On Onyeka Nwelue, Rosemary Okeke, and the James Currey Prize for African Literature

My attention has been drawn to an article, Clarifications on James Currey Prize for African Literature, Fellowship, which was published in The Sun by Mr. Onyeka Nwelue, the organiser of the James Currey Prize for African Literature.

I am aware of the scandal that has led to Mr. Nwelue’s dismissal from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. I decided not to wade into the matter, not because it did not cause me concern, but because I am a couple of weeks away from the publication of my debut novel, And Then He Sang a Lullaby, which won the inaugural James Currey Prize in 2021. I did not want any undue distractions. However, I feel that I need to speak out now as I am disappointed in the unfair demonisation of Ms. Okeke, the winner of the 2022 James Currey Prize for African Literature, by Mr. Nwelue, in public comments I consider misogynistic. 

In his article, while I am not mentioned by name, this is how Mr. Nwelue describes me: “The inaugural winner of the James Currey Prize for African Literature, didn’t get to become a Fellow at the African Studies Centre, but he has gone on to become a successful writer.”

In contrast, this is how he describes Ms. Okeke: “Rosemary Okeke, was meant to come in September, but she did not want to be signed by us and was not ready to be published by Abibiman Publishing. She said she only wanted to work with a woman, which I found puzzling and bizarre, considering she had willingly participated in the award process. Now the same woman has been painting a picture of her being a victim who did not get her prize when, in essence, she absurdly wanted to impose her own terms and conditions on the Fellowship.”

I find it disheartening that my silence has been weaponized to the effect of smearing Ms. Okeke.

The key difference between myself and Ms. Okeke, is that she chose to be vocal about her experience with the prize. She also granted an interview to Cherwell, the Oxford student Paper that first broke the story that lead to Mr. Nwelue’s rustication. I do not believe that she deserves to be smeared for speaking up for herself, and I hope that by speaking about my own experience with the prize that some clarity can be brought to the matter.

I want to state that I unequivocally stand by Ms. Okeke, and her experience with the prize is beyond reasonable doubt, truthful. That I did not make public comments on the matter does not mean that my silence should be used to portray her as a liar or manipulator as she is not.

I was also meant to undertake a fellowship at the African Studies Centre, but the fellowship was later rescinded without any communication to me and it was awarded to another 2021 prize finalist,  Mr. Stephen Embleton who posted it on his Instagram. The prize only confirmed the cancellation of my fellowship after I had inquired about my status as a prospective fellow at the University, after seeing Mr. Embleton’s Instagram post.

In addition, my agent at the time, had to step aside as my agent and advise me to get another agent so that I was not under Mr. Nwelue’s agency. This was after undue pressure was put on him by Mr. Nwelue to accept an initial offer of World rights, even after I had explicitly stated that I would not sign off the rights to Nigeria except to a Nigerian publisher, to ensure that my book would be accessible to the community I organize with and for.

I am alarmed that Mr. Nwelue invoked my name and success in juxtaposition to Ms. Okeke. If he had intended for her to commence her fellowship in September, why was that not communicated to her? Why did she also have to find out on social media that her fellowship had been awarded to a male Nigerian blogger, David Hundeyin? And why was Mr. Nwelue’s response to her inquiry, “I was sent your response to the contract offer. You mentioned that … you were looking forward to a female agent. Why is the Fellowship important to you, since I am a man?” Ms. Okeke’s request to be represented by a female agent is nothing out of the ordinary and should have been a moment of learning and reflection for Mr Nwelue, instead, she was punished and her fellowship was handed to a man.

Ms. Okeke is an exceptional writer whose manuscript deserved the 2022 James Currey Prize.  She has a promising future and given that she still has no agent or publisher, I fear that Mr Nwelue’s mischaracterisation of her as troublesome, manipulative and hard to work with will cause harm to her career as a writer. This is particularly worrying, coming from someone who should be supporting and uplifting the work of emerging talents like her.

I urge Mr. Nwelue to reflect and take responsibility for his actions  and apologise to Ms. Okeke unreservedly for his miscommunication and statements that call her work ethic and professionalism into question. I would also greatly appreciate it if Mr. Nwelue refrains from making reference to me or my work or my career in any publication in which he goes on to call the honesty and professionalism of Ms. Okeke into disrepute.