Will Helon Habila’s “Travelers” make James Tait Black Memorial Prize history ? – Mike Jimoh

All seems to be quiet on the literary front thanks to world-wide restrictions because of Covid-19. Even so, the Edinburgh International Book Festival is running at full steam connecting writers, readers, critics, publishers, students, bibliophiles and many more via zoom, podcast and other social media platforms. The highpoint of the book ceremony comes up in mid-August with the presentation of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize to two of four writers whose works have been nominated. Among them is Nigerian author, Helon Habila, for his most recent novel Travelers. Mike Jimoh reports…

Only a year in print, Helon Habila’s most recent novel, Travelers, is already going places. From mid-last year after it was published by WW Norton, New York, up to now, more than a dozen critics and writers in as many countries across four continents have had a go at the 295pp book of six interwoven chapters about African migrants hoping to make their lives better in European cities and towns.

Some perish along the way – in the Sahara desert; some are upturned in un-seaworthy boats – in the Mediterranean. At the mercy of sadistic guards and quarantined in unhygienic transit camps, and not unlike sailors in a marooned vessel never quite making it to an ever receding shore, many more see their dreams vanish right before them. For those lucky enough to reach their final destinations, their castaway status and unwelcome presence is far from what they ever imagined.

Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela, author of The Kindness of Enemies, has described Travelers as “an unsettling book that faces the urgent questions of our times and doesn’t settle for easy answers…the resilience of the characters, the mature decision to avoid melodrama, gives us a novel full of hope and wonder, tied to fully realized characters that, as readers, we come to care about.”

Habila’s Travelers is now one of two works of fiction shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize to be presented next month at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The other novel shortlisted, Girl, is by Edna O’Brien, an Irish writer whose book is inspired by the abduction of Chibok girls by Boko Haram Islamist terrorist in 2014 in northern Nigeria.

Two other books of non-fiction, Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburryport and Sarah Hall’s Sudden Traveller, have also been shortlisted in the biography category.

With this nomination for the Tait Black Memorial Prize, first awarded in 1919 making it one of the oldest literary prizes in the United Kingdom, Habila has joined the ranks of three other African authors – Nadine Gordimer, JM Coetzee and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – shortlisted for the award in the past. Gordimer won with A Guest of Honor in 1971 while her compatriot, Coetzee, got the prize nine years later with his novel Waiting for the Barbarians.

If Habila’s book wins, he would have made literary history again as the first Nigerian to become the Tait Black Memorial Prize laureate, a feat similar to what Waiting for an Angel, his first collection of short stories, did for the writer nineteen years ago for the Caine Prize for African Writing now AKO Caine Prize.

Unlike some other literary prizes presided over by clannish and donnish judges, entries for the Tait Prize go through a democratic process – perused with professorial rigour by post graduate students at the University of Edinburgh supervised by two academic judges who, on that collegial effort, make recommendations on the final shortlists. The winners will receive ten thousand pounds each.

Round about this time, hotels and guest houses would have been fully booked by thousands of book people who converge in the Scottish capital for one of the most exciting and intellectually stimulating book fairs in the world. For this year’s event, the first such in a lockdown period, most of the participants will not be there in person. Nonetheless, the organisers, like before, “are creating a place for discourse, intellectual engagement and celebration.”

As the organisers captured it in an email, “this year will be the first online festival in our history, and we will continue our tradition of bringing together writers, artists and performers from around the planet to deliver, debate and discuss the big ideas that are shaping the world. We hope to create a place for readers and writers to come together, even when we have to be apart.”

On the four books that made the shortlist, the fiction judge, Dr. Benjamin Bateman, has written: “At our trying hour of staying home, these four dazzling works of fiction supply nourishing forms of travel – around the world, across perilous borders, and into the thoughts of compelling characters whose personal and political emergencies demand our attention.”

Summarising the works shortlisted, they “include a story told from the perspective of a middle-aged Ohio woman, a novel about a group of migrants travelling from Africa to Europe, a collection of short stories exploring the journey of seven characters’ lives in different parts of the world, and the imagined story of a Nigerian school girl kidnapped by Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group.”

Habitues of a book festival begun in 1983 usually meet in a tented village right in the heart of Edinburgh – Charlotte Square. But with new challenges on account of the raging pandemic, the organisers insist “we now must find new and creative ways to come together and tackle, interrogate and share the words and ideas that shape us.”

Which is why the 2020 edition “spread across more than a 100 events” will be mostly online but one that “will represent the very best of Edinburgh: a thoughtful, thought-provoking celebration of writers and ideas. When we began to imagine what a festival in 2020 would look like, we were inspired by the prospect of creating something deliberate and thoughtful, transportive and galvanising.”

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