Nigerian authors are bringing new narratives to the prestigious women’s literary prize

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Wole Soyinka called it: Nigeria’s women authors are at the center of something of a literary phenomenon.

Three writers of Nigerian descent are named on the longlist of the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction. Oyinkan Braithwaite, Akwaeke Emezi and Diana Evans were announced on March 4 as part of the sixteen authors long-listed for the prestigious prize. The three books in particular, represent a diversity of experiences and show that the literary industry is finally open to more nuance from women authors of colour.

In Ordinary People Evans uses celebrity events from Michael Jackson’s overdose to a Jill Scott concert to wallow in the malaise of suburban middle class life of London couples in London, an ordinariness often overlooked. The novel was named as one The New Yorker’s Best Books of 2018. 

Freshwater, named as one of Quartz Africa’s best African books of 2018, is Emezi’s debut novel of the multiple voices of a Igbo god living within a young woman. Emezi has also used Igbo cosmology to locate their experience of a trans African. Their inclusion in the list means it is the first time a non-binary trans author has been included in the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Competition judges, perhaps expecting some controversy, published an editorial on the same day as the list announcement. 

“Emezi’s novel takes the conversation about female-only spaces and non-binary identities out of an often inward-looking, white, western enclave, to give it new meaning,” wrote judge Arifa Akbar, adding that Emezi was happy to be included on the list.  

Also a debut, My Sister, The Serial Killer is the dark and funny relationship between a murderous yet glamorous Lagosian fashion designer and her responsible older sister, always ready with bleach and rubber gloves. Braithwaite didn’t want to write the great Nigerian novel, rejecting the idea that there is a single Nigerian story, instead she wanted to have fun with her own imagination.

Launched in 1996 as a response to the dearth of women included in majors prizes, the women’s prize (formerly the Orange Prize for Fiction) has since become a career boost, from the publicity of being listed to the £30,000 ($40,000) prize. In 2005 Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin was the winner, followed by Zadie Smith for On Beauty in 2006 and Half Of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in 2007. The prize has linked authors, as when Smith interviewed Adichie in a packed auditorium in New York City’s Schomburg Center.

The winner’s circle doesn’t always lead to camaraderie though. Shriver rubbished 2018 winner Kamila Shamsie’s suggestion that in order to address the gender imbalance in literature, that publishing houses only focus on women for a year. Shamsie’s provocative suggestion was challenging the literary industry to go beyond essays, panels and surveys.

“It is not as meaningful to me to have won the Orange prize as, say, it would have been to win the Booker. Most people who win that prize surely say the same thing: you have eliminated half the human race from applying,” Shriver said on stage. “But there is this problem of suggesting that we need help, that men have to leave the room and then we’re prizeworthy.”

Soyinka, in his discussion with academic Henry Louis Gates Jr. for the New York Review of Books, attributed “the sparkle in women’s creativity, the cultural entrepreneurship,” to concerted effort in investing in women after the Biafran War.

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