Some Books do Have Them: On the 2016 Etisalat Prize ceremony and the first few pages of Tram 83
By Oris Aigbokhaevbolo
At the 2016 Etisalat Prize for Literature ceremony, we all pretended to be interested in the outcome. By “we,” I mean Nigerians. To do this, we had to act indifferent to the South African imitation served us by actor Keppy Ekpeyong and company. What we were thinking but no one was saying was this: when exactly will a Nigerian win the Etisalat Prize?
The situation has yielded all kinds of conspiracies, chief of them, as I was told on my way to the ceremony, is this: isn’t it a South African prize? My comrade was speaking about the judges. He quickly added a disclaimer. “Although this year has a spread.” It did: Zukiswa Wanner, South African; Molara Wood, Nigerian; and Ato Quayson, Ghanaian.
Those keen on this Southern theory point most ardently to the judges of 2014, two of whom (Zakes Mda and Pumla Gqola) are South Africans. The winner, NoViolet Bulawayo, is from Zimbabwe, the closest a country can be to South Africa without being South Africa. The sole book from a Nigerian on the year’s shortlist was by the Nigerian Yetunde Omotoso who has lived in South Africa and sets her book Bom Boy in the same country.
The second edition of the prize, however, fails the Southern test as it had a wider spread of nationalities as judges. Congolese Alain Mabanckou, Sudanese Jamal Mahjoub, Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga, and Nigerian Sarah Manyika. But then conspiracy theories are hardly fuelled by facts. This one is powered by a certain grouse between both countries. And another points to the theorists: when the shortlist was announced, it was two South Africans vs one Nigerian.
Suffice to say one of those South Africans took the prize. The 2-SA pattern repeated itself this year. So that after the event on social media, someone out of Lagos who was yet to learn of the Congolese Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s victory asked, “Is it not the South African award?”
The Nigerian literati, apparently, are wary of a prize holding in our country that we can’t win. Three years now. Two nominations for the first two years and then nothing but a brief appearance on the longlist this year.
As has happened in each of the past two editions, the CEO Matthew Willsher gave a speech. His unscripted speech was a departure from the two overweening, preening comperes who sounded more like eloquent teleprompting philistines than people who have been bothered by any lengthy piece of creative writing since becoming adults. He mentioned a need to give his wife nine books, the longlist, to ensure that there’s some kind of quiet in the household for a few months. The laughter greeting this utterance must have been from husbands only.
And on it went, the flash fiction was awarded to what, to my mind, was the least of the shortlisted entries, the only one with a typo identifiable from a mile away—which is forgivable, even as it raises questions about Etisalat’s commitment to literary excellence since the company had each of the three shortlisted stories printed on large boards just outside of the main hall. What was less forgivable, as a guest pointed out, was the story’s rather facile opening sentence.
Then came scenes from the shortlisted novels depending more on canned performances projected than on live performance as was the case last year. Someone asked: wasn’t that a Nigerian passport onscreen where the novel demanded an Italian one? It was. You could also see the Ebola sticker sign affixed to travellers’ passport upon returning to the country in the past year or so. But this wasn’t a moment for finicky film criticism. I merely nodded.
Summoned finally, the judges came onstage. Prof Ato Quayson, smug and snazzy, spoke about the animation of “Africans telling their own stories and validating themselves by those stories.” He spoke animatedly himself. “We don’t care where they come from,” he said referring clearly to the almighty Caine prize. “But it’s good we have one for ourselves.”
As Quayson continued in a long, partly winding, partly knowing speech about all three shortlisted novels, I had three thoughts:
- Why was he the only one speaking? Each judge could have spoken about one novel. Instead Wood and Wanner watched, spectators like the rest of us, with a better view.
- Tram 83 could not win, because Quayson said something I forget now that sounded like damning with faint praise.
- Tram 83 will win: He saved it for last, and spoke about it being ‘operatic’—praise that would become a cliché in time but for the next couple of years might retain its freshness.
And so it was that Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 took the prize, all three judges grinning and holding onto themselves like high school pupils.
As the fanfare erupted upon the announcement of the winning book, I opened its pages—for it was in some of the packages provided for every seated guest by Etisalat. Strangely the book has a foreword, in which Alain Mabanckou writes about it being a masterpiece. If the foreword was penned by a Nigerian, with our paddy-paddy, balanced/constructive criticism model of appraisal, I’d be ready to push the ignore button or, in fact, think the outright opposite of what was written. But my unfamiliarity took me to the first page as the event hall came alive with celebration. Mabanckou didn’t just give a blurb; he wrote a foreword praising the novel’s “linguistic innovation.” This was praise for the fabric of the book itself, the prose.
Indeed, in those first few pages, the reader gets a sense of meeting a writer with a clear idea of the power of prose. Rather than deal in the timid banalities of the first person narrative or work an anonymous, anaemic prose in the third person point of view, Mujila works his story with an eye on the sentence level, with a confidence in his voice—or, in any case, the voice of his narrator. Those first few pages do not thrive on fluidity, a quality of good prose that on occasion masks a paucity of thought. Instead Mujila’s prose works on impact, on shifting cadences. It is why a number of reviews have associated the book with jazz music. The pleasures of Tram 83 are more percussive than balladic, more horns than strings.
There’s no real story at this point but already the reader knows he is reading a writer. You go to a writer for this kind of pleasure. Storytellers deliver pleasure of a different kind. Nigeria is a storytelling nation, not a writing one. Not yet.
Here is a wondrous paragraph from the novel—a single sentence of over 200 words with two commas (originally written in French, credit must go to translator Roland Glasser):
Inadvertent musicians and elderly prostitutes and prestidigitators and Pentecostal preachers and students resembling mechanics and doctors conducting diagnoses in nightclubs and young journalists already retired and transvestites and second-foot shoe peddlers and porn film fans and highwaymen and pimps and disbarred lawyers and casual laborers and former transsexuals and polka dancers and pirates of the high seas and seekers of political asylum and organized fraudsters and archeologists and would-be bounty hunters and modern day adventurers and explorers searching for a lost civilization and human organ dealers and farmyard philosophers and hawkers of fresh water and hairdressers and shoeshine boys and repairers of spare parts and soldiers’ widows and sex maniacs and lovers of romance novels and dissident rebels and brothers in Christ and druids and shamans and aphrodisiac vendors and scriveners and purveyors of real fake passports and gun-runners and porters and brica-brac traders and mining prospectors short on liquid assets and Siamese twins and Mamelukes and carjackers and infantrymen and haruspices and counterfeiters and rape-starved soldiers and drinkers of adulterated milk and self-taught bakers and marabouts and mercenaries claiming to be one of Bob Denard’s crew and inveterate alcoholics and diggers and militiamen self-proclaimed “masters of the world” and poseur politicians and child soldiers and Peace Corps activists gamely tackling a thousand nightmarish railroad construction projects or small scale copper or manganese mining operations and baby-chicks and drug dealers and busgirls and pizza delivery guys and growth hormone merchants, all sorts of tribes overran Tram 83, in search of good times on the cheap.
If that reads like overkill, and excess is precisely the point, there are simpler pleasures in shorter sentences. Mujila writes of a place “on earth you could hang yourself, defecate, blaspheme, fall into infatuation, and thieve without regard to prying eyes.” He writes about a girl “dressed for a Friday night in a station whose metal structure is unfinished”, about “married women” who “didn’t hold back from accosting potential clients with…psalms”, about girls with bodies “trussed into a couple of tiny corsets”.
This is an author throwing sentences to produce images that stick but never overwhelm the words themselves. For readers on a diet of many a recent Nigerian novel, Tram 83 would come across as shocking.
Not shocking in terms of scenes and episodes. We have sex and violence in our literature anyway—those have become three for five naira. Not that type of chutzpah. I refer here to the shock of his audacity. How dare this author write like this? Why does he insist on giving us that other pleasure we have since forgotten books can provide: the electric delight of certain words arranged in a certain manner. Mujila’s book is unconventionally stylish and reminds us of this other, often higher, pleasure.
It also reminds us of that other use of an international prize: not just to affirm our own quality but to bring to us news of excellence from other lands, music from a far-off room that would otherwise be closed to us. We may whine. But we should also dine at the feast the Etisalat Prize and Fiston Mwanza Mujila have brought to our table. If we don’t, it’s our loss. Author and translator have the prize money. Etisalat has the prestige. What do we have? Nothing but the book. Read it, I say.
Oris Aigbokhaevbolo is a critic and essayist. His writing on film, books and music appear in The Guardian UK and The Africa Report. In 2015, he became the first ever winner of the Music/Entertainment Journalist of the Year award (AFRIMA). He tweets @catchoris