[The JRB Daily] ‘African voices liberated from prescriptions of form and ideas’—Zimbabwean writer Zibusiso Mpofu wins Brunel International African Poetry Prize

Zimbabwean writer Zibusiso Mpofu has won the tenth annual Brunel International African Poetry Prize.

Judges praised Mpofu’s work, saying his poems ‘open a new itinerary in African poetry’.

Judges Gabeba Baderoon (Chair), Tjawangwa Demi and Tsitsi Jaji also decided on an Honourable Mention for Asmaa Jama of Somalia.

‘It still feels so surreal because this is the third time I’ve entered the contest,’ the Bulawayo-born branding entrepreneur told Brunel University London. ‘Writing those poems demanded a lot from me.’

Mpofu describes his work as ‘fictional autobiography’, an analysis of his life’s experiences. ‘I realised that the experience of travelling as a black African, not immigrating but travelling, is something we often do not talk about. There are many pleasures and lessons but we are also faced with unique challenges owing to the image the world has of Africa.’

Founded and part-funded by Booker Prize winner and Brunel Creative writing Professor Bernardine Evaristo and sponsored by Brunel University London, the £3,000 (about R60,000) prize is open to African poets worldwide who have not yet published a full poetry collection, and aimed at the development, celebration and promotion of poetry from Africa.

The judges describe Mpofu’s poetry thus:

‘His allusive, lyrical poems open a new itinerary in African poetry, drawing in Shona and Mandarin and mapping a journey of the Black body through India, Hong Kong, the Philippines and China. Superbly crafted, the poems unfold in unexpected directions, balancing raw realism and nearly mystical understatement.

‘Mpofu’s urgent silences and aching directness are all the more remarkable given the testimonial-like and retrospective nature of his lines. Touching on migration, the family, identity, art and an odyssey through many Asias, the poems narrate a harrowing, riveting postcolonial passage, and arrive at ending of surprising revelation. Mpofu is a worthy recipient of the tenth Brunel International African Poetry Prize.’

The other poets on the shortlist were Conor Cogill (South Africa), Asmaa Jama (Somalia), Edil Hassan (Somalia), Fahad Al-Amoudi (Ethiopia), Adedayo Agarau (Nigeria) and Chisom Okofor (Nigeria).

The judges commented on the shortlist:

‘It is fitting that after a decade of the Brunel International African Poetry Prize, we find here African voices liberated from prescriptions of form and ideas. Engaging an expansive range of themes, from familial intimacy to the body to history’s lingering arc, this was a richly varied selection marked by confident experimentation with formal strategies—from disciplined patterns to playful uses of spacing, typography, punctuation and more. In the poems, we are ferried from a near empty stadium where Marvin Gaye sings to the moon and a cleaning crew to “bilaal [who] was the only black man allah loved” to a party in northwest China to rooms “peopled by cardiac monitors and /bespectacled cardiologists”. Many strike a deeply melancholic note, and even a sense of mourning. But they are alive to the currents of history and the way poetry’s memorial practices animate the raw intimacy between the seen and unseen. The poems offered rich grounds from which to form our shortlist.’

This is the competition’s final year in its current iteration; it will be renamed the Evaristo African Poetry Prize and funded by the African Poetry Book Fund. The prize will open for submissions in October 2022. The African Poetry Book Fund was founded by Kwame Dawes in 2012 at the University of Nebraska, United States, where it is based.

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