Two extraordinary Nigerian novelists, Helon Habila and Teju Cole, were named among the winners of this year’s WindhamCampbell Literature Prizes administered by Yale University, an Ivy League institution based in New Haven, Connecticut. The prize, which is worth $150,000 per recipient, is awarded to “honor and support writers anywhere in the world writing in English.” The administrators of the prize name three winners each in three categories—fiction, nonfiction, and drama. This year, the third fiction award went to South Africa’s Ivan Vladislavić, giving African writers a sweep of the fiction category.
One of the unique features of the WindhamCampbell prizes is that the winners are selected from a pool of writers nominated without their knowledge by other writers and academics around the world. The panel of judges then makes the final decision.
The author of three novels, Waiting for an Angel, Measuring Time, and Oil on Water, Habila is one of Africa’s most widely acclaimed and versatile writers who first shot to international fame when he won the Caine prize in 2001. Now an associate professor at George Mason University in Virginia, Habila told SaharaReporters in an interview that he first thought the news of the prize was a scam.
“I had no inkling at all,” he stated, adding, that he received an email a few days before the announcement instructing him to call a telephone number regarding the WindhamCampbell prize. “I showed the email to my wife, and her first response was, ‘I hope it’s not from some 419 scammer.” However, after doing a Google search, he realized the literary prize was real. “My legs were almost shaking as I called the number. All the judges were in a room and they told me I had won the prize,” said Habila. He added that the whole event “left me slightly dazed.”
The other Nigerian born winner, Cole, is the author of the novels Open City and Everyday is for the Thief. Regarded as one of the most ambitious and innovative of contemporary African writers, he has won several prestigious literary awards, including PEN/Hemingway Award, the New York City Book Award for Fiction, the Rosenthal Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Internationaler Literaturpreis. He is also an art historian and photographer as well as a distinguished writer in residence at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson in New York. We could not reach him for a comment.
Peter Salovey, Yale University’s 23rd president, announced the winners of this year’s prizes at the university’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library yesterday. The winners will receive their prizes at a ceremony and literary festival at the university scheduled to hold from September 28 to October 1, 2015.