The Saraba Manuscript Prize—Judges’ Report

The stylistic variety of the ten works longlisted for the Saraba Manuscript Prize, as well as their diversity in matters of theme and setting, is refreshing. Noteworthy in their different ways, the works collectively communicate the impressive creative energies powering the practice of rising voices in new Nigerian fiction. The longlist confirms the abundance of literary potential yet untapped by publishing in Nigeria. We hope that all the manuscripts, including the ones that did not make the shortlist, will find a home in the hearts of readers in Nigeria and around the world.

In choosing the shortlist, my fellow judges—Azafi Omoluabi-Ogosi and Eghosa Imasuen—and I did not crave perfection, even though we would have been glad if we had encountered it; rather, we were on the lookout for talent and undeniable potential. The qualities we privileged during the judging process include the following: the ability to create convincing and stimulating fictional worlds; distinctiveness and potency of linguistic expression; freshness of vision and the avoidance of clichéd tropes in the conception and treatment of lived experience; and the adroit use of storytelling to provoke reflection on aspects of the human condition.

All the longlisted works were read blind by the judges. This precluded the possibility of distraction by the identities of the writers and focused the judges’ attention solely on the texts. After extensive deliberations, we found these five works (in alphabetical order) most worthy of inclusion in the shortlist:

  1. 1994 — Hajara Hussaini Ashara
  2. Beyond the Beautiful Sea — Amarachi Priscilla Ekekwe
  3. IJBG and Other Stories — Ebelechukwu Ijeoma Mogo
  4. Mosaic: Stitches of Stories Lived, Stories Learned and Stories Told — Eboka Chukwudi Peter
  5. We Won’t Fade into Darkness — TJ Benson

The stories in Hajara Hussaini Ashara’s 1994 range from striking metacritical explorations of the writing life to narratives that incarnate, in the concrete world, the multiple selves inhabiting the turmoil of bipolar consciousness. The stories boldly highlight the power relations inherent in the patriarchal contexts that hold her characters hostage. Beyond the Beautiful Sea by Amarachi Priscilla Ekekwe chronicles a family’s travails from just before the Nigerian Civil War to the aftermath of the conflict. By eschewing sentimentality, the novel’s always clear, sometimes luminous prose throws the actions and experiences of the characters into stark relief.

Ebelechukwu Ijeoma Mogo’s disguises art with art so cleverly in IJBG and Other Stories that it seems one could bump into one of her psychologically complex characters while walking down a familiar street. Her intimate portrayals of people at significant crossroads in their lives, which appear to continue running on even after the last words of her stories have been read, sparkle with nuance. In Mosaic: Stitches of Stories Lived, Stories Learned and Stories Told, Eboka Chukwudi Peter’s intricate investigations paradoxically illuminate the impenetrable black holes that warp the fabric of human existence. His cultivated daring and brutal honesty confirm the arrival of a notable new voice in fiction.

Rounding off the shortlist, the vivid, awe-inducing futurescapes in TJ Benson’s We Won’t Fade into Darkness startle you with spine-tingling visions of a post-apocalyptic, technology-reconfigured Africa. The sterling qualities of TJ Benson’s writing will earn his stories comparison with stellar works imbued with similar virtues—the oneiric, fable-like texture of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics and the chilling dystopianism of George Orwell’s 1984, for instance. Essentially though, TJ Benson’s resolute centring of Nigeria in his projections of the future, his clipped precision of utterance and his idiosyncratic imagination make his fictional universe patently his.

Deciding on the winner of the Saraba Manuscript Prize was a challenging task but ultimately, our choice was unanimous.

The Saraba Manuscript Prize goes to Eboka Chukwudi Peter for his visceral excavations of the subterranean anguish of contemporary life using sinuous, prehensile prose that opens up new aesthetic possibilities in Nigerian fiction.

—Rotimi Babatunde