Toyin Falola Prize: Judge’s Commentary
For the inaugural edition of the Toyin Falola Prize administered by LUNARIS, we hereby unveil a shortlist of eight entries. These 8 finalists, selected out of a total of 784 eligible submissions from the length and breadth of Africa, have inched closer to picking up the $1,000 along with a fully-funded travel trip to attend the BIGSAS Festival of African and African-Diasporic Literature in Bayreuth, Germany. We congratulate them on this remarkable achievement.
This prize specifically solicited from Africans between the ages of 18 and 35, short stories that creatively imagine the history of a place, people, time, or event on the continent. As you must know, the person for whom this prize was named, Toyin Falola, is one of the world’s most distinguished historians. A proud African, he has about four decades of productive activity as a historian and a public intellectual behind him.
In creating this prize in his name and strictly targeting a youth demographic, we unabashedly state this project’s aim is to make a historian out of young Africans. We envisage Africans would learn more about the history of their continent and hone their craft in writing it for their generation. We also wanted to explore the diversity of narratives and experiences of living in Africa or being an African from the perspective of young Africans. This is a storytelling competition, but at the same time, it is also an activity that challenges young Africans to produce their histories and learn how to do so effectively. We wanted to know how young Africans can engage their history and narrate it to their peers in the language and lingo of their generation. Also, given that many African youths have not had enough publishing infrastructure and similar outlets to express their creative abilities, a prize like this one is a foundational step towards discovering writers with potentials and ready to take on their world with their craft. Therefore, one of the key considerations in selecting this shortlist is finding those candidates who can write a sliver of African history in creative and engaging ways.
As judges for all literary competitions say, we got so many good entries that it was hard to come up with a final shortlist. For this prize, we too faced a similar challenge of selecting the finalists. Being a judge in this competition meant that we were introduced to such a broad array of stories from every corner of the continent. These stories delightfully brought the diverse experience of being Africa in contemporary times quite close. However, the vastness of the entries presented several challenges as various writers interpreted the theme of the competition from broad perspectives. In judging these works, we were quite mindful that our decisions in judging these prizes would go a long way in setting the tone for the future of this competition, and likely how creative African writers will engage their history in the long term. How, therefore, can one best judge short stories that were written based on a narration of history without shortchanging either the content or the form?
For instance, we tussled with the question of comparing a historical event of the Rwandan genocide that featured several times in the entries’ list with a narration of a “less eventful” historical event, but superbly written? How much value should be placed on the history vis a vis the quality of writing? Again, we found that several writers tended towards didacticism in their account of their country’s histories. As much as we acknowledge that approximating the lessons learned from history also reflects the writers’ anxieties about how the future would be shaped, there are many occasions when the urge to moralize overwhelmed the delight of reading a literary account. This shortlist reflects the various balances we had to strike in selecting the top candidates.
Then there was the youth angle. In a prize directly targeted at a youth demographic between ages 15 and 35, which should take the preeminence in the assignment of points: the promises and potential of the writers especially the ones at the younger end of the spectrum who might be highly promising but have not have had the opportunity to hone their craft as well as those who have been on the art scene for longer? Or, should we focus on strictly the quality of the work itself? We weighed all these factors carefully in selecting the stories for this shortlist.
While some of these factors mentioned above presented some challenges to evaluating the stories, they did not take away from the delight of reading these stories. We thank everyone that submitted an entry for giving us the sheer pleasure of reading your work.
Today, the shortlist we present to you includes stories that chronicle the experiences of young people growing up in Africa as reflected in what they write and how they write.
Their names and the titles of their entries are A History of Celestial Body by Ani Somtochukwu from Nigeria; Eskia by Nyakallo Maleke from South Africa; Evacuation by Ebele Mogo from Nigeria; Facing Our Ochred Selves by Mlamli Tyulu / South Africa; The disappearance of Sergeant Donkey by Samuel Kolawole from Nigeria; The Last Shot of Ahmed Bey’ Cannon by Fayssal Bensalah from Algeria; The Windsor Academy by Julian Nii Kpakpo Anum/ Ghana; and finally, This is My Body by Faraaz Mahomed from South Africa.
Once again, we congratulate every single one of these shortlisted candidates.