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Sudanese-American poet Safia Elhillo wins 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets

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Alert! Sudanese-American poet Safia Elhillo has been named the winner of the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets for her manuscript, Asmarani.

The Sillerman First Book Prize is coordinated by the African Poetry Book Fund, with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s literary journal, Prairie Schooner. These two organisations also run the Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry, which was won in January by South African poet Kobus Moolman.

Elhillo will receive a $1 000 cash prize and publication of her manuscript as part of the African Poetry Book Series by the University of Nebraska Press, to be released in 2017.

The judging panel for the Sillerman Prize is made up of the African Poetry Book Fund’s editorial board, including Chris Abani, Bernardine Evaristo, Matthew Shenoda, Gabeba Baderoon, John Keene and Kwame Dawes, who also serves as director of the African Poetry Book Fund and Prairie Schooner editor-in-chief.

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South African poet Baderoon says of Elhillo’s manuscript: “The poems demonstrate a riveting sense of the power of language. They are alert to history and formally compelling as well.

“There is an alluring sense of wholeness to the collection. The themes flow convincingly from poem to poem, and the voice is so confident that I trust the speaker to lead me through sensitive and risky territory.”

From African Poetry Book Fund:

Safia Elhillo is Sudanese by way of Washington, DC. A Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor at Kinfolks Quarterly, she received an MFA in poetry from the New School. Safia is a Puschcart Prize nominee and joint winner of the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize. Her chapbook, also titled Asmarani, is forthcoming as part of New Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Tatu), from the African Poetry Book Fund with Akashic Books. Her work has also appeared in several publications and in the anthologies The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop and Again I Wait for This to Pull Apart.

African Poetry Book Fund also shared an excerpt from the poem “Date Night with Abdelhalim Hafez,” a celebrated Egyptian singer in the mid-20th century to whom many of the poems are addressed:

i’m not looking for anything serious       just someone to watch
my plants when i’m gone       [you can sing now if you want to]
they’re worried no one will marry me       i have an accent in every language


The 2015 winner of the Sillerman First Book Prize was Mahtem Shiferraw, whose book Fuchsia will be released in April. Ladan Osman won the 2014 edition, and her book The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony was published in spring 2015, while the inaugural winner of the prize was Clifton Gachagua, whose book Madman at Kilifi was released in 2014.

The prize does not have a set number of finalists, but as Dawes explains: “Each year a few manuscripts become serious contenders for the top award and those are important enough for us to name them as finalists. This year there were six such collections, including the winning manuscript. This is very exciting for African poetry.”

The five finalists for the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize this year are Nick Makoha, born in Uganda and living in London, for his manuscript Kingdom of Gravity; DM Aderibigbe, of Nigeria, for his manuscript Becoming My Mother’s Son; Viola Allo, born in Cameroon and living in California, for her manuscript Schoolgirl from Cameroon; Shittu Fowora, of Nigeria, for his manuscript Touch Machines; and Nebeolisa Okwudili, of Nigeria, for his manuscript Country.

“We are especially excited to have had a good showing of women poets in our general pool and among our finalists,” Dawes says. “We continue to be proactive about seeking out and encouraging women to complete and submit manuscripts for consideration.”

Submissions for the 2017 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets will open September 1. Manuscripts by African poets who have not yet published a full-length collection are eligible.

To learn more about the African Poetry Book Fund and its initiatives, visit its website or stay connected on Twitter or Facebook.

More information about Prairie Schooner is available here.

The Sillerman Prize is sponsored by philanthropists Laura and Robert FX Sillerman.

Related stories:

Book details

  • Seven New Generation African Poets: A Chapbook boxed set by Ladan Osman, TJ Dema, Clifton Gachagua, Tsitsi Jaji, Nick Makoha, Warsan Shire, Len Verwey, edited by Chris Abani, Kwame Dawes
    EAN: 9781940646589
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

Image courtesy of the African Poetry Book Fund


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