We need literary awards

Charles Mungoshi

Charles Mungoshi

Beaven Tapureta Bookshelf
We need stand-alone literary awards in Zimbabwe. Although people do not write their books to win awards, such awards have potential to elevate and enhance the visibility of Zimbabwean writers.

Stand-alone literature awards will also encourage literacy and educational development and get people talking about books, buying them, and maybe even reading them, all of which are good things. Awards also establish reputations of illustrators, editors and publishing houses.

Through winning awards, many Zimbabwean writers have brought fame and recognition to Zimbabwe and to themselves. I have in mind writers such as Charles Mungoshi, Dambudzo Marechera, Yvonne Vera, Noviolet Bulawayo, Petina Gappah, Shimmer Chinodya and Brian Chikwava. That is why on coming to Zimbabwe for the first time in the early 1980’s, Ugandan author Taban Lo Liyong is recorded to have said, “I am privileged to be in Zimbabwe, Marechera’s country!”

How people from other countries have felt so inspired by just identifying Zimbabwe through its artists/ writers is quite an intriguing scenario. Soweto-born poet Kgafela Mogogodi who attended 2014 HIFA said to me in an interview after the festival, “Coming to the land of Dambudzo is almost like a ritual for me.”It is time we honour our writers. For how long shall we nurture this routine of recognising our writers only after they have won foreign prizes?

Currently, the only national literary awards are those which are part of the broad and inclusive National Arts Merit Awards (NAMA). The Zimbabwe Book Publishers Association (ZBPA) Awards have not been running for years now, clearly on account of various challenges. Announced annually, the ZBPA awards were an integral part of our national book calendar and, specifically, the main Zimbabwe International Book Fair ever since the mid-80s. The objective of the ZBPA prizes was to encourage writing and publishing of the best creative and imaginative literature in Zimbabwe across the disciplines of the novel, the short story and poetry.

In the NAMA awards, literature has only three categories, namely, Outstanding Fiction, Outstanding Children’s book and the Outstanding First Creative Published Work. NAMA must be applauded for being the only arts awards still recognising outstanding work in literature. Without NAMA, there could have been real silence about our outstanding literature! I must quickly state that the literary awards at NAMA should continue as they are.

However, my real argument is that there must be established some stand-alone and sector specific awards just as music now has the Zimbabwe Music Awards (ZIMA). Since ZIMA awards are sector specific, they clearly have a broader scope than the NAMA awards. They can accommodate more genres and forms of music. Their categories are exciting and inspiring.

Another example is the annual National Journalism and Media Awards (NJAMA) run by the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists in the media sector. Every year, the NJAMA winners receive encouraging cash prizes and certificates in recognition of their outstanding journalistic work during period under review.

Those in the literature industry must put heads together and come up with their own awards. NAMA on its own cannot answer the vast varieties in our beloved literature. As it is, novels, poetry, short stories and plays are judged together at NAMA.

In the stand-alone literary awards that I am proposing, recipients in a given year should represent the cream of contemporary Zimbabwean writers who produce works that are judged to demonstrate, among other things, compassion for Zimbabwe and its people, originality of the creative vision, elegance of writing and illumination of truthfulness. Most literary awards come with a corresponding award ceremony.

I am proposing that the following categories may be good for the stand-alone literary awards. The Best First Book Award which should be open to entrants who are first?time authors of fiction. The Best Book of Prose Award which should be for works of creative writing in which the text is novel or short story form. The Best Children’s Book Award should be for titles for children or young adults which may carry or are wholly made of illustrations. The Best Book of Poetry Award which should be for either a single collection of poems by one creator, or a group of creators published from any given year. The Best Book of Drama Award which should be for either a specific written play, collection of plays published from any given year. The Best Non Fiction Book Award which should be for titles which present well-authenticated data, with consideration given to imaginative presentation, interpretation and style. The Outstanding Literary Personality Award which should be bestowed upon a scholar, critic, reviewer, literary journalist, literary mentor, editor or proprietor of a publishing establishment or any eminent personality for their outstanding contribution to Zimbabwean literature through its promotion, mediation and reception.

The list above is by no means exhaustive. Let us continue to brainstorm. Many awards are structured with one organisation (usually a non-profit organisation) as the presenter and public face of the award, and another organisation as the financial sponsor or backer, who pays the prize remuneration and the cost of the ceremony and public relations, typically a corporate sponsor who may sometimes attach their name to the award such as the Orange prize, one of United Kingdom’s prestigious literary prizes, which is also commonly known as the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

The Orange Prize was originally sponsored by Orange, a telecommunications company, and this year, the prize was sponsored by a liquor brand the Bailey Irish Cream and hence the prize name has become the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Key writers’ organisations in Zimbabwe such as Zimbabwe Writers Association (ZWA), Writers International Network Zimbabwe (WIN-Zimbabwe), the Zimbabwe Women Writers (ZWW) and others, the government itself or even a non-literature entity, could undertake to seek funding and administer such awards.

This could be done through an Awards Committee appointed for the specific task of overseeing the establishment of the rules governing the awards, invitations for submissions of books, and the appointment of judges. In addition, they should carry the responsibility to guarantee the protection of the funds for the Awards and the integrity of the adjudication process.

If successfully enacted, I see such awards as a huge vote of confidence in Zimbabwean literature and its capacity to be our ultimate ambassador. This may encourage the writing of quality books by Zimbabwean authors from across the world in any of the languages of Zimbabwe.

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  • zindman

    There are many budding and established writers in Zim but the problem seems to be technology. Most artworks are now posted on various websites, and once read, it becomes an uphill task to publish such a piece of work.