The West still find us exotic. Many of the developed countries still find it odd that an African can write proficiently and with lots of intellectual acumen deserving of their awards. And we have done it so many times. I guess it does not matter how many times we get a Nobel or Caine or Commonwealth or Etisalat or any other “prestigious” award, we will always be seen as exotic, thick-lipped Africans who are so rare we need some western award to be reminded that we are also great writers, artists and creators. Having said all this, there are still good reasons for not only winning, but also entering these awards.
Before that, I think it is important to give a special mention to the Etisalat Prize. It is the only prestigious – if money makes it such – award out of African soil. Etisalat is awarded the best African writing of fiction – especially long form such as novels. We need more companies to do this. I think we have too many companies supporting all sorts of brainless entertainment; especially music and sport – all for TV rights. So I want to put it on record that as a publisher, I am very impressed by the Etisalat award. At long last, African writers can be recognised and even well rewarded in their own continent. I take my hat off! At last an award that will recognise our literature for its literary quality. For the first time, we will be awarded for being literate. The western awards place emphasis on our literature as an outsider – African literature! We are the odd one out!
So why are these awards a good exercise for African literature?
Entering these awards is an experience – for the publisher and for the author. The publisher gets the due recognition and you often compete against the best writing from all over the world. It is always wonderful to know that you are judged alongside some of the best writers of your generation. I guess it is even a more fulfilling experience to win such an award – emerging victorious among your peers. The experience goes beyond that – especially for a publisher is that you can certainly prove that your house is publishing worthy literature. This works wonders for indie publishers … the world starts knowing your name and you actually prove that even smaller, independent and often not-so-rich publishing establishments do compete on the equal stage.
Being a shortlisted author (or publisher) can mean that the title and the author have an appeal to people with the most discerning literary taste and knowledge. We are led to believe that these awards are adjudicated by the learned and educated people – so the quality of what they are reading is quite up there. So if you are shortlisted, it is a big deal! A publisher and an author can use the success of their book at the awards as a testament for the high quality of the work published. You get the glory and the vanity of calling yourself “an award-winning publisher” or even better still “an international award winner”! It is this kind of quality competitions that can ensures that our literature becomes comparable to any literature from elsewhere in the world. It is this kind of equal competition that ensures that we compete – as literature – not as demoted versions of the western world where we are relegated to “best African” literature just like best “foreign film”… The reason I am so excited by the Etisalat is that this equality of literatures will happen at a continental and global level because the author and publisher can come from any part of the world!
Exposure and money
Some of these awards carry cash reward. In this case, this is a good thing for the author. We know the economics of books – it is absolutely horrible in our country. So if a book wins an award and it gets financial reward, I can rest easy as a publisher. This should not be the only reason why people enter awards, but it is a damn good one! Many of these awards are backed by powerful and influential business people, other writers and academics, so getting on their good books and getting a fat check from the is not a sin at all … The Cain Prize is anything in the region of R60 000 for the award-winner and R6000 for shortlisted titles and a trip to the UK. The Commonwealth Prize is almost the same and the Etisalat Prize is over R200 000 (15 000 UK Pounds) for the award winner and an author residency in a university in Europe. For many African writers, this is not little cash …
There are many more reasons – vanity of calling yourself an award-winning publisher or author, the travel perks that come, the international marketing, recognition and so on.