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 Schooner, earlier this month. Elhillo comes out the winner in a tight race with five other brilliant poets—Nick 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 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.