Sherry Shenoda’s poetry collection Mummy Eaters was revealed to be the winner of the Sillerman First Book Prize 2021 on July 28, 2020.
The Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poetry is awarded annually to an African who has not yet published a full collection of poetry. The prize, named after benefactors Laura and Robert F. X. Sillerman, gives a prize money of USD $1000 to the winner. They also get their collection published by the University of Nebraska Press and Amalion Press in Senegal. Some of the previous winners have been Clifton Gachagua (2014), Ladan Osman (2015), Mahtem Shiferraw (2016), Safia Elhillo (2017), Tjawangwa Dema (2018), Gbenga Adeoba (2019), and Cheswayo Mphanza (2020).
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, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers and Kwame Dawes. Dawes is the director of the African Poetry Book Fund and Glenna Luschei Editor in Chief of Prairie Schooner.
From the manuscripts sent in, the judges declared the finalists to be:
- Sea Blues by Wale Ayinla (Nigeria)
- The Morning the Birds Died by Adedayo Agarau (Nigeria)
- Birthing by Chisom Okafor (Nigeria)
- Mummy Eaters, Sherry Shenoda (Egypt/ United States).
- The Blue Album by Vuyelwa Maluleke (South Africa)
- Somewhere Sleeping, A Stranger by Mariam Bazeed (Egypt/ United States).
From these, Shenoda was revealed to be the winner. Book reader, poet and former Sillerman Prize winner Mahtem Shifferaw praised Shenoda’s work, writing: “I love the premise of this manuscript, and the seamless way it continues to unfold and unravel upon itself, upon ancient promises. It is deeply rooted in place, in history, in marred history, and as such, it attempts to hold both the reader and its speakers accountable to the misrememberings of Egyptian descendants. Beautifully written… candid, soft, tender, strong.”
Shenoda is an Egyptian-American poet and pediatrician, born in Cairo, who now lives near Los Angeles. Her work is at the intersection of human rights and child health. She is currently serving as a pediatrician in a non-profit health center. Her published works center on policy related to the effects of armed conflict on child health, on which she has briefed the United States Senate. She was shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize in 2019 and her first novel, The Lightkeeper, was published in May 2021.
“Respect and gratitude to the African Poetry Book Fund, the University of Nebraska Press, and especially to the judges for their consideration,” Shenoda said, in response to the award. “What an honor! My manuscript, ‘Mummy Eaters,’ explores the reverence of the ancients toward the human body as sacred matter as seen through the lens of the European practice of mummy eating. Much of the manuscript is written as a call and response, in the Coptic tradition, between an imagined ancestor, one of the daughters of the house of Akhenaten, and the author, as descendant.”
She will receive the $1000 cash award and publication of her manuscript as part of the African Poetry Book Series by the University of Nebraska Press.