Local enigmatic and celebrated poet, Tjawangwa ‘TJ’ Dema, who continues to be significant in the rise of contemporary poetry in Botswana and Africa, has won the 2018 Sillerman First Book Prize For African Poets. Dema’s winning manuscript, ‘The Careless Seamstress’, will be published in the spring of 2019 as part of the African Poetry Book Series by the University of Nebraska Press, and will receive a $1000 cash prize.
As a travelling poet who has trotted the world through her art, this is Dema’s first literary award. “Given the work that Africa-focused literary initiatives have contributed to successfully mapping the contemporary African poetry landscape including festivals, and platforms such as Africa in Dialogue and the African Poetry Book Fund, this win was hoped for but unexpected. In the end, I am delighted and honoured in equal measure,” she said.
In addition to the award, Dema recently graduated with a Masters of Arts (MA) in creative writing from the Lancaster University.
She states that her anthology touches on gender and labour and how they inform nuances of power as well as language. “When I started to write these poems I couldn’t see a thread and was unduly worried by that. It took a year before I began to point at multiple themes. I imagine that one of the things that unifies the collection is my preoccupation with gender and labour. Through that lens I grapple with questions around language, form and power.”
Her poetic style, which is more rooted in performance poetry than scripted form, began in the days of prolific local collective, ‘Exodus Live Poetry’, and saw her become an internationally acclaimed poet, art administrator and teaching artist. She now leads an arts management agency called Sauti Arts.
“My hope is that we recognise that we have a great deal to learn from other African poets/writers – living or otherwise; that we have as much to learn from each other as we do from the rest of the world. For example, I look as much to Setswana language poet Moroka Moreri as I might do to Robert Frost or M. Nourbese Philip for ideas on sound and oral text. And I acknowledge that though Moreri might not come from a culture that has extensively documented his kind of work or named his generation, that what he is doing is work. And that that work is intentional and rooted in its own lineage and practices. African poets are not coming to the table empty-handed. They have much to offer; but for that we must remain curious and open to criticism,” explains Dema on her aspirations for African poetry.
Her chapbook, Mandible, was published as part of Seven New Generation African Poets (Slapering Hol Press, 2014). Her work has appeared in the Cordite Poetry Review, Elsewhere Lit, the New Orleans Review, and the anthology Read Women. A recipient of fellowships from the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Danish Arts Council/Foundation, she was a 2016 Artist-in-Residence in the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities at Northwestern University.
The judging panel for the Sillerman Prize is made up of the African Poetry Book Fund’s Editorial Board, including Chris Abani, Gabeba Baderoon, Bernardine Evaristo, Aracelis Girmay, John Keene, Matthew Shenoda, and Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, with Kwame Dawes, who also serves as Director of the African Poetry Book Fund and Prairie Schooner Editor-in-Chief. The Sillerman Prize is sponsored by philanthropists Laura and Robert FX Sillerman, whose annual bequest has continued to fund the work of the African Poetry Book Fund in its publishing and promotion of African poetry.