The 2020 Ako Caine Prize award dinner was initially scheduled for June 23rd. But, due to the current pandemic conditions, the organizers have had to think creatively about how to celebrate the shortlisted writers without violating “government measures to slow down the spread of” the virus.

Earlier in the month, it was  announced that British-Nigerian filmmaker Joseph Adesunloye had been commissioned to do a “special film” featuring the five shortlisted writers–Erica Sugo Anyadike, Chikodili Emelumadu, Jowhor Ile, Rémy Ngamije, and Irenosen Okojie. The film will be released on July 27th, the same day on which the winner will be revealed.

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We were intrigued by this collaboration between an African literary powerhouse and a filmmaker recognized for his outstanding work. So we caught up with Adesunloye via email to learn more about him, his work, and this documentary film project that will shine a light on contemporary African literature.

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Chukwuebuka Ibeh

You were born in Nigeria and only moved to the UK at the age of 12. Do those formative years in Nigeria influence your work in any way?

Joseph Adesunloye

Those formative years in Nigeria instilled in me an awareness that I am a product of multiple spaces, which shape how I see the world. What I mean is that even in Nigeria I was the son of a Yoruba man and an Uhrobo woman from the Niger-Delta. These are very culturally diverse peoples. So, I never belonged to just one place, and moving to the UK added another dimension to that. I am keenly aware of identity and belonging or not belonging, and those things invariably influence my work.

Chukwuebuka Ibeh

Tell us a bit about your background in filmmaking. Was it something that came to you at a later stage in your life, or was it something you always knew you would do?

Joseph Adesunloye

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There was a brief moment in childhood when I wanted to be an actor. But after that, being a director is something that I have felt was my calling since I was young. The difference was that at first, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to direct for theatre or for film. By my late teenage years, I had settled on film as my chosen path because I had an incredibly strong pull to visual story telling with the moving image. My background in filmmaking has been a fairly Indie one so far. I studied English Literature and Film Studies at the University of Aberdeen. And when I completed my Masters, I came back home to London and went on to complete a filmmaking diploma at the London Film Academy. Since then I moved from short films into features. My next challenge is to expand my practice into directing for Television.

Chukwuebuka Ibeh

In a statement, you noted that the Ako Caine Prize documentary film will “celebrate and document the importance of African literature in the global space.” In the course of making the film, what would you say strikes you the most about the rise of African literature as a global cultural trend?

Joseph Adesunloye

I think what strikes me the most about the rise of African Literature in its current global form is: why has it taken so long? I think there has always been this incredible confidence in African literature, but the opportunities for the widest reach of African literature was more limited historically because the global outlets were fewer. I believe the new rise of African literature as a global trend goes hand in hand with the continent increasingly engaging the world on its own terms. We have far greater access to technology, especially internet and mobile technology on the continent. And this has meant that we Africans are increasingly not relying on the old gate keepers who shaped the kind of stories about Africa that saw the light of day.

Chukwuebuka Ibeh

The Ako Caine Prize film is a celebration of the 2020 shortlist, a brilliant collection of stories exploring various storytelling styles and aspects of African life. What have you found to be compelling about these stories?

Joseph Adesunloye

For me, what is most compelling about the 2020 shortlisted stories is just how diverse they are in form, style and subject matter. I must also make special note of just how wonderfully engaging these stories are. The writers all have strong voices and showcase a deftness for their material that foretells incredible prowess to come. I am very encouraged by this year’s selection. The future of African Literature is bright, strong and in incredibly capable hands.

Chukwuebuka Ibeh

You’re clearly a fan of African literature. Has African literature contributed in any way to your growth as a storyteller in film?

Joseph Adesunloye

Yes, I am a big fan of African literature, and African literature continues to have a huge impact on the stories I want to tell and how I want to tell them. I still have fond memories of the classic African literary stories I read as a child. They transported me vividly to villages, cities, and towns across the continent. I always wanted to visit some of these magical places I read about. And that continues till this day. African stories continue to be very important to me as a filmmaker. I have several books that I’d like to turn into films if I can find the right people to option them with.

Chukwuebuka Ibeh

The pandemic has turned our world upside down. What’s it been like producing a film in pandemic conditions?

Joseph Adesunloye

The most important thing for me so far is that there’s no template for how to do anything under our new circumstances with the pandemic, so we’re all having to learn our crafts anew to some degree. There have been logistical challenges like guiding writers who are brilliant with the pen to suddenly become their own camera people while I am Zooming in from London and my Cinematographer from Spain and Italy. It has been an incredible exercise in patience for everyone involved, but the writers have been fantastic.

Chukwuebuka Ibeh

Your body of work brilliantly represents black lives and bodies on screen. While the Ako Caine Prize documentary is different from your other projects, it is an exploration of black cultural experience. Do you see your work any differently since George Floyd’s brutal killing and the worldwide protest against racial injustice?

Joseph Adesunloye

I think the global response to the brutal killing of George Floyd has reawakened and doubled my determination that Black stories must be told in the widest forms possible. And in my own work, it really just makes me want to redouble my efforts. But it hasn’t changed how I view my work or the kind of work that I am making or want to make. I have been committing aspects of Black lives to screen in ways that don’t always conform to the usual kind of material that gets commissioned.

Chukwuebuka Ibeh

The Ako Caine Prize is 20 years old this year. What are your thoughts on the relevance of an award like the Caine Prize, which seeks to honor solely African writing?

Joseph Adesunloye

I think what the AKO Caine Prize is doing in championing and celebrating African literature continues to be vital work. We have seen as crystallized at this moment that the publishing industry just like my own industry is deeply lacking when it comes to representation of Black lives and Black stories. Within that, even more absent is the African voice. I think that awards like these that seek to honor and champion the diverse voices from across the fifty-five countries on the continent and African diaspora are essential. Now more than ever space needs to be given to all peoples and not just a select privileged few. And one of the ways we get there is allowing platforms for African stories to gain global prominence. When we are all on an equal footing, then perhaps we won’t need specific prizes. But we are very far from that at the moment.

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All photos courtesy of Joseph Adesunloye.

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About the Interviewer:

CHUKWUEBUKA IBEH, Staff Writer at Brittle Paper, presently studies History and International Relations at the Federal University, Otuoke, Nigeria. His work has appeared in McSweeneys, The Charles River Journal, Clarion Review, and elsewhere. He attended the 2018 Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop, facilitated by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. His short stories have been shortlisted for the 2017 Awele Creative Trust Award and the 2019 Gerald Kraak Prize.

In 2019, he was named by Electric Literature as one of the “Most Promising New Voices of Nigerian Fiction,” in a feature introduced by Adichie. He was formerly Fiction Editor at Dwartonline and regularly contributes to New England Review of Books. He lives in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.