Romeo Oriogun has been awarded the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize. The judges chose him because of his “beautiful and passionate writing on masculinity and desire in the face of LGBT criminalisation and persecution.”
Founded by the renowned critic Bernadine Evaristo, the prize is a collaboration between Brunel University, London and Commonwealth Writers.
Here are eight reasons why Romeo’s win is truly remarkable.
1. He began writing only three years ago.
Three years is not quite a short time, especially for an artist, but to make the journey from Aspiring Writer to Major Award-winning Writer in such a period is astonishing and rare. And it is all the more so because, even before his win, Romeo had become, quite frankly, a notable poet of his generation: his poems were go-to spaces. Such a transformation is only possible when natural talent is merged with dedicated hardwork, and Romeo has shown he has those.
2. He is a New Generation writer.
Romeo belongs to the writing generation expected to step it up in the next few years, the ones that began blossoming in the early 2010s. But he does not merely belong to this group, he also represents an overlapping group whose members have been christened “Facebook Writers,” because they post their work mostly on Facebook, rather than professional outlets like magazines, and still receive engagement. While he began as a Facebook Writer, he has had his core work published traditionally: in Brittle Paper, African Writer, Expound, Praxis, and other outlets. His electronic chapbook, Burnt Men, was published by Praxis Magazine Online. It would appear that, for a Facebook Writer, the future has come earlier than expected.
3. He is neither Western- nor workshop-educated.
Most times that we are introduced to a truly remarkable literary voice from Africa, it is often the norm for that writer to be Western-educated or a product of years of attending writing workshops. While there is nothing wrong with this, it is important that aspiring or young writers on the continent see that, sometimes, their talent and hardwork alone can open big doors for them. In this sense, Romeo is fresh air.
4. His work is centered on LGBTIQ life.
This is of loud importance. Queer people in Nigeria, Romeo’s country, are persecuted legally and violently. Nigerian homophobia is ever-present, alive, breathing. His writing, therefore, is of utmost necessity.
5. He is brave, raw and confronts emotional truth.
Romeo does not shy away from speaking up; not just about things he believes but also about realities most would rather hide from. This, aside from the sheer beauty of his words, is the first thing you would notice in his poems. Whatever he writes about—love, passion, violence, sorrow—is felt instantly. His poetry is drenched in psychological acuity. Because he is outspoken, he has been the subject of homophobic hostility. On that, he says: “Sometimes this is the price I pay for writing but it is better than keeping quiet. I know queer people may not be free to love openly in my lifetime but it is a journey and we are laying the stones for the future.”
6. He is quotable.
Quotability is a gift, that ability to say things that resonate not only because they are true but mainly because they have been phrased in a memorable manner. Romeo oozes this: in his poems, in his interviews, even in his Facebook posts, he says things that stick in your mind. This is from his interview with us:
There are places that are safe zones for queer people, but these places shelter people that are privileged. I’m more concerned about queer people from the lower class, queer people living in slums and Face-Me-I-Face-You apartments.
The ability to say citable things is proof of substance. Romeo has that literary It-ness.
7. His win affirms the range of the Brunel Prize.
We know without being told, with merely looking around the continent to count the poetry prizes in existence, that the Brunel Prize is necessary. But here is another reason why the prize is even more relevant: its tendency to pick flawless shortlists and winners, and by so doing remain a true representation of the state of poetry in Africa. In this time when the credibility of literary prizes is scrutinized and doubted and debated and defended, the Brunel Prize has remained a light in its five years. Its winners have come from Somalia, from Ethiopia, from Sudan, from Uganda, from Nigeria; and these winners have elaborated the state of both humanity, generally, and their countries, specifically. They show how the Brunel Prize seems to be infallible in predicting future success: Warsan Shire went on to become London’s Young Poet Laureate and to collaborate with Beyonce; Safia Elhillo went on to win the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and judged this year’s award; Gbenga Adesina got published in The New York Times. Romeo’s talent and voice, his insistent call for a space for Africa’s LGBTIQ, shape him for a similar upward career move—something the Brunel Prize has once again spotted.
Romeo’s win is of huge significance for us at Brittle Paper. For the second time in consecutive years, a poet we published has gone on to win the biggest poetry prize on the continent. Before he won in 2016, we had published Gbenga Adesina in April 2014, a beautiful poem titled “Rediscovery.” And before Romeo’s win, we published six of his poems: “Metamorphosis” and “Satan Be Gone” in June 2016; “The Final Portrait of a Dead Artist” in February of this year; and “Departure,” “Kumbaya” and “Saddest Night Alive” just over a week ago, after an interview to mark his shortlisting. We are excited for them both—the way Gbenga’s career has taken off and Romeo’s promises so much. Their wins validate the work put in by literary outlets on the continent to maintain platforms for new voices. Given that Romeo’s poetry chapbook, Burnt Men, was also published by Praxis last year, his win is particularly a celebration of the dedication of African literary outlets and of growth among new writers championed by the outlets.