February 4, 2016

Prairie Schooner, African poetry fund awards Sillerman Prize

Safia Elhillo

Safia Elhillo has been named the winner of the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets for her manuscript “Asmarani.” The Sillerman Prize is given by the African Poetry Book Fund and Prairie Schooner, the literary journal of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Elhillo, a Sudanese-American, will receive a $1,000 cash award, and her manuscript will be published in the African Poetry Book Series by the University of Nebraska Press in 2017.

The African Poetry Book Fund’s Editorial Board chose this year’s winner. The board is composed of Chris Abani, Bernardine Evaristo, Matthew Shenoda, Gabeba Baderoon, John Keene and Kwame Dawes.

“The poems demonstrate a riveting sense of the power of language,” Baderoon said of Elhillo’s manuscript. “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.”

Elhillo, of Washington, D.C., is a Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor at Kinfolks Quarterly. She 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.”

Judges also selected five finalists: Nick Makoha, “Kingdom of Gravity”; D.M. Aderibigbe, “Becoming My Mother’s Son”; Viola Allo, “Schoolgirl from Cameroon”; Shittu Fowora, “Touch Machines”; and Nebeolisa Okwudili, “country.”

“We never have a set number of finalists, but each year a few manuscripts become serious contenders for the top award and those are important enough for us to name them as finalists,” Baderoon said. “This year there were six such collections, including the winning manuscript. This is very exciting for African poetry.”

The Sillerman Prize is sponsored by Laura and Robert Sillerman, philanthropists and funders of the African Poetry Book Fund whose annual bequest has continued to support the work of the book fund in publishing and promoting African poetry.

The 2017 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets will begin accepting submissions Sept. 1. The award is open to African poets who have not yet published a full-length collection.