Saturday, July 21, 2007

monica arac de nyeko wins the caine prize

African literature is on something of a roll these days. When the Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko was awarded the $20,000 Caine Prize for African Writing a week ago at a celebratory dinner in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, this was the third occasion within a few weeks on which a major literary award had been made in Britain to an African writer. On June 28, also at a ceremony in Oxford, the 76-year-old Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe had been awarded the £60,000 Man Booker International Prize. Earlier that month a Nigerian novelist from the younger generation, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (30), had won the £30,000 women-only Orange Broadband Prize for her novel “Half of a Yellow Sun”.

In his speech at the Caine dinner, the chairman of the judges, Sudanese novelist Jamal Mahjoub, said: “The writing that is coming out of Africa today is hugely interesting. It is coming into a new age, a new phase, with some very young writers who are writing in different ways, and tackling subjects in ways that haven’t been done before perhaps, and reaching a wider audience.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Arac de Nyeko is the first Ugandan to win the Caine Prize, now in its eighth year. In her acceptance speech she said: “It is a very exciting time for Ugandan fiction.” The prize, set up in memory of businessman Sir Michael Caine, is awarded for the best published short story by an African writer. Arac de Nyeko’s winning story, “Jambula Tree”, was published in “African Love Stories”, an anthology of stories by African women edited by Ghanaian author Ama Ata Aidoo and published by Ayebia Clarke Publishing.
Mahjoub described “Jambula Tree” as “a witty, mischievous story about a love between two people and the effects of this relationship on the community in which they live. It’s got a very lively, very mischievous tone, it’s funny, and it doesn’t follow a straight-through narrative line but weaves around, bringing you slowly into the center of the narrator’s thoughts.”

The shortlist included three Nigerian writers: Uwem Akpan for the story “My Parents’ Bedroom”, E C Osondu for “Jimmy Carter’s Eyes” and Ada Udechukwu for “The Night Bus.” Also shortlisted was South African Henrietta Rose-Innes, recent winner of the SA PEN Literary Award, for “Bad Places”. In addition, the judges highly commended Kenyan Billy Kahora’s story “Treadmill Love”.

“Jambula Tree” revolves around two girls who have been close friends throughout childhood, their fascination with each other as they enter adolescence, and the shame that follows discovery. The story is told in the first person by one of the girls and is addressed to her friend, who is about to return from a long exile in London. The story is set in Kampala’s Nakawa Housing Estates, where Arac de Nyeko grew up. It has an intimacy and richness of texture and is full of vitality and acute observation of character. In an interview with Saudi Gazette, Arac de Nyeko said: “It is a story about love, very innocent, very pure. You may think it’s sad, but I think it comes out in the end like a triumph; in the way she narrates it you get a sense that it’s OK.”

From this year, the Caine Prize winner receives not only the cash prize, but is also granted a month’s writer-in-residence period at Georgetown University, Washington DC, with all expenses paid. The chairman of the Caine Prize Council Jonathan Taylor said: “This will bring an important US-North American dimension to the Caine prize”. Arac de Nyeko thinks the residency is “a great thing”, and will give her additional time for writing.

Arac de Nyeko is an Acoli, originally from the Kitgum district of northern Uganda. The region has been torn apart by conflict since 1986, and thousands of children have been abducted, abused and forced to become soldiers. Although Arac de Nyeko spent much of her childhood in Kampala, she attended Gulu High School in the north for several years. She remembers gunshots ringing out and children having to run for safety.

Arac de Nyeko’s experiences of northern Uganda have had a profound effect on her writing, both fiction and non-fiction. Some of her fiction is located in the north, including her short story “Strange Fruit” which was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2004. All her writing has a marked sensitivity, warmth and humanity. At the same time her concern for those, especially children, affected by war and other hazards has led her to work in the humanitarian and developmental field.

After obtaining a degree in Education from Makerere University, Arac de Nyeko taught literature and English language at a boys’ school, St Mary’s College, Kisubi (SMACK), for two years. She then completed an MA in Humanitarian Assistance at Groningen University in the Netherlands, and now works in development for an international organization in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

Arac de Nyeko’s winning of the Caine Prize is an indication of the growing literary presence of Ugandan woman. “We are writing: we are not silent anymore,” she says. Among the Ugandan women to have won international literary prizes in recent times are Doreen Baingana (twice shortlisted for the Caine Prize), Glaydah Namukasa and Jackee B Batanda.

Arac de Nyeko says there had been a “missing gap” in Ugandan fiction, and particularly women’s fiction, because of “the very difficult time in Uganda’s history when art became very secondary.” At the height of conflict “archives were destroyed and, for example during the Amin era, artists were deliberately targeted.”

As she puts it: “We haven’t quite captured our history; the story has not all been told, there are still so many stories, so many viewpoints, so many discussions, so many emotions, that have to be captured in fiction.”

Arac de Nyeko has won considerable acclaim for her writing. Her first published work was a poem in a Berlin poetry anthology, and her writing has appeared in a number of anthologies, periodicals and magazines;. She won first prize in the Women’s World Voices in War Zones competition with the 2003 personal essay “In the Stars”. Her first internationally published short story, “October Sunrise”, was part of the 2003 anthology “Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America” edited by Jane Kurtz. Arac de Nyeko was chosen for the British Council writers’ scheme Crossing Borders which, in collaboration with Lancaster University, has linked writers in Africa with UK counterparts.

Arac de Nyeko read voraciously as a child, and says she began writing “very informally”, starting with a mystery story. She praises FEMRITE (Uganda Women Writers Association), founded in 1996, for its role in developing women’s writing. The association holds weekly Monday sessions at which those present critique one another’s writing. The identity of the writer of a piece of work is kept anonymous until the end of the session. The work of some who have gone on to become successful writers has been “torn apart” during these sessions. Arac de Nyeko is in favor of such frank criticism, and thinks it is more useful to writers than merely “patting them on the back and saying ‘what you’ve written is splendid’.”

More stories by Arac de Nyeko are in the pipeline. A story is to appear in “Dreams, Miracles and jazz”, an anthology of new African writing edited by a former Caine Prize winner, Nigerian Helon Habila, and the literary activist of Sierra Leonean descent Kadija Sesay. The anthology is published this year by Picador Africa. She also has a story in the anthology “City Link and Other Stories”.

Arac de Nyeko’s skills in building narrative and creating characters, and her arresting use of language and her breadth of vision, suggest she has the makings of a great novelist. She is frequently asked when she is going to write a novel, and is currently working on a piece that is longer than her stories. But beyond confirming that the new work is set in Uganda, she declines to give details at this stage.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette July 16 2007

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