New American Voices will “make us step back and look at ourselves with new eyes.”
Helon Habila speaks about Fall for the Book’s Institute for Immigration Research New American Voices Award
My co-judges “said yes because as immigrants themselves they know how important immigrant literature is in redefining and re-conceptualizing a nation’s image of itself.”
It is a pleasure for me to be associated with this prize, New American Voices Award, whose focus is not only on new voices but voices new to America. My initial task as head judge was to select my co-judges, Madelein Thien and Maaza Mengeste.
Madelein Thein is a Canadian author; her parents were originally from China. She is the author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing.
Maaza Mengiste is Ethiopian-American. Mengiste’s debut novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze was named one of the ten best contemporary African Books by The London Guardian.
Both writers when I approached them and asked them if they’d want to be co-judges on the New American Voices Award, they didn’t hesitate. They said yes. They said yes because as immigrants themselves they know how important immigrant literature is in redefining and re-conceptualizing a nation’s image of itself. The blurb for the award captures this sentiment so well: it “will recognize recently published works that illuminate the complexity of human experience as told by writers who are themselves immigrants to America.”
I mean, if America is a country of immigrants as it is often described, then the quintessential American literature would be the literature of immigration. Over the years, many writers, from Europe and Asia and Africa, have redefined the way we view this great country because of their unique take on what makes it tick. Whenever an immigrant writes about America, be it in a poem or a novel or a play, it englarges our understanding not only of what America is, but of what it might become. In his brilliant essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot mentions how every new work reinvents and shakes up the cannon. This, I am sure, will be the case here.
I, as the head judge, am looking forward to these new voices and what they have to say about America, especially now at a time when American is so divided, with the various factions fixed in their ways of looking at life and others. Hopefully these new voices will make us step back and look at ourselves with new eyes, and new hope and new meaning.
– Helon Habila
Habila is the author of several books, including Oil on Water and The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings & Islamic Militancy in Nigeria. He delivered this speech at Fall for the Book’s launch party on October 5, 2017.