||Central Bank Of Barbados
Professor Emeritus Funso Aiyejina of the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine delivered the featured address, “Writing for Prizes, or Prizes for Writing? (Or Two Tales Told by an Idiot)”, at the 21st Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Awards.
I would like to start with an acknowledgement of the spirit of Frank Collymore, that consummate midwife of Caribbean literature, who is the first half of the reason we are here tonight.
There are three types of literary prizes: prizes that celebrate excellence already achieved, prizes that acknowledge the promise of excellence, and prizes that seek out the promise and nurture it to maturity.
The first is a nod to the past, an acknowledgement of history; the second is a “we have noticed that you are working hard, well done”; and the third is a down payment on the future, a declaration that those who do not invest in their future are ultimately condemned to languish in the past of others.
From what I know about the Frank Collymore Literary Endowment, it would seem to me that your mission is to ensure that Barbados remains a fertile ground for the growth of a literary tradition that builds on the achievements of giants like George Lamming, Kamau Brathwaite and Austin Clarke, to name a few.
Tonight, in addition to celebrating Frank Collymore, I would like to remember my friend, Austin Clarke.
I would also like to celebrate George Lamming and Kamau Brathwaite, the custodians of the Literary House of Barbados. I seek their permission to speak in their house.
I salute the Poet Laureate of Barbados, Esther Phillips.
I thank members of the audience and send forth warm New Year wishes to all my personal friends in Barbados.
I will go out on a limb and assume that many of you in the audience are book lovers and book buyers. If you are, as I think you are, you would be forgiven if, going by the language of blurb writers, you were to conclude that there were only two types of writers: Award Winning Writers and the Rest of Them. Have you noticed how publishers are super mindful to remind you who on their lists are award winners? They are all too well aware that each time you pick up a book and see an award sticker on it, you are more likely to tarry a little longer with it than with one without an award sticker. That is just the way the human mind works. We pay attention to those qualities that set things apart. We notice the lone peacock among the peahens.
More often than not, if the browser does not have any social or professional investment in any particular writer, they are more likely to choose a book that is promoted as a prize winner over a plain Joe or plain Jane book. Undoubtedly, therefore, a prize makes a difference to the quality of life of a book, and by extension, its writer and its publisher.
Every major prize a book wins means more visibility and more sales; and more sales translate into more royalties for the author, if you are lucky to have a publisher who pays royalty, that is.
So important are prizes to the sales of books that some enterprising Nigerian publishers have been rumoured to create one-off prizes which they award to their books and proceed to use the fact of the prize-winning status of the books to promote them. Some call that creative marketing. I have no way of confirming the veracity of that story, especially since the writer who told it to me was complaining about their book not winning a national prize for which it had been shortlisted. But if it is true, I would see it as nothing but fraud.
There is no doubt that prizes bolster the confidence of the winning writers. Such winners feel vindicated, appreciated, and inspired to write more, if they do not fall victim of the paralysis that can result from the fear of not measuring up in their next books.
There is the glamour that goes with award ceremonies where winners get their five minutes of fame, including having to be interviewed by journalists who may or may not have read their work and who expect them to have a view on everything under the sun from UFO to Donald the Yellow-Haired Duck.
Generally too, prize winners get more speaking engagements. They get to shine. But be warned: The attention is not always a good thing, especially in some parts of the world where, in addition to the time away from writing, you are often expected to be so grateful for the invitation to speak that those inviting you expect you to pay them for giving you a platform to shine!
Yes, prizes matter. And writers are well aware of that fact. So much so that some novice writers rush to self- or vanity-publish works that should have been left to marinate for a year or two and to slow-cook for one more year just so that they can enter them for prizes.
Different writers adopt different attitudes to prizes. One rejected the Nobel Prize to protect his freedom as an ordinary citizen. As if a great writer like him could ever be an ordinary citizen! Another was asked why he did not reject the Nobel Prize on the ground that it was linked to dynamite and violence. He cheekily responded that the writer who had rejected it to protect his freedom to be ordinary had performed rejection on behalf of other writers like himself. Seriously though, when did he ever tell anyone that he was a pacifist who must therefore reject a prize whose source of funding is linked to violence and to the destructive power of man’s invention?! Such interlocutors forget that his patron deity is simultaneously the deity of war and creativity. And there is a third writer who is a serial prize winner but also a serial no-show at prize award ceremonies.
I know there are some of you who are busy guessing who these writers are. Let me put you out of your misery. Jean Paul Sartre is the rejecter (1964), Wole Soyinka is the accepter (1986), and J.M. Coetzee is the serial no-show prize-winner. In case we have fact-checkers in the audience, please note that Coetzee made an exception and showed up to accept his Nobel Prize in 2003.
This evening though, my primary interest is in the story of one of my friends who shall remain nameless for now. This friend is probably the most brilliant and talented mind of my generation of Nigerian writers. If we were not such close friends, I would have killed him dead-dead with envy. During our undergraduate years, I constantly asked God and my ancestors why they could not have given me just one tenth of his brilliance and his creativity. He was funny. He was witty. He was analytical, sharp minded, and sharp tongued. He was a polyglot to boot. Boy, o boy, did he have a way with words! On top of that, he could cut you into pieces with a dismissive glance and along watery stupes. Men jostled for the opportunity to be counted among his friends. They jumped for joy when his shadow touched their shadows. Women swooned at the mere sound of his voice.
But my friend was not moved by their insane adoration. Not at all.
Halfway through our first year, he had won a campus literary competition with an exquisite short story. At the award ceremony, a nondescript event, when he was announced winner and called to the podium to accept his prize and to speak, he froze. I kid you not. The loquacious wordsmith was speechless.
After that embarrassment, he made a to-do-list with a sole item on it: Prize Acceptance Speeches!
He vowed never to be caught unprepared again in his life.
Henceforth, he would spend hours crafting acceptance speeches in anticipation of his soon-come big time literary prizes. He would demand that I sit and listen to him practice his delivery. Was his body language in sync with his message? Did he sound at once surprised and articulate? Happy but humbled?
I was in awe of him. I wanted the world to know how wonderful his acceptance speeches were but he made me swear on my dead mother’s grave never to tell any living soul about his acceptance speech rehearsals. He didn’t want the world to figure out that his spontaneous acceptance speeches were pre-crafted and rehearsed.
Outside of my mother, this is the first time I am revealing his secret. But, of course, telling my mother didn’t count. Remember she was already dead by the time I made the promise to my friend.
Anyway, let us leave the Acceptance Speech Writing Writer alone for now and return to the central dilemma of this talk: Writing for Prizes or Prizes for Writing?
Once you remove the conditions that you must fulfill before your entry can qualify for a prize, factors such as the colour of your passport; your self-definition of your gender, your language, the location of your publisher, the politics in the boardroom of your publisher, etc., you will be well advised to make some well-placed offerings to Lady Luck in accordance with the rituals of your superstition.
Where there are prizes, there must be judges. A book published in one year which finds favour with that year’s panel of judges may not make it to the longlist on another year with another set of judges with different literary tastes buds. There is too the issue of the paucity of high quality books published in any particular year. In a lean year, a book may be outstanding enough to win a prize that it would not win in another year.
There is also the luck of having that single judge on a panel with an ability to persuade other judges to come around to his or her way of thinking and to vote for a book that they had not even shortlisted. There may also be that single typographical error or that minor plot inconsistency that can allow a less compelling but error-free book to win.
Finally, there is the problem of the weight of the writers you are coming up against. And this is where I tell the second of my two tales.
It was in 2000 in New Delhi, India. The occasion was the award ceremony of the Commonwealth Writers Prize. In the Best Book category, two not so famous writers were up against two serial prize winners: Salman Rushdie and J.M. Coetzee. Neither Rushdie nor Coetzee had shown up to participate in the week of pre-award events. No one, not even our hosts, knew if they would attend the award ceremony or not. They had refused to confirm their attendance. The Press kept harassing us for information about them. Every journalist wanted to interview them and only them. Quite honestly, it was a tad annoying to have journalists interviewing us but only waiting for the right moment to slide in a question about Rushdie and Coetzee’s arrival.
The four Best First Book Award finalists had nothing to worry about. There was no pre-existing condition to set anyone of us apart as the only prospective winner. We opted to have fun. At least, I did. On my UWI lecturer’s salary, I could not afford to pay for a trip to India. So yours sincerely was glad to be in India, courtesy the Commonwealth Foundation.
I never did find out what the bookmakers’ odds were on Rushdie and Coetzee but the general buzz was that it was a two horse race. The other two finalist knew that it would be an upset of epic proportion were one of them to win over Rushdie or Coetzee.
On that April night, at a glitzy hotel in New Delhi, as the six finalists present were being feted in a classy pre-ceremony cocktail, we noticed a sudden frenzy outside the main entrance to the reception hall. Police cars were flashing blue lights and sounding sirens. My first instinct was: Here we go again. Politicians! But all the political heavy weights right up to the minister were already in attendance. Couldn’t be the Prime Minister! No. We not that important.
Reporters, award organisers, hotel workers, etc. stopped whatever they were doing. Conversations froze in mid-sentences, camera swung away from us, and rubber-necking waiters forgot to keep their eyes on the wine glasses they were refilling. Something clicked and they all made a mad rush for the location of the action.
It took us a while to realise that whatever was happening out there had upstaged us on our special night. Then some policemen started to bark orders and beat a path through the crowd. And it dawned on us: Salman Rushdie, the mega star, had arrived. With his son in tow. The moon had risen to upstage our stars.
He and his son, flanked by armed and unsmiling policemen, were escorted to the highest ranking table, away from us ordinary writers. All the photojournalists took up position on the ground in front of the now deified table.
A judge from a previous year who was sitting next to me asked if we had been told who the winners were. It was the tradition, she revealed, for the organisers to slip the result under the doors of the finalists the night before the award ceremony.
No, I got no such slip under my door.
We might not have vocalised it but I was sure that the now down-graded star writers, the audience, and the press were thinking that the only explanation for Rushdie’s last minute dramatic appearance must be that he had been assured the prize was his to collect. How so redolent with significance! His win. In India, his birth place! The stars were in alignment for him.
After all the ritual of His Excellency This and His Excellency That, in a protocol order that was longer than the speeches that followed, it was time for the Chief Judge to announce the results, starting with Best First Book.
Jeffrey Moore of the Caribbean & Canada region won in that category. I won’t swear on it but I am almost certain that the cameras did not bother to swing in his direction to capture his reaction to his victory.
Then it was time for the Big One. The Best Book category. The cameras zoomed further into Rushdie.
The Chief Judge made the usual noises about how difficult it was to arrive at a winner and how, in the end, the choice was unanimous, blah, blah, blah. And the winner is…. The photographers readied their click fingers…. And the flashbulbs danced, brightly. Not for a Rushdie. For Coetzee, the no-show.
I can’t remember what Jeffrey Moore said about his victory when he went up to collect his plaque and his cheque but I remember that he concluded by thanking Salman Rushdie for putting on a special last minute appearance at the ceremony to witness him collect his prize. In today’s youth culture, I think that is what you would call throwing shade.
There is no doubt that literary prizes are great, especially in a world so full of books that each book could do with a prize to love it and big it up. But is that enough reason to write for prizes? Can you write for prizes and remain true to yourself? Will you reinvent yourself like a hustler to suit every new prize on the horizon? Whose taste, whose ideology will you be affirming in such a prize-induced work?
If you agree with me that writers should wrestle with the stories which reside inside of them, evaluate the stories inside of which they reside, and make sense of the liminal zone where both their personal and social stories intersect, then you will agree with me that the fundamental duty of a writer is to write their own truth in a manner so elegant and enchanting that they can command the attention of their readers. If they do that and prizes come their way, they can count such prizes as the unintended blessings from the forces of the universe.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is where we loop back to my good friend, the highly intelligent and talented mind who excelled at crafting acceptance speeches. We lost touch with each other when I relocated to the Caribbean in 1989. Recently though, I tracked him down with the help of other friends (Google was of no help), and called him up, determined to put aside my Iago-size envy and congratulate him on whatever was his latest literary award.
He was ecstatic to hear my voice! He proceeded to give me chapter and verse of his conquests. Did I remember the beautiful gap-toothed girl who was two years our junior at the University? The one who was doing a degree in Yoruba language and literature? The one with the slight cross eye who did not wear make-up? The one with the bouncing chest and the killer bumper?
I did not remember.
I am sorry. What happened to her?
She is now my wife.
Great. Who would have put you down as the marrying type?
We have five children. Three boys and two girls.
I could not wait, I had to ask him.
By the way, whatever happened to those exquisite acceptance speeches? How many left to be used?
All of them.
You have used all of them? Wow, how amazing. More congratulations.
You asked how many I had left to use and I said all of them.
I am sorry. I misheard you.
Hallo, are you there?
Yes, I am.
So what happened to the writing project?
Life happened. Literature did not happen.
A sadness descended on me.
When I regained enough composure, I thought of recommending to my friend the wisdom in the Trinidad and Tobago National Lottery Control Board’s tag line:
If you don’t have a ticket, you don’t have a chance.
But there was no longer any life on the phone line. It had gone dead. And he did not call me back.
Ladies and gentlemen, before I take my seat, let me congratulate this evening’s winners, the other half of the reason we are here, and wish them well in their future writing. I don’t know if the winners know in advance that they are the winners. If perchance you didn’t know in advance, let’s hope you are nimble-minded enough to craft your acceptance speeches in the time it would take you to get from your seats to the podium. If you have written an acceptance speech and it turns out that you are not a winner, remember the story of my friend or keep on writing and hope you will be able to use your speech in the future.
Finally, I owe all of you a confession. Confession, they say, is good for the soul. You have to have a soul first, I guess. I doubt that my account of the award ceremony in India is true in every material particular but I am confident that I have captured its essential truth. But I know that the story about my friend, the writer of acceptance speeches, is 100% true. Why? How? Because I made it up. It is what it is: A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying something.
I thank you most sincerely for your attention.