The winner of the 2021 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets is Sherry Shenoda for her collection, “Mummy Eaters.”
Shenoda will receive a $1000 cash award and publication of her manuscript as part of the African Poetry Book Series by the University of Nebraska Press.
Shenoda is an Egyptian-American poet and pediatrician, born in Cairo, who now lives near Los Angeles. Her work is at the intersection of human rights and child health. She is currently serving as a pediatrician in a non-profit health center. Her published works center on policy related to the effects of armed conflict on child health, on which she has briefed the United States Senate. She was shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize in 2019. Her first novel, “The Lightkeeper,” was published in May 2021.
“Respect and gratitude to the African Poetry Book Fund, the University of Nebraska Press, and especially to the judges for their consideration,” Shenoda said, in response to the award. “What an honor! My manuscript, ‘Mummy Eaters,’ explores the reverence of the ancients toward the human body as sacred matter as seen through the lens of the European practice of mummy eating. Much of the manuscript is written as a call and response, in the Coptic tradition, between an imagined ancestor, one of the daughters of the house of Akhenaten, and the author, as descendant.”
The judging panel for the Sillerman Prize is made up of the African Poetry Book Fund’s Editorial Board, including Chris Abani, Gabeba Baderoon, Bernardine Evaristo, Aracelis Girmay, John Keene, Matthew Shenoda, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers and Kwame Dawes. Dawes is the director of the African Poetry Book Fund and Glenna Luschei Editor in Chief of Prairie Schooner. The Sillerman Prize was established in 2013 and is supported by a bequest by philanthropists Laura Sillerman and the late Robert FX Sillerman. Over the years, the prize, in partnership with the University of Nebraska Press and the University of Nebraska, has celebrated the work of emerging African poets from across the continent and diaspora.
Book reader, poet and former Sillerman Prize winner Mahtem Shifferaw praised Shenoda’s work, writing: “I love the premise of this manuscript, and the seamless way it continues to unfold and unravel upon itself, upon ancient promises. It is deeply rooted in place, in history, in marred history, and as such, it attempts to hold both the reader and its speakers accountable to the misrememberings of Egyptian descendants. Beautifully written… candid, soft, tender, strong.”
The judges are also pleased to name the following manuscripts as finalists: “Sea Blues” by Wale Ayinla (Nigeria); “The Morning the Birds Died” by Adedayo Agarau (Nigeria); “Birthing” by Chisom Okafor (Nigeria); “The Blue Album” by Vuyelwa Maluleke (South Africa); “Somewhere Sleeping, A Stranger” by Mariam Bazeed (Egypt/ United States).
Shenoda is the eighth poet to win the annual Sillerman prize, following Cheswayo Mphanza for “The Rinehart Frames” in 2020, ‘Gbenga Adeoba in 2019 for “Exodus,” and Tjawanga Dema in 2018 for “The Careless Seamstress.” The books are available from the University of Nebraska Press as part of the African Poetry Book Series.
The 2022 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets will open September 1 to submissions of manuscripts by African poets who have not yet published a full-length collection. Learn more about the African Poetry Book Fund.