Honourable dance: Kenyan author nominated for US literary award

Peter Kimani. The award recognises literary excellence by black writers from the US and around the world. [File, Standard]

A former editor with The Standard, Peter Kimani is among six authors nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the biggest award for black writers in the United States.

The award is in honour of Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, two pioneering African-American writers who wrote in the 1940s. Hurston is popularly known for her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, while Wright is remembered for Native Son, which was studied in Kenyan schools. Both writers died in 1960.

Kimani’s fictional novel, Dance of the Jakaranda, published by Akashic Books, will battle it out with, among others, Black Moses by Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou. Alain’s book is published by The New Press and he is rated as one of the best Francophone African writers.

Other nominees in the fiction category are Lesley Nneka Arimah, author of What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (Riverhead Books), Ernest J Gaines, author of The Tragedy of Brady Sims(Vintage Contemporaries), Yewande Omotoso with The Woman Next Door (Picador) and Jesmyn Ward author of Sing, Unburied Sing (Scribner).

While announcing the nominees, the Zora Neale Hurston/ Richard Wright Foundation noted that 140 books published in 2017 had been submitted by publishers and self-published authors in the four categories of debut novel, fiction, non fiction and poetry.

The judges — all Legacy Award Honorees in previous years — worked independent of the foundation to evaluate the books for artistic excellence and contribution to the literary canon, the foundation wrote on its website.

The Hurston/ Wright Foundation was established as a resource centre for training and to be a gateway to ensure the unique experience and voice of African Americans in literature. It recognises literary excellence by Black writers from the United States and around the world in the categories of debut novel, fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

Kimani said while this is Dance of the Jakaranda’s first nomination for a major award, it was also picked by the New York Times as one of its Notable 100 Books of 2017.

Typically, New York Times receives 1,000 books for review each week, which works out to over 50,000 books annually. At the same time, The Dance of the Jakaranda was listed as Quartz Book of the Year, Amazon Book Deal for January 2018, Books Banquet Notable Book of 2018 and it was a special Amazon.com pick for January 2018.

In mid-June 2018, the novel rose to Number 1 slot in the African Historical Fiction category on Amazon’s UK affiliate.

The novel is currently available in the US and UK, where it was released in March this year, to great critical acclaim. Five BBC radio, TV and online outlets carried interviews with the author, including In the Studio,a premier 30-minute weekly arts programme broadcast last month. The BBC describes the programme as a chronicle of “the world’s most creative people at work.”

The book has been featured in some of the most prominent publications in several countries such as Australia, Britain, Canada, Kenya, India, Italy, Lithuania, Netherlands, Nigeria, South Africa, Trinidad & Tobago, and the Unites States.

“I have toured the world extensively over the past year, attending some of the world’s biggest book festivals, from New York’s PEN World Voices, to Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in Los Angeles, to Calabash Lit-fest, a biennial event in Jamaica,” Kimani says.

Kimani, who ditched the newsroom for the classroom, has resumed teaching at the Graduate School of Media and Communications at Aga Khan University, after a year away at Amherst College, where he was the Visiting Writer.

The author describes the nomination as a big step in his writing, explaining that it will give the book a boost and give him more exposure.

He heads to Washington in mid-October for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award gala event that will include giving public readings by all finalists, before a winner is announced.