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Somtochukwu wins the 2021 James Currey Prize for African Literature

THE winner of the inaugural James Currey Prize for African Literature is Ani Kayode Somtochukwu, Nigerian. he was unveiled during a a virtual event on Tuesday.

His manuscript, And Then He Sang a Lullaby was declared the best of the entries received and so won the £1,000 prize, according to the Chair of the Jury, Sarah Inyal Lawal, who described the manuscript ‘as breathtaking.’

She also praised the other four shortlisted authors. 

The James Currey Prize was instituted in 2020 by Nigerian filmmaker, writer and publisher, Onyeka Nwelue, who is currently an Academic Visitor at African Studies Centre, University of Oxford. 

In his opening speech during the event, Nwelue, himself a seria award winning author and filmmaker, said:

James Currey: A Flashback, Now and Hereafter 

WELCOME, one and all, to the 2021, Inaugural James Currey Prize for African Literature.

Our reason for coming together today is threefold. Firstly, today is a special occasion. A festive occasion. And on behalf of everyone, we wish our esteemed guest, James Currey, a resounding Happy Birthday! 

Our second reason for being together today, is for the awarding of this year’s prestigious James Currey Prize for African Literature. We are honoured, to have received a plethora of entries this year. The strength of the longlist, is testament to the importance of this prize, for our furtherance and future development of African literature. From the incredible body of literature that we received, our revered judges, have chosen five exceptional works of literary art. All five shortlisted authors, deserve every success to follow. And today, one will be bestowed with a remarkable award: The James Currey Prize for African Literature.

Our third reason for being here, speaks to history. It’s no cinch to take up the gauntlet, to speak of a personage whose reach means the entire topography of African literary dissemination, a promoter extraordinaire, with undoubtable supra-distinction in hoisting the variegated flag of the African literary Renaissance. 

James Currey was once described by Emmanuel Ngara, as the ‘Godfather of African Literature,’ and later, the epithet was taken up by many others. But I choose to call him a proleptic groundbreaker,because James Currey is a man whose prescient doggedness, augmented the catalysis of kaleidoscopic voices, which reconstructed the cognitive, pedagogic and cultural paradigm, of a then beleaguered African continent, only just emerging from a colonial world. 

According to Achebe, at the University of Guelph in 1989, two landmark events injected transformative value into the evolution of African literature in 1962: the Makerere Conference for the post-colonial,Africa literary pantheon, and the momentous debut of the African Writers Series. Currey brought to African literature an exposure that accentuated the heterogeneity of African literature, and the emergent contours of its generative character, from The New African in Cape Town to African Literature Today, and more. No doubt, Mbari watered the ground, and Heinemann flowed in with strength behind. But it was James Currey who unbolted the floodgates and then with pure determination, kept it open, even when, as Michael Crowder couched it, there was an African Book Famine. 

Despite the Apartheid regime in South Africa, the economic bust that followed the Nigerian Oil Boom, the closure of the Nigerian foreign exchange, the slump of the Black Gold in Kenya in the 80s, and all the turmoil of the age, of an Africa freeing itself from shackles, Currey crusaded on… for more literature of, and for, the African continent—an act that in itself was a sheer negation of what almost everyone else did.

By the last quarter of the twentieth century, the African Writers Series and African Literature Today, among other such initiatives — thanks to Currey — had secured African literature its rightful place in the halls of the Academe, among pococurante and rapt readers, in both Africa and the rest of the world, and as an ineradicable cultural paradigm. I believe, therefore, that it is only proper to add to his many descriptions, this: the Man who supplanted the African Book Famine, with the African Book Spring. 

The continual catalysis of contemporary African literature is a moral injunction that all Africans, Africanists, and indeed the world, should heed, in perpetuity. Africa’s fount of variegated literature is still underutilized, especially contemporary African literature. There are emerging African voices, exceptional ones—within and beyond the continent—keening to be heard and to narrate our untold African stories.

There is, therefore, an undeniable injunction to be extracted from the progenitorial institution of the Publishing of African literature, to which we owe profound gratitude, to James Currey, and for which we must now take over the mantle, to ensure that this moment . . . and its momentum, do not flounder. 

The pivot for the James Currey Prize for African Literature, that we instituted in 2020, for the first unpublished full-length work of fiction, intends to perpetuate the value of the African Writers Series and other such initiatives in contemporary African literature exposure, and distribution. The task at hand is one that we hope to realize through our UK and US based, Abibiman Publishing: there are wider audiences to serve, more African voices, and voices concerned with Africa, to hear, more unpublished materials to hereafter spread, especially for, and within, the African continent.

We come together today, and in all the years to follow, under the auspices of the James Currey Prize, to especially honour Mr. James Currey. Thank you, sir, for what you have done. We bow.

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