s tumblr page.

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I'm finishing up a phd at Duke University where I study African novels, which I believe are some of the loveliest things ever written. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.


  1. African Poetry Book Fund | Interview With Sillerman Prize Winner Safia Elhillo - 2016/02/25

    […] Elhillo was also recently profiled at Brittle Paper. […]

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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