The Farafina Writing Workshop Lottery

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 . 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 ,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.

11 thoughts on “The Farafina Writing Workshop Lottery

  1. You have made salient points here but I think since it’s a workshop and not a writing competition, they may not feel a pressing need to put entries up for public viewing. I have seen a publication of stories written by participants some years ago but I don’t know whether same is still being done. I think the best solution would be increasing the number of intakes. Well done.

  2. LOL>

    no long list, no short list.

    You didn’t study in Nigeria, did you? Or you must have led a part of your life away. You seem to speak like someone accustomed to due process.

    I hate when I send a mail and receive no confirmation.

    Yet, these things happen daily, especially from our Nigerian friends.

    Good points raised….and good one to the Farafina guys as well.

  3. @Ikeamadi, you took that thought off my mind. Such a scam is going on and nobody is surprised… we get used to the wrong things here. For all you know, Farafina might be doing clean stuff, but no thought to be accountable to their audience. BAD

  4. I attended the workshop in 2011 and Chimamanda explained a few things. She has different writers read through the slush pile of entries to determine the ones that are deemed suitable. Then she reads through the long list, before picking the final 20.

    I found out that I only got invited because someone else couldn’t attend. Ouch. And she never read my “perfect story” that I sent in. Instead, she read another one that was on my blog, one I didn’t even think was serious enough to use in my application. This one: A total stranger sent her this link, and the organizers contacted me via my blog, not even by email. They weren’t even sure if I’d applied or not. But someone thought that my blog handle eurekanaija looked familiar. (Thank God I included it in my application).

    The reason they don’t publish the entries is probably because, honestly, some of us did send in rubbish. Chimamanda said what she was looking for was “authenticity”, not people trying to impress with their talent. If your talent is already perfect, then you don’t need a workshop, right?

    I can say though, that there is no favoritism. None of us knew Chimamanda personally. She joked about friends of her parents who would tell her to pick their children to attend, and how she had to refuse. About not seeing writing from the last class, Farafina doesn’t follow up on us to write. Chimamanda said that out of every class of 20, she only expected one or two serious writers to write consistently afterwards. The workshop doesn’t magically take the place of the discipline required to write. Nothing the organizers can do about that.

    I hope this sheds some light. Whew, long comment 🙂

    • You have shed more light on the selection process.many of us sent ‘ picture perfect’ stories just to impress. I heard about the whole thing when it was too late. Sent my entry anyway
      I think the fact that she said she wanted originality is transparent enough.

  5. You’ve made many good points here, some of which are valid and others which I think bear rethinking. (My apologies for the long comment below)
    I attended in the same year as Osemhen who has commented below.
    The process used by the Farafina workshop i.e. contacting only the shortlisted one month after the deadline, isn’t unusual in any way, or unlike any of the other international workshops or call for submissions. Comparing it to which is a business set up for this exact thing (community, marking, scores, reviews) is a little unfair. No one is going to do line comments on 2000 stories in an open call.
    I have heard it mentioned in a few different interviews that the process for picking the workshop participants is geared towards affirmative action. So there is an effort to bring together attendees from all over the country (not just the sharp guys from Lagos and Abuja) as well as to get a good gender mix.
    If your story isn’t selected, it might be because they already have five good stories from men who live in Lagos. Which I think is a good method, especially like you’ve said in a place like Nigeria, what with the rampant undevelopment of places outside of the major cities.

    Publishing of works of the entrants is entirely based on them.
    Those who attended last year’s workshop (2012) are working on a collection by themselves. But if you wanted to see more immediate things from them, you could look at Chika Oduah’s blog here:
    Mazi Nwonwu’s blog here:
    Yewande Omotoso’s blog here: (and her award winning book Bomboy)
    Or Nana Darkoa’s website (NSFW)
    And those are merely the ones I know off the top of my head.

    If you want writing from the previous year (2011), most of our workshop pieces are online here:
    These are not secret websites, but since the workshop doesn’t own the rights to the stories, it is up to the individuals to publicize their stories themselves.

    I know getting selected for the workshop is a big boost to the ego and a huge validation of your writing. But because of the fickle nature of each particular reader (a piece accepted by Farafina could be rejected elsewhere or vice versa), the large pool of entries, and other reasons I’ve mentioned, try not to see it as a final say in whether your writing is good or not. Submit far and wide. Submit to places that you see publishing things similar to your work. Talk to people WHOSE WORK YOU RESPECT and ask them to be honest, ask them to be harsh with you.
    All of the participants I’ve met are very gracious people. They are available on facebook and twitter and their blogs, reach out to them.

    Gboyega, also part of the workshop of 2011, published a list of things he learnt at the workshop here:
    The workshop is simply ten days of writing. All it does is tell you things most people already know, and puts you in contact with people you could meet yourself. The rest of the work before and after that is up to you.

  6. well I applied and I got confirmation that my entry had been received. it would certainly help if we knew what the judges are interested in So that we could? increase our chances of being selected. Adichie is a literary genius I’m sure she can find the words: -) Many people applied and few were chosen So I’d say Yes It’s a competition, a competition to be eligible for a workshop. i am of the opinion that selected pieces should be published So the rest of us can learn thereby. and if in the workshop you are being taught what you already knew and meeting people you could have met are you saying you were not profited by it? if those who are within and those without seem not to benefit what is the purpose of the workshop and is it being achieved?

    • @phebe I posted the links where you could read the submissions from 2011 if you were interested in learning thereby from them.
      I applied to the Fidelity workshop before. I never got a confirmation. I didn’t even know I hadn’t been accepted until I saw an ad online announcing the closing ceremony for the workshop. I went to the closing ceremony, I talked to some of the writers there, I listened to the pieces that they read to get an idea of how it differed from what I had written. Isn’t that the same situation here?
      I have submitted articles to lit mags and gotten responses 8 months later. Just a simple “No, not for us.” Some even have a two year waiting period before someone can look at your work to ignore it. This isn’t unusual at all.

      I didn’t say I hadn’t profited from the Farafina workshop, I explained HOW I had profited from it (meeting people, telling you things that most people already know). But I stated it that way to make it clear that these are things that you can do on your own.

      The problem is this: For many people their goal is to get into the workshop. That shouldn’t be the goal. The goal of all serious writing is to improve enough to get published, regardless of if you get into a workshop or not. If your goal is to get published and not just getting into a workshop then my next questions would be, where have you submitted your work to? What literary magazines/journals? Which published authors have you talked to about looking at your work? About helping you identify your strengths and your weaknesses? Have you asked them what you should read to improve?

      If you haven’t done any of these things, will you keep waiting every year for the workshop and trying your luck when you could be doing these things yourself?

      The thing is, if you wanted to know what stories by which authors are being studied at the workshop to get an idea of what they are teaching, you could find out. Yet, I’ve never seen anyone ask.
      Once people don’t get accepted, they take to the streets, confident that their work was good enough to have been chosen. They clamour for transparency so they can point out how they deserve to have gotten in, and then that is it until the next year when they do it again.

      You can call it a competition if you want. The original blog post disagrees and calls it a lottery. Either way, it isn’t a necessary step in your growth as a writer. Writing, like music, is an art, not an exact science. No one will ask for your diploma or your years of experience, they will listen to your work or read it to know if you’re good.
      And like music, if you can’t go abroad to learn, shebi you will learn at home. And if you can’t afford to learn at home, you will download free lessons off the internet and learn until you release your album.
      It is the person who doesn’t do any of those, who convinces himself he must enter school before he allows himself improve, that is the real loser.

  7. @naija rookie you attended their seminar doesn’t make you their mouthpiece. the author has raised valid issues. that other competitions or whatever you want to call them make the Same mistakes doesn’t make it right. I personally think you’re taking this thing too personal

    • @stud writer, you are exactly correct. If other competitions (or whatever) make the same “mistakes” why single out Farafina? Why not comment on how The New Yorker or Paris Review or Granta doesn’t grade all the papers that they receive? Let this be a commentary about the entire industry.
      The workshop is not perfect. But guess what, at the final ceremony, there is an open Q&A session where you can pose these questions directly to the sponsors (re: improving the website, creating avenues for learning for those who don’t get accepted, etc.) I think that would be excellent.

      Now, if you went to Unilag and someone posted an article about Unilag, should you be allowed to comment on that article with whatever inside information you had, or would you just say, “Since I am not a mouthpiece for the organisation, I should just shut up”?

      Personally, I am interested in seeing a better quality of Nigerian writing. To get that, we have to do the things we are doing here. We have to discuss, we have to argue, we have to communicate and make suggestions that help each other. If you think that is wrong or absurd, just say so.

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