How a Nigerian writer won UK Award

Pemi Aguda

By Nehru Odeh

Though not new on the literary scene, having won the Writivism award in 2015 for a short story, Pemi Aguda, a Nigerian writer and architect, has just stamped her authority as a leading literary voice.

She has won the Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers Award 2020 for her “gripping” work of fiction Suicide Mothers. And she receives a prize of £10,000.  Also recognized, and awarded £1,000 in prize money apiece, were works of fiction by Stephen Buoro, who took second place with The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa, and S Bhattacharya-Woodward, who took third place with Zolo and Other Stories.

The winners were selected from a long list of eight, which had previously been chosen by agents at Rogers Coleridge & White after reading 876 entries.

As reported by The Bookseller, Gill Coleridge, director of the Deborah Rogers Foundation, commended the winners.  “We have once again been very excited to discover three extraordinary new voices representing the best of new contemporary writing and feel privileged to read their work at the beginning of their careers. The great success of the previous winners of the 2016 and 2018 Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers Award has already brought distinction and renown to the foundation and we are confident that the talented winners here tonight will enhance and continue that trajectory,” he said.

Great feat? Absolutely. Ian Rankin, bestselling writer and chair of the judges, while announcing the prize-winner, praised Aguda’s winning novel as “a wonderfully kinetic and gripping story”.

“This novel begins with a real wow moment and sustains momentum as it draws us into a world that is utterly contemporary yet has room for the mythic and the supernatural,” he said. “The politics of Lagos, environmental concerns and the coming of age of the young and pregnant protagonist make for a wonderfully kinetic and gripping story.”

Rankin also said: “We had a long-list of eight from which to choose. All eight had their strengths. We encountered a series of unique and powerful authorial voices from many corners of the globe. As a reader I found myself challenged, enthralled, amused and given fresh insights into the casts of characters and their individual world scapes.”

Others who judged the prize with Rankin were Sarah Perry and Max Porter. Perry hailed Aguda’s novel as “tremendously gripping”, saying: “I’m sure it will reach a wide audience.”

Aguda, on her part, was full of praise for the city of Lagos as well as its people, who inspired the story and continues to suffuse everything she writes.

“Thank you to Lagos. Thank you to the women that raised me. The judges have said many lovely things about this work in progress and it’s so encouraging that writers of this calibre who I respect so much have seen both beauty and worth in a manuscript so young.

“As I continue to work on this project, every time that I stall or I am fearful, I will look back and think on your words and hopefully that will push me right along,” she added.

Aguda shot into limelight in 2015 after winning the Writivism Short Story Award and the Stellenbosch residency that came with the prize. She has an MFA from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, where she is currently a Zell Fellow. Her short stories have appeared in Granta, American Short Fiction and Zoetrope: All-Story, among others. Her works have also appeared in short story anthologies. In 2019, Aguda became a scholarship recipient of the Juniper institute and the 2019 Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship.

Deborah Rogers (1938-2014), a literary agent, was renowned for her taste, her loyalty and her immense generosity in the support she gave to authors. The UK agent’s particular genius lay in identifying and supporting talented young people. She was considered one of the most influential of her generation.

The Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers Award was set up, in Rogers’ memory, in 2016 to support an unpublished writer and enable them complete their first book. Previous winners have been Deepa Anappara (2018) and Sharlene Teo (2016).