When the final shortlists for the race to win the influential the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize were announced for the Best Book and Best First Book categories, the East African region was conspicuously absent. In spite of the region having more than 3-Commonwealth member countries the region has been locked out in the competition where the African region has been dominated by writers from South Africa and Nigeria with Ghana sneaking in one writer in the Best First Book category.
However, a closer look of the shortlist, reveals that the dominance was not exclusive that the African region. The Caribbean and Canada was dominated by Canadians. In the Best Book category, the entire list of 6 contestants, all are from Canada and in the Best First Book category, the dominance of Canada was broken by 1-entry from Trinidad and Tobago. In the South East Asia and Pacific, the entire Best First Book category nominees are from Australia.
Established in 1987, the Writers’ Prize is presented by the Commonwealth Foundation with support from the Macquarie Group Foundation and the inaugural Writers’ Prize in Africa went to Ben Okri’s Incidents at the Shrine and the late Ken Saro-Wiwa’s A Forest of Flowers for the Best Book and Best First Book categories respectively.
In the first decade, the competition revolved around various African countries with writers from Zimbabwe eclipsing many but they were not able to exert the kind of grip that Nigeria and South Africa have. The Commonwealth and the world at large was introduced to Zimbabwean writers like Charles Mungoshi— The Setting Sun and the Rolling World, Tsitsi Dangarembga— Nervous Conditions and Shimmer Chiodya— Harvest of Thorns. During this time far flung countries like Sierra Leone and Mauritius produced winners. Sierra Leone had Syl Cheney-Coker— The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar and Paul Conton— The Price of Liberty in Best Book and Best First Book respectively. Lindsey Collen from Mauritius got the Best Book prize for her engrossing tale The Rape of Sita. South Africa and Nigeria’s dominance kicked in from the 2000 edition.
Since inception, the East African region has featured thrice. In 1990, M.G. Vassanji’s The Gunny Sack won the Best First Book category. Five years later, Margaret A Ogola’s The River and the Source scooped similar accolade. In 2006, Doreen Baingana from Uganda won the Best First Book category with her book Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe.
The Prize has also developed some unique trends. A number of writers who have won the Best First Book category have gone to win the Best Book category. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria) has been shortlisted in this year’s Best Book category but she is a past winner. In the 2005 edition, her engrossing book Purple Habiscus won the Best First Book. Charles Mungoshi’s The Setting Sun and the Rolling World won the Best First Book category in 1988. In 1998, tens years later, Charles’ Walking Still scooped the Best Book category in Africa.z
J.M. Coetzee from South Africa is the only who has won the Best Book Category twice. In 1995 his book The Master of Petersburg scooped the top prize. He was back again in 2000 with Disgrace. The Prize has not been for the unknown writers alone. Old, familiar and popular names like Ama Ata Aidoo, Nadine Gordimer and Isidore Okpe have received the prize. The won with Changes, The Pick Up and Tides respectively.
The 2010 shortlisted writers for Africa’s Best Book are Trespass by Dawn Garisch (South Africa), The Double Crown by Marié Heese (South Africa), The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria) and Eyo by Abidemi Sanusi (Nigeria). Others include Tsamma Season by Rosemund Handler, Refuge by Andrew Brown and Kings of the Water by Mark Behr, all from South Africa.
The 2010 shortlisted writers for Africa’s Best First Book are I Do Not Come to You by Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani (Nigeria), The Shape of Him by Gill Schierhout (South Africa), The Shadow of a Smile by Kachi Ozumba (Nigeria) and Come Sunday by Isla Morley (South Africa). Others are Sleepers Wake by Alistair Morgan (South Africa), Jelly Dog Days by Erica Emdon (South Africa) and Harmattan Rain by Aysha Harunna Attah from Ghana.