Monday, July 12, 2010

olufemi terry wins caine prize

[picture above: Olufemi Terry with bust of Sir Michael Caine]

First time for Sierra Leonean
By Susannah Tarbush - Saudi Gazette 12 July 2010
Caine Prize 2010 In his story “Stickfighting Days”, which won the Caine Prize for African Writing last week, the Sierra Leonean writer Olufemi Terry references the great British fantasy writer JRR Tolkien whose world of Middle-earth has captivated children around the world for more than 70 years.
The 13-year-old first person narrator Raul lives on a rubbish tip in an unnamed location. He and the other boys living in the dump sniff glue and fight with sticks. The “judge”, who arbitrates between the fights, has told the boys stories from Tolkien and Raul has secretly named his two sticks Mormegil and Orcrist after swords in Tolkien’s oeuvre. The narrator expresses an urge to eliminate his stickfighting rival: “I like Markham, but I’d like to kill him. I dream of doing it in front of a huge pack of boys. Clinically.” The story builds to a shocking end.
Speaking to Saudi Gazette the day after winning the prize, Terry said Tolkien had influenced the first story he ever wrote at an early age when he was at a boarding school in the northern English country of Yorkshire. The rules by which the rubbish tip boys live and fight have echoes of the arcane rituals of boys’ public schools in England.
In “Stickfighting Days” Terry choreographs the fights with such skill, engaging the reader viscerally in every move and reaction of the fighters, that one might assume he draws on minute observation of actual fights. But Terry says: “I made up all the stickfighting. Although stickfighting exists in different parts of Africa I didn’t watch it. But I did observe boys sniffing glue on the streets of Nairobi.”
He says the story “came out of me easily – I can’t say that always happens – and poured out as a torrent over a week or 10 days.” Terry’s story, which first appeared in Chimurenga magazine, was among the 115 entries from 13 African countries for this year’s prize. He won against strong competition from the four other shortlisted writers: Ken Barris and Alex Smith of South Africa, Lily Mabura of Kenya and Namwali Serpell of Zambia.
Terry was born in Sierra Leone and is the first Sierra Leonean to win the Caine Prize. But he left his country of birth at the age of one and has not been back since the mid-1980s. He points out that he also has a Caribbean side: his mother is from the Antilles.
At the Caine prizegiving dinner, held in the medieval Divinity School of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, the chair of the five judges Fiammetta Rocco said Terry’s story “forces the reader to dwell on the short violent lives of African boys who live on urban garbage dumps sniffing glue and scavenging for food. Not a place many of you would like to visit, but guided by Mr Terry, you go anyway, unable utterly to stop reading.” She revealed that Terry had been “voted for by every single judge.”
Rocco added that the story is “ambitious, brave and hugely imaginative”. It presents “a heroic culture that is Homeric in its scale and conception. The execution of this story is so tight and the presentation so cinematic, it confirms Olufemi Terry as a talent with an enormous future.” The Caine prize, sometimes referred as the African Booker, is Africa’s most prestigious literary award. In addition to the £10,000 prize money the winner has the opportunity to spend a month as a writer in residence at Georgetown University, Washington DC.
Rocco, a third-generation Kenyan, is the literary editor of the Economist. Her fellow judges were Granta’s deputy editor Ellah Allfrey, the award-winning Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, Professor Jon Cook of the University of East Anglia and Professor Samantha Pinto of Georgetown University.
The prize was founded in 2000 in memory of Sir Michael Caine, who was for nearly 25 years the Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee. The prize is awarded for a short story of between 3,000 and 10,000 words, published in English.
Many previous winners and shortlistees of the Caine Prize are now prominent literary figures. They include Leila Aboulela, Binyavanga Wainaina, Chimanada Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila, and Chika Unigwe.

Terry hopes that winning the Caine Prize will boost the chances of publication of his first novel, which he started to write in 2000 while living in New York. He also hopes that the prize money will give him space to write.
“Stickfighting Days” and the four other shortlisted stories are published in this year’s Caine anthology “A Life in Full and Other Stories”, newly issued in the UK by New Internationalist, in South Africa by Jacana and in West Africa by Cassava Republic Press.
Terry also had a story, “Digitalis Lust”, published in the 2008 eighth annual collection of Caine Prize writing. As well as organizing the prize itself, the Caine Prize fosters African writing by holding writing workshops in Africa. It was at the Celtel Caine Prize African workshop held in Cape Town in 2008 that Terry wrote “Digitalis Lust”, a haunting tale of an emotionally isolated scientist who offers to help a woman, whom he visits for monthly “massages”, to slowly poison her handicapped sister.
Terry’s father is a distinguished plant expert and administrator who has held key posts at international agricultural research and development institutions in various countries. Terry grew up in Nigeria, the UK and Ivory Coast. He graduated from New York University in 1994 with a BA in Political Science, and from 1995 to 1998 he held several editing positions at the Wall Street Journal.
Terry also has a 2002 Master of Professional Studies in Interactive Telecommunications from New York University’s Tisch School. He has worked for a host of international organizations, including publications in the Economist group, researching, editing and writing reports on mainly African issues.
For the past three and a half years Terry has been living in Cape Town, where in 2008 he completed an MA at the University of Cape Town’s renowned center for creative writing. His MA thesis was the novel he has been working on over the past decade, “The Sum of All Losses.” This coming of age diasporic novel, set mainly in New York City, focuses on two Africans in their early twenties with very different backgrounds and experiences.
One of the young men is a Cameroonian who has been living in the US for around four years. The other is a Nigerian who lived in the UK before going to the US and who feels alienated from Nigeria, England and the US. “One of them does not survive the novel,” Terry says.
The novel has been through four or five drafts, and Terry is currently tweaking the final version. He hopes to have a publisher by the end of the year. Cape Town has an active publishing scene. But Terry says Cape Town publishers are most interested in novels which, unlike his, are by South African novelists or are set in South Africa. He thinks it is possible the novel will be published in Nigeria. However, with his literary star in the ascendant as a result of winning the Caine Prize, the novel would seem to have a good chance of being taken on by a UK or US publisher.
Asked about his favorite authors, Terry names Americans James Salter and Ernest Hemingway; the South Africans J. M. Coetzee and Damon Galgut (author of “The Good Doctor”) and Erich Maria Remarque (the Franco-German author of “All Quiet on the Western Front”). As regards British writers, he is partial to the work of Will Self.
Terry is also interested in reading authors of mixed heritage, such as the Anglo-Nigerian Diana Evans and Anglo-Sudanese Jamal Mahjoub. In particular he mentions Mahjoub’s novel “Travelling with Djinns”.
below: Baroness Emma Nicholson, president of the Caine Council, in Oxford with the shortlisted writers

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