When attempting to get a foot in the door in the publishing world, the barriers of entry are still high for many writers. It’s not just about the craft side of writing: The potential of your manuscript has a lot to do with who sees it. This step can be especially challenging for international writers, including writers from Africa, who do not always have access to industry gatekeepers, many of whom are still largely based in the United States. In 2017, Graywolf Press sought to address this problem by establishing the Graywolf Press African Fiction Prize, an award given to “a first novel manuscript by an African author primarily residing in Africa.” The prize includes a $12,000 advance and publication by Graywolf Press.
The genesis of the prize dates back to 2015, when writer A. Igoni Barrett, who would ultimately become the inaugural contest judge, met with Graywolf Press director and publisher Fiona McCrae. Barrett grew to admire Graywolf over the years, particularly when he learned that the press published the memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place (2012) by the highly regarded Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, who died in 2019. Barrett published his story collection, Love Is Power, or Something Like That, with Graywolf in 2013, and his novel, Blackass, in 2016. Over a meal in the years between his books, he and McCrae discussed Nigerian literature, and Barrett candidly shared the challenges facing African writers.
“One of the issues Nigerian writers have is that the literary infrastructure in the country in many ways cannot support creative work,” Barrett says. “There are no MFA programs; you don’t really have the option of working with magazines or in universities. A lot of young Nigerian writers go to the States for their MFA program.” Barrett stressed that there needed to be more “ways to find these writers without having to bring them over” to the United States. How could more publishers see the work of African writers based on the continent? Barrett posed the question during that discussion, and not long after McCrae offered the Graywolf Press African Fiction Prize as one possible answer.
McCrae asked Barrett to judge, and the first year the press received approximately two hundred submissions. Barrett says he was happy to see such good reception. But even with so many manuscripts to choose from, he says Khadija Abdalla Bajaber’s work “was a clear winner.”
Bajaber’s The House of Rust was released in 2021, and the New York Times Book Review called her “a born storyteller.” The novel follows a girl born in Mombasa, Kenya, on a quest to find her fisherman father who disappears at sea. Before reading her manuscript for the prize, Barrett was not familiar with her work, and he notes this is the greatest value of the prize: giving a platform to emerging writers who have not yet broken into the United States market.
“In that sense, that was the best thing that could have happened,” Barrett says. “That was exactly what we wanted from such a prize, to discover people who otherwise would have had to get into an MFA program, would have had to find Western agents. She would have eventually been discovered because she’s that good, but she would have been discovered in a way that would have probably taken her out of Mombasa, taken her out of Africa.” Barrett says the prize gives writers the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to move to the West—to places like New York City where much of publishing is concentrated—rather than feel forced to do so.
Of course writers based in Africa might already have international ties. The winner of the second annual prize, Noor Naga, is Egyptian American. She was born in Philadelphia, grew up in Dubai, studied in Toronto, but ultimately settled in Egypt, moving between Cairo and Alexandria, and is currently based in the former. She made this background clear when submitting to the prize, knowing the difficulties that writers who have always lived in Africa might face. “It is difficult for writers in the region to find publishers who connect with them,” Naga says. “Often what publishers want is the immigrant experience, rather than the experience back home.”
Her winning novel, If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English, was published by Graywolf in April. The novel concerns the tumultuous love affair between an Egyptian American woman and a man from a village north of Cairo and includes experimental features such as a section written as a script. Graywolf was Naga’s dream press for years before she entered the competition, since she knew the press welcomed such experimental writing. She wanted an editor who would “really allow for more playfulness.”
In her own publishing journey, Naga has noticed that it’s difficult to secure agent representation when not everyone in the industry readily understands, or relates to, the writer’s story. The Graywolf Press African Fiction Prize offered an alternative to fitting into a box created by the market. For Naga it meant the chance to get around gatekeeping practices and connect with editors directly.
She recalls thinking, “Even if I don’t win the prize, at least now there’s an editor at Graywolf who’s read my work, and they might remember my name one day, and they might be willing to give me a chance on another project.”
Eva Recinos is a journalist and creative nonfiction writer based in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in Air/Light, Electric Literature, and Pank, among other publications.A previous version of this article stated that the prize was established in 2018 and includes publication of a translated edition by Italian publisher 66thand2nd; the prize was founded in 2017 and no longer includes publication by 66thand2nd. The image caption also identified all three writers depicted as recipients of the prize; I. Igoni Barrett has served as judge for the prize and is not one of its recipients.