Is The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize biased?

By Emmanuel Monychol

I would like to congratulate Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone) author of Memory of Love and Cynthia Jele (South Africa) author of Happiness is a four-letter word for winning this year’s Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book and Best First Book Africa region respectively.

While announcing this year’s winners, Dr. Mark Collins, the director of Commonwealth Foundation said in a press release that the commonwealth writers’ prize aims to reward the best of commonwealth fiction written in English and underlines our commitment to promoting cultural exchange and diversity. In the same statement, David Clarke, chairman of Macquarie Group Foundation, the main supporters of the prize added that the prize plays a valuable role in recognising and rewarding diverse literary talents and, in so doing, connects global communities.

Cynthia Jele

Cynthia Jele, winner of 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Best First Book

I have had a keen interest in this prize for the past five years or so however, I think I have come to the conclusion that Commonwealth Foundation is partial in its selection of the winning titles for Africa region which, to me, contravenes the statements by the two directors quoted above.

Take this year’s selection for instance. The shortlists for both Africa’s Best Book and Africa’s First Best carried the names of authors only from two regions of the continent: west and south. The previous four years (from 2007-2010) have not been any different. The winners in both categories were also from only two regions: south and west, and in particular, Nigeria and South Africa.

Why is it that only writers from these two regions are the dominant faces? To a young African writer like myself from another part of the region, how encouraging is this mode of selection? Do I, as an emerging African young writer who is born, bred and educated in eastern Africa have the chance to have my book selected?

Commonwealth Foundation needs to come up with an-all inclusive strategy that will see other writers from other parts of the continent compete for this prize. I do not believe that African writers living in other parts of the continent are not as good as those from west and South Africa; they only need to be given an equal chance to compete.

Here are my recommendations how the Commonwealth Foundation can enable writers from other parts of the continent to compete at the same level as those from the south and west.

1.Commonwealth Foundation should provide assistance to African writers’ organizations in East Africa like Kwani Trust, (Kenya) FEMRITE – Uganda Women Writers Association (Uganda) and African Writers Trust, so they can conduct more mentoring and writing workshops for budding African writers living in region.

2. Commonwealth Foundation should send one of the winning authors to other parts of the region to mentor young writers living on the continent. African Writers Trust has been struggling to make this possible for us in Uganda for the past two years. In 2010, African Writers Trust brought to Uganda Ms. Sade Adeniran, winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize- First Best Book Africa region who mentored and trained us in writing skills. We need to benefit from the winning brains of ‘The Africa Best Book and ‘The Africa Best First Book’. And since it is not possible for us to meet them, Commonwealth Foundation should send them to us here in the eastern, central and northern regions to train us and show us how they made it.

3.Commonwealth Foundation should make the titles of the winning books available to writers living on th

e continent so they can read and learn from these ‘experts.’

Or else, Commonwealth Foundation should put in place a prize specifically for South Africans and West Africans, and a different one for the rest of continent.

In conclusion, however, I am thankful to the Commonwealth Foundation for making it possible for African writing to feature prominently across the globe. And for those of us living on the continent, we hope we will make it someday. Where there is hope, there is a will.


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9 Responses to Is The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize biased?

  1. tj.haslam September 2, 2011 at 1:23 am #

    Much of this post concerns what the Commonwealth Foundation must do or should do. How does this line of argument do anything but reinforce dependence on UK donors and organizations? What does it show other than deference to to the very institutions and standards you claim are unfair and biased?

    FEMRITE was not founded–according to its own history and members–to compete for Commonwealth prizes or to seek funding from the Commonwealth Foundation. FEMRITE was and is an indigenous solution to some of many challenges that women writers in Uganda faced. If FEMRITE had to wait for the permission of the Commonwealth Foundation to get started, or notice from the Commonwealth Prize committee to be validated, FEMRITE would never have existed or long since ceased to exist.

    Nothing in your editoral — NOTHING — about what various African governments could do. African business people. The extensive African Diaspora community. They have nothing to contribute? No responsibilties? No stake or say in matter? It all comes down –as you see it — to young African writers whining about and begging from UK and other Western institutions? (Or in the current parlance, “North” vs. “South”).

    I’m disturbed that this post appeared on the AWT blog. I see nothing in the AWT mission statement about being dependent, about begging for handouts, about whining about unfairness. If the bias you claim is there, write well enough so that it becomes obvious to everyone that the Commonwealth Prize is no longer meaningful. But don’t going around biting hands, and then demanding to be fed. It’s undignified to start. & it’s hardly consistent with what FEMRITE has accomplished, and with what at least it seems to me AWT desires to accomplish.

  2. Emmanuel Monychol September 4, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

    Dear tj.haslam

    Thank you for the concerns you have raised. They are genuine. However, my point is not desirous of the help from outside. I Mean to say that whatever help accorded to ‘Africa’ must serve Africa as whole.

    Another thing. I have not seen where I have alluded to FEMRITE ‘to compete for Commonwealth prizes or to seek funding from the Commonwealth Foundation’. What I mean, however, is that such writers mentoring organizations should be supported, if the supposed support is there, nevertheless. And yes, you are right, AWT is not waiting for some handout from anyone – it is, like a snail, moving on.

    Of course African governments have a duty to support budding African writers. And whosoever claim to support African writers should do so, without prejudice.

    And please, do use professional language. I am not stooping low or sing praises, so as, to be fed well… The bias exists with Commonwealth Prize…it is up to you to accept it and bring better changes or not to and remain stagnant.

    The message is: in you support or granting of prizes, be continental and reach out to all. There are unique stories elsewhere; not just where you have dwelt over the years… and by being so arrogant, because you provide, you will NOT get the gratification you need or the best, except the boring ‘unique voices’ you claim to have unearthed only in the SW of Africa.

  3. ADONG September 11, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    Hello Emmanuel! I was amused (and embarrassed) at your article. It seems to me like you are saying, ‘hey Commonwealth, you are biased by making all winners come from West and South Africa. However, I would like you to know that East African writers are great enough to win too. But first, come train us!’ Really? If we first need to be trained that means we are at a point where we can’t win yet. And that therefore means the Commonwealth awards to West and South Africa haven’t been biased!

    WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?

    MY TAKE: Pick a pen (or laptop), write, submit, win and put the Commonwealth to shame!

  4. Emmanuel Monychol September 23, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

    Dear Adong, I commend your sarcastic amusement. I also regret your embarrassment — I think you are making a lot of fun. I am not sitting here ‘whinnning’ about being first trained in order to write a winning story–to you and your subjective understanding, it is too simplisitc. Whatever it is, you cannot tell me that you were born yesterday and went straight to write good winning stories — that is if it is in your case. Somehow, situations are not the same and for us in the rest of Africa, we need a lot of things to march the most western favoured W&S. Otherwise, what are the Writers Trusts for? Is their work not to assist in mentoring young writers? And what for is the commonwealth prize? is it not to ‘play a valuable role in recognising and rewarding diverse literary talents and, in so doing, connects global communities?’ Analyse objectively.

  5. Ngenda wa liywalii October 30, 2011 at 2:31 pm #

    What sort of african writers are welcome to be members of the trust? What qualifies one to be taking part in activies of the trust? Zambian poet

    • Barya October 31, 2011 at 6:02 am #

      Thanks for your interest, Ngenda. To answer you, we’re interested in writers who are writing. Simple as that. Any writer by virtue of being a writer qualifies to take part in activities of the Trust. There’s nothing like a membership form or that kind of jazz. All we advocate is commitment to writing. You could help by letting us know what’s happening on Zambia’s literary front, what you think we can do? How to reach and connect with the writers there and elsewhere etc.

  6. Clifford Oluoch December 7, 2011 at 8:51 am #

    Emmanuel, Nigerians and South Africans are winning because of their unity and commitment to channeling out new materials. Just look at the Naija movie industry to answer your questions. I attended the 2010 Cain Prize Writers workshop in Nairobi and the commitment, unity and focus that I saw from the 3 Nigerian writers was something fresh to me. As a Kenyan, I could only admire this type of zeal. I work with Kwani a lot and we are trying to reach out as many writers as we can in Kenya but it is a daunting task. Definitely East Africa is lagging way behind the West and South. And this is not Commonwealth’s fault.

    Cliff.

  7. Emmanuel December 12, 2011 at 10:59 am #

    CLiff, thank you a lot. I agree with you.

    I am not blaming anybody for our perceived failing creativity due to lack of unity.

    My point is that, somehow, Literary Journals like Kwani trust that are committed to promoting African Writing are supported with the rest of the African literary journals. yes, we need to take up the challenge. I have contributed to 2010 kwani?6 publications with the Story: celebrating 16th May. It was submitted to Caine prize for African writing by Kwani editors… I think we need just to work harder. Cheers everyone!

  8. jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi February 14, 2013 at 5:06 am #

    I would be offended if I found out that my novel won the Commonwealth prize over a better West Africa novel simply because I come from East Africa, which is perceived as literarily arid. Yes we are lagging behind in terms of publication and visibility on the international literary scene but we would like to work this out ourselves and at our own pace. I am proud of Nigerians and South Africans; they are talking about Africa in authentic voices at an international level. Only the best African books should be highlighted regardless where they come from. I hope that the judges would disregard such comments and focus on exciting novels.
    Thank you.

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