Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Chronicles of the award

Political and social events in the distant past compelled me to write something. Something fictitious. Precision might be far-fetched regarding when I actually penned the first sentence. But it was some time in August last year. From that frail, uninspiring sentence, a novel manuscript that was to be named Evil Assignment was born. It was conceived in the scraps of history; for what had been my core inspiration got carelessly tucked away in politics.

But, what mattered was the birth of Evil Assignment. Even though its source is one of pain and misery, it’s still an inspiration. After all, the muse speaks best out of agony.

And, when I received a phone call from the Malawi Writers Union on 23 September this year that informed me that my manuscript had reached the finals in the prestigious Peer Gynt Literary Awards which was being bankrolled by The Royal Norwegian Embassy, I was rather shocked. Not because I didn’t have confidence in what I had written. But, because I had forgotten everything about the competition. And the prize presentation ceremony was to be held three days later.

Now, the three waiting days were like eternity. You receive a phone call that informs you that your manuscript is one of the 13 shortlisted ones. Then, you're told that out of the 13, only three will win. You read in the media that out of the 13 finalists, six are veteran writers. And, this happens to be the first ever writing competition you entered. You should be justified to feel unsafe, nervous, shocked. Well, you can as well be proud of yourself for you pretty well know that you've already beaten 40 other participants. And, that you've reached the finals anyway.

Thursday, September 26. Still nervous, I travelled to the Norwegian Ambassador’s residence where we, the finalists, were supposed to have a caucus with the judges, Professor Jack Mapange, Dr. James Ng’ombe and award winning Zambian author Ellen Banda-Aaku. I was the first to arrive at the ambassador’s residence, followed by Willie T. Zingani and Aubrey Kalitera. Then, other finalists arrived in the company of the judges.

We were treated to some ‘strange’ foods, but that didn’t matter to me. I just ate to make a virtue of necessity, for my mind was on the main event of the day. During the caucus, the judges discussed with us what a good novel should have. That, still, didn’t matter to me.

We left for Latitude 13 Degrees some minutes before six. That was where the main prize presentation ceremony would take place. At the hotel, we were treated to some Country and Western music by a band whose name I can’t remember. Well, the music didn’t matter to me.

Then the main event was nearing. Minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Culture Rachel Mazombwe Zulu delivered her speech after Mawu President Sambalikagwa Mvona and Norwegian Ambassador Asbjorn Eidhammer. I paid modest attention to what these people said.

Then, came the time. The time I had been nervously waiting for. I heaved a deep sigh as the leader of the panel of judges, Dr Ng’ombe strutted upfront to announce the winners of this year’s Peer Gynt Literary Awards. He talked about what they, as judges, had concentrated on in scrutinising the manuscripts. That didn’t seem to matter to me. It just couldn’t.

Then he went ahead to reveal that excerpts from the three winning manuscripts would be read out by the judges. The first one was read out. I don’t know from whose manuscript it was taken. Then. Then, then the second. And, I knew it. Jack Mapanje read it. He read it with so much vigour and passion that you would be forgiven for assuming he was the author. The excerpt was from Evil Assignment.

I had submitted the manuscript on 2 March, two months before the deadline. Being out of touch with most events taking place in this country at that time, I wasn’t aware that the deadline had been extended. Still, the extension didn’t matter. What I submitted on March 2 could be the same manuscript I would submit in May. And, in any case, it would still scoop the second position. It couldn't beat Shadreck Chikoti's Azotus the Kingdom which won the jackpot.

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