Friday, July 08, 2005
caine prize at rosl
Nick Elam and Muthal Naidoo
The final phase of judging for the annual $15,000 Caine Prize for African Writing, during which the shortlisted writers are invited to London for some days, always includes an evening at the Royal Over-Seas League (ROSL). The writers read excerpts from the stories for which they have been shortlisted and there is then a question and answer session.
Nick Elam, administrator of the Caine Prize since its launch in 2000, said at the ROSL last Friday that the ROSL evening is "one of the most delightful of the occasions that we have during the Caine prize programme each year."
With his unflappable manner, friendliness and quick humour, Elam has a way of making the shortlisted writers who have travelled to London feel at home. He said that this year more stories than ever arrived - over 100 - that were suitable for submission to the five judges. This year the judges are chaired by Baroness Young, chair of the arts advisory committee of the British Council.
At question time the Jamaican-born writer Patrick Wilmot set the cat among the pigeons. He said he had read all the stories and was quite impressed by them, and by the quality of the prose. "But if I didn't know you I would have thought it was someone my age who was writing," said the 63-year-old writer, who taught sociology in Nigeria for 18 years and has turned from writing academic textbooks to writing novels. He described the stories as "polished, middle class, quiet, sedate prose… I like your stories, but next time you're writing let's have some fireworks."
The Ugandan writer Doreen Baingana responded: "As a writer you can't really write to demand, we all have our individual styles. Hopefully, some people can appreciate our styles."
Doreen was shortlisted for the Caine Prize last year, and is the first author to be shortlisted two years running. Her story "Tropical Fish" is hardly "sedate" in its subject matter, being the explicit first-person account by a young Ugandan student of her physical relationship with a white man 15 years her senior. Before starting to read, Doreen joked: "I hope you're all over 18!"
The Sudanese novelist Jamal Mahjoub's story "The Obituary Tango" is also a first-person narrative, of a middle-aged Arab man located in London. The man's observations and grumbles, especially about Africans and Arabs in Britain, met with appreciation and amusement.
Nigerian writer Segun Afolabi's story "Monday Morning" explores the efforts of a refugee family to settle in London. South African Muthal Naidoo's story "Jailbirds" depicts the tension between two black women in prison. One of the women was detained for organising a demonstration on the release of Nelson Mandela, and the other is her jailer.
The other shortlisted Nigerian, Ike Okonta, started to write fiction in the early 1990s when, as a political journalist and oppositionist, he was forced to go underground. Okonta explained that he enjoys "the push and pull between fiction and fact in the creative process". The central character in his story "Tindi in the Land of the Dead" is a journalist who visits a village devastated by a strange and terrible illness. The precision and sensitivity with which the story is told may not have "fireworks" in the Patrick Wilmot sense, but the story has a cumulative power and sense of horror.
July 5 2005