The 2013 Farafina writing workshop adverts are out. They promise 10 days of uninterrupted reading, writing, learning and fun with some of the best pens on the continent. The gifted Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will be the main tutor alongside Caine Prize Winner Binyavanga Wainaina. Other literary lights like Eghosa Imasuen will be expected to attend also. It will be an all expense paid event thanks to sponsorship by Nigerian Breweries Ltd (NBL) ; writers’ heaven on earth.
Last year a reported 2000 applications were submitted for consideration. 99.9% of applications were rejected. 20 were chosen, but that is not the sad part. With increasing publicity, Farafina’s growing fan base and the stellar testimonials of previous attendees , competition can only get stiffer. This is a good thing. Stiffer competition will mean more people writing, more writing improving and more people pushing the boundaries of their writing boxes. A win/win for all parties involved.
The sad part is the opaque nature of the selection process. Once applicants send in entries, no word is heard till about a month later when the list of chosen participants is pasted on the Farafina website. There is no confirmation email showing that an applicant’s entry ever made it to the slush pile, no long list, no short list, just winners. 20 of them.
In a country like ours that is under constant global attack for a lack of transparency, it would be refreshing to see such a prestigious workshop administrated in a professional and exemplary manner.
In a dreamer’s world, the event would have its own web page much like the Garden City Literary Festival did at http://www.gclfph.blogspot.com . It would be thrilling to watch the online submissions clock tick down as the submissions count rose. It would help to receive a confirmation email stating that one’s application had been received. Even more helpful would be a note to those that didn’t make the long list highlighting areas of their work that were found unappealing. Then would come the long list, published on the site for all to see and finally the short list and winners. A model that has been used quite excellently at http://www.naijastories.com ,sometimes complete with marking scheme and scores!
I know, all that is fantasy, Only few well established literary outfits in developed climes can afford to do this for thousands of entries. And most times the applicants would be expected to pay a reading fees sometimes more than N5000.
Albeit, there is something the workshop organisers can do that costs little or no extra money but would benefit the applicants,the Nigerian literary scene and in fact the nation greatly. It would also make the workshop look less like a lottery— Publishing winning entries.
When the lead facilitator Ms Adichie was asked about this at the reading last year, she responded by saying she saw no need for that. She said “I am looking for a certain something, it is hard to describe, but I know it when I see it.” She went on to add that she had a “very good bullshit detector” and would not be conned by writing that was not authentic.
I disagree. Of course there is something every judge seeks in a literary work. Chika Unigwe would look for an engaging tale told in clear language. Myne Whitman would want round characters you could almost grasp. Pa Ikhide might go for language, expression and depth. In short every judge wants something. And though it might be hard to put into words it can be sensed and studied. Like a doctor studies a patient’s vital signs or a meteorologist studies the sky, one can study a winning entry and predict the kind of writing that will qualify and why.
The refusal to publish entries raises a number of questions. Is it possible that the winning essays were not as spectacular as one would expect? Did they have typos or punctuation errors? Were they riddled with cliche? In that case, it would not hurt to have them redone, edited, and proof read(fine workshop assignment material no?) before publication. This would give any applicant comfort. They would know there was a process,there was justice, there was hope.
They would know that the selection process was based on merit. That it was not a chosen question of hand-picking people based on tribal or familial ties. And with this they would be encouraged to keep writing and to keep applying next year, and the next and the next.
Oddly I am yet to read anything produced from last year’s workshop. If the creme de la creme of Nigeria’s rising literary talent gather for a week I would expect a feast of couplets, essays, poems and flash fiction pieces. I haven’t seen a crumb. Maybe I am to blame, I must live on the wrong side of town.
Or Maybe it is time the organisers and sponsors of the Farafina writing workshops took a closer look at the way the workshop is being run.
In any case, best wishes to this year’s entrants and may the best writers win.