2020 Ondaatje Prize Shortlist

Congratulations to PhD candidate Jumoke Verissimo who is a finalist for the prestigious Ondaatje Prize sponsored by the Royal Society of Literature.

David Gay - 27 April 2020

Jumoke Verissimo, A Small Silence
The “£10,000 prize is awarded every year to a book—be it fiction, nonfiction, or poetry—that best evokes the spirit of a place” (Katie Yee Lithub 4-20-20). This recognition is for Jumoke’s highly acclaimed debut novel, A Small Silence (Cassava Republic Press 2020). The novel explores the relationship between two characters, Prof and Desire:

“Prof is an ex-prisoner, activist and retired academic, who resolves to live a life of darkness after his release from prison. He holes up in his apartment, pushing away friends and family, and embraces his status as an urban legend in the neighbourhood until a knock at the door shakes his existence. His visitor is Desire, an orphan and final year student, who has grown up idolising Prof, following a fateful encounter in her hometown of Maroko, Nigeria as a child. Tentatively, the two begin to form a bond, as she returns every night at 9pm to see him. However, the darkness of the room becomes a steady torment, that threatens to drive Desire away for good. A Small Silence is a layered and beautiful exploration of trauma and its aftermath, and a testament to the enduring power of human connection” (Cassava Republic Press).

Reviews of the novel testify to its exceptional power and style: “Verissimo is a poet and the novel is infused with a poetic sensibility, lyrical without being verbose. . . . A Small Silence feels like an act of literary disruption. Hypnotic, expertly crafted and full of subtle power, it challenges cultural norms around silence, darkness and solitude, leaving the reader changed in ways that are hard to define.” (Irenosen Ikojie, The Guardian 8-19-19).

Jumoke’s sense of place, the main criterion for the Ondaatje prize” is equally powerful: the novel “is also the story of the lived lives of Lagosians, the hustle and bustle of the city. The buses and the markets, the dirty slums, the potholes, the gutters and the mosquitoes as well as the challenge of a city that never sleeps. Not to forget the churches and the mosques and the noise that reaches the highest decibels imaginable. Clearly, the author knows her city very well” (Jibrin Ibrahim, The Daily Trust 1-10-20)

A Small Silence is an absorbing read thanks to the simple beauty of Jumoke’s style and the deep human insight in her characters. Novelist Evie Wild, a judge for this year’s Ondaatje Prize, remarks that the “atmosphere of this book was the first thing that drew me in. A feeling of disquiet and tension, even in the quotidian. It manages beauty and lyricism and at the same time as restraint, an impressive line to walk. It left me feeling like I had witnessed a spell of some kind " (The Bookseller 4-20-20).

Jumoke received her BA in English from Lagos State University and her MA in African Studies from the University of Ibadan. Before entering our doctoral program, she had a rich and varied career in editing and journalism. Her prior publications include two volumes of poetry, the prize-winning I am Memory (DADA Books, Lagos) and The Birth of Illusion (FULLPOINT Nigeria). In her own words, her doctoral research “explores literary depictions of the Nigerian-Biafran war as a paradigmatic trauma that shapes the narration of national identity” (Researchgate). English and Film Studies takes pride in saluting Jumoke for this distinguished literary achievement.