Khadija Abdalla Bajaber. Image from Graywolf Press.

Last September, we brought news of the launch of the Graywolf Press Africa Prize, judged by A. Igoni Barrett. The inaugural Prize has now been awarded to Kenya’s Khadija Abdalla Bajaber, for her novel manuscript The House of Rust. The Prize is given for a first novel manuscript by an African resident in Africa. The House of Rust was chosen from almost 200 submissions, and Bajaber will now receive a $12,000 advance ahead of its publication in 2020. The novel will be published in Italy by  66th&2nd, as would subsequent winners of the Prize.

Here is a description of the manuscript:

The House of Rust is the story of a young Mombasa-born girl who goes to the sea to search for her fisherman father, accompanied by a scholar’s cat. Bajaber blends the folk stories of post-independence Mombasa with a coming of age tale, as her protagonist faces the monsters ahead and the demons of her past. Bajaber’s magical realist debut explores selfishness and independence, family loyalty and individuality.

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In his statement, A. Igoni Barrett said:

The House of Rust is an exhilarating journey into the imagination of an author for whom the fantastic is not only written about, it is performed on the page. Khadija Abdalla Bajaber has infused new life into the age-old story of adventure on the high seas—with this heroic first novel she has struck deep into that mythic realm explored by everyone from Homer to Hemingway.”

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“On the surface this is a limpid tale—a straightforward quest story—of a young Mombasa-born girl seeking her missing fisherman father, but it is eddied and enriched by what lurks beneath the surface of both the sea and the prose. Everything in this story sparkles: the fierceness of the narrative voice, the unimpeachable dramatic timing, the sumptuous imagery, the insightful characterization, the spirited wordplay, the honed wisdom of the dialogue, the bold imagination. Everywhere in this story is evidence of a mind that understands that we read not only to see other worlds or lives, but to feel them.”

Reacting to her win, Bajaber said:

“It’s an honour and a privilege to have had my work in the hands of such genuine lovers of literature and know that they felt a real emotional connection with what I wrote. Everyone at Graywolf has been so open and enthusiastic, and Mr. Barrett’s encouragement has meant the world to me.”

“Graywolf is a dream publisher, especially when it comes to introducing writing from the continent to different audiences. There is no doubt in my mind that there are many talented writers on the continent, discovered and undiscovered. I hope there are more opportunities ahead and just as importantly more access to them because so many writers could use these opportunities, if only they’d had the privilege of accessing them. I’m grateful that the world I built in the book resonated with someone, it further validates that there is a place for our stories and for our voices, in all their variations.”

A Kenyan of Hadrami descent born in Mombasa and living there, Khadija Abdalla Bajaber work focuses on the ill-documented history of the Hadrami diaspora. She has a degree in journalism. Her work has been published in Enkare Review and Brainstorm Kenya. Bajaber is assistant poetry editor for Panorama Travel Journal’s East African Issue.

Founded in 1974 and based in Minneapolis, USA, the award-winning Graywolf Press is “committed to the discovery and energetic publication of contemporary American and international literature.” Books by their African authors include A. Igoni Barrett’s Love Is Power, Or Something Like That (2013) and Blackass (2015), Anouar Benmalek’s The Lovers of Algeria (2004),  Nuruddin Farah’s Sweet and Sour Milk (2006), Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place (2012), and Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body (forthcoming 2018).

We have heard only good things about the The House of Rust manuscript and its prose and will be watching its progress.

Congratulations to Khadija Abdalla Bajaber.