Cape Verdean author Joaquim Arena has won the 2023 Oceanos Prize in the fiction category from the longlist of 41.

Founded in 2003, the Oceanos Prize was earlier called the Portugal Telecom Prize. It is the main annual trophy for literature in the Portuguese language. It is worth $30,000 USD per category (fiction and poetry).

Arena’s win is extremely exciting for the African literary industry. There were only 3 African authors in the longlist of 41 authors, so congrats to Arena for being able to make it to the top.

Arena won with his novel Siríaco e Mr. Charles, published in Portugal by Quetzal. Mixing historical reality and invention, the book recounts the unlikely friendship between the young Charles Darwin and the old black man and former slave Syriac, which takes place on the island of Santiago, in Cape Verde.

Syriac, who suffered from vitiligo, actually existed and was educated in the so-called “exotic court” of Queen D. Maria I, alongside a retinue of twelve dwarfs and African dwarfs. Charles Darwin, in his youth, spent 16 days on the island of Santiago, where he began his first investigations for the book The Origin of Species.

In Arena’s novel, the black Syriac accompanies the Portuguese Royal Family on their escape to Brazil, in November 1807. During a stopover in the then town of Praia (today the country’s capital), he falls in love and decides to abandon everything and stay in Cape Verde. In 1832, he became an interpreter and assistant to the young Darwin, on his explorations around the island. Between them, a relationship of trust and friendship grows.

The winner of this year’s Oceanos Prize in the poetry category was the Brazilian poet Prisca Agustoni, originally from Switzerland, with her book O Gosto Amargo dos Metais.

Congrats to Arena!