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'Lyrical lushness' wins Nigeria 2021 African Poetry Prize

OU2B

Suicide, sexuality and HIV are some of the searing subjects Nigerian, Othuke Umokoro, writes about in his 2021 Brunel International African Poetry Prize-winning work.

The Port Harcourt based poet and playwright wins the £3,000 prize for his fearless words on family, hope, depression and loss, the judges said.

A keen football fan, Othuke studied playwriting at the University of Ibadan and teaches literature to high school students.

"It feels good to have won,” he said. “Really good. The glory of it is huge. For me, it means more work to be done. I told my students the news the other day and they were so happy. They all want to be poets, like me.”  

Talking about his hard-hitting themes, Othuke said: “In the heat of the coronavirus lockdown—in the drowning death toll, the surge in domestic abuse/violence, the vulnerabilities of folks living with HIV, and mental health issues—I became more aware of the vault in our individual terrors and burdens. Poetry is the safe house I run to in times of great sadness.”          

Born in the small town of Olomoro, surrounded by rivers, Othuke, 31, recalls a childhood spent fishing and learning to read from his mother.  

His haunting poem, A Mountain Cracks Before Translation — mourns the suicide of a brother who had hung himself. The award-winning British-Jamaican poet, Karen McCarthy Woolf, who chaired this year's Prize, on behalf of the judges, describes  Othuke as “A complex poet, with the skills to match the weight of the subjects he takes on, whether it’s sexuality and the family dynamic, HIV, or nature, ecology and politics.

“The language is lush, mesmeric and deftly handles the balance between lyric and narrative. These are unafraid, thoughtful pieces — playful, yet serious, making us look at love, life, mortality afresh.”

More than 1,000 people entered the eighth Brunel University London-backed contest - the world’s biggest cash prize for African poetry. When 2019 Booker Prize winner, Bernardine Evaristo, Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel, founded the Prize, African poetry was practically invisible. Now they are everywhere and making their mark in the literary landscape.

The other poets on the 2021 shortlist were Kweku Abimbola from Gambia, Uganda’s Arao Ameny, Isabelle Baafi from South Africa, Somalia’s Asmaa Jama, Tumello Motabola from Lesotho and Nigeria’s Oluwadare Popoola and Yomi Sode.

“Read African poets,” Othuke urges. “The contemporary ones, especially, are at the forefront of the literary scene. Their voice is fearless. The topics they take on are broad and their language is well rooted in rich imagery and can move mountains. The shortlist this year is yet another testament to this truth.” 

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