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Egyptian Rabha Ashry takes 2020 African Poetry Prize

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Scribbling short poems in her notebook on the train is part of writer Rabha Ashry’s route to win this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize.

The Chicago-based poet won the £3,000 title for her challenging words about exile, the diaspora, and living between languages, the judges said.

Ashry is now the second Egyptian winner after Nadra Mabrouk won the 2019 prize alongside Jamila Osman.

“Last year we had our first Egyptian winner of the Prize and this year, our second,” said founder, Professor Bernardine Evaristo.

“For most of the Prize’s history we had almost zero entries from North Africa. It’s so interesting to see how when one poet breaks through, others follow. It’s the nature of role modelling that people need to believe that success is a possibility for them through,” she said.

A New York University Abu Dhabi graduate, Ashry recently finished an MFA in Writing at the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago. Her work has been published in the Oyez ReviewCollected 2018, Airport Road, Electra Street and Strange Horizons. She spends a lot of her time writing on the train and talking to her friend’s cat in Arabic, her teaching profile page says.

A mix of poets and academics were this year’s judges, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Kayo Chingonyi, Billy Kahora, Momtaza Mehri and Koleka Putuma, who praised Ashry’s poetry for its powerful, sometimes jarring, images. They said, “These are poems which echo long after they finish on the page.”

With more than 1000 entries, this year’s other shortlisted poets were: Akosua Afiriyie-Hwedie, from Zambia, Ghana and Botswana, Nigeria’s Inua Ellams, Amanda Holiday from Sierra Leone, Nour Kamel from Egypt and Saradha Soobrayen from Mauritius.

When Prof Evaristo started the Prize in 2012, African poetry was almost invisible. Today, there are legions of African poets building successful careers and being heard. “The future looks very bright and African poetry is staking its claim as a major force in world literature,” said Prof Evaristo, who teaches creative writing at Brunel University London and won the 2019 Booker Prize for her novel, Girl, Woman, Other.

Now in its eighth year and sponsored by Brunel University London, this is the largest cash prize for African poetry in the world. It is open to African poets who have not yet published a full collection. 

“Every year the general quality of entries continues to improve,” said Prof Evaristo. “Although there have always been some outstanding entries, as testament to raised profile of African poets who continue to set the bar high for those who aspire to become poets.” 

It’s likely now the prize will be one of Rabha Ashry’s many destinations on her literary journey.