Tuesday, May 01, 2012

caine prize shortlisted stories go 'beyond stereotypical narratives'

Ben Okri at a 2009 event at British Library to mark Caine Prize's 10th anniversary

The five-story shortlist  for the 2012 Caine Prize for African Writing was announced today by renowned Nigerian writer Ben Okri OBE, the Prize's new Vice President. The winner of the £10,000 prize will be announced at a celebratory dinner to be held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford University, on Monday 2 July. The chair of the judges, author and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature Bernardine Evaristo, described the shortlist as "truly diverse fiction from a truly diverse continent.” But once again there is no shortlistee from an Arab African country.

The Caine Prize, now in its 13th year, claims to be Africa's leading literary award. It goes to  a short story by an African writer published in English - whether originally written in English, or translated -  3,000 to 10,000 words in length.

 Melissa Tandiwe Myambo

The shortlisted stories were selected  from 122 entries from 14 African countries. The shortlistees are:  Rotimi Babatunde (Nigeria) for ‘Bombay's Republic’ from Mirabilia Review Vol. 3.9 (Lagos, 2011) -- Billy Kahora (Kenya) ‘Urban Zoning’ from McSweeney’s Vol. 37 (San Francisco, 2011) -- Stanley Kenani (Malawi) ‘Love on Trial’ from For Honour and Other Stories published by eKhaya/Random House Struik (Cape Town, 2011) -- Melissa Tandiwe Myambo (Zimbabwe) ‘La Salle de Départ’ from Prick of the Spindle Vol. 4.2 (New Orleans, June, 2010) -- Constance Myburgh (South Africa) ‘Hunter Emmanuel’ from Jungle Jim Issue 6, (Cape Town, 2011). The five stories are posted on the Caine Prize website caineprize.com

Stanley Kenani and his collection For Honour and Other Stories

Last year the Caine prize, and the stories on the 2011 shortlist, came in for quite a bit of criticism particularly in social media and on blogs and websites. Some asked whether a prize for African writing is needed, and why the Caine Prize is for a short story rather than - as is the case with other members of the Booker family of literary prizes - for a novel. There were also questions over how Africa is being represented in Caine Prize stories, and whether the stories chosen for the shortlist somehow focus on stereotypes of Africa as in an effort to please Western audiences. Nigerian writer and critic Ikhide Ikheloa railed (and in the view of some went over the top) against the prize and shortlist, alleging that "the Caine Prize is beginning to behave like much of the aid that is funneled towards Africa and black nations. The wrong people are benefitting from the West’s fascination with all things impoverished and African."

A handful of bloggers started a "blogging the Caine" circle,  critiquing each shortlisted story in turn in the weeks before the winner was announced. Some critics seemed much less interested in the literary and aesthetic qualities of the shortlisted stories, than in the subject matter, such as the gang of poor children in 'Hitting Budapest', last year's winning story by Zimbabwean writer No Violet Bulawayo. And some of the criticism was harsh indeed. Aaron Bady who blogs as Zunguzungu wrote of  "the familiar genre of Africa-poverty-pornography" in his largely unsympathetic review of "Hitting Budapest." But, while noting Bady's comment, Professor Neelika Jayawardane wrote in a blog post: "The finesse of Bulawayo’s writing, I think, rescues this story from the grasping crassness of poverty-porn". Jayawardane found that "the nuances in the ordinaryness of the violence that the children encounter in 'Hitting Budapest' —and the impossibility of mutuality, despite what Levinas writes about regarding the lives of Others—is executed in such subtle terms that the painful is sublimely beautiful at times."

Constance Myburgh (the pen name of South African filmmaker, photographer, writer and retired magician Jenna Bass)

Bernardine Evaristo said of this year's shortlist: "I’m proud to announce that this shortlist shows the range of African fiction beyond the more stereotypical narratives. These stories have an originality and facility with language that made them stand out. We’ve chosen a bravely provocative homosexual story set in Malawi; a Nigerian soldier fighting in the Burma Campaign of WW2; a hardboiled noir tale involving a disembodied leg; a drunk young Kenyan who outwits his irate employers; and the tension between Senegalese siblings over migration and family responsibility.”

In addition to Evaristo this year's panel of judges compriswes cultural journalist Maya Jaggi; Zimbabwean poet, songwriter and writer Chirikure Chirikure; Associate Professor at Georgetown University, Washington DC Samantha Pinto, and the Sudanese CNN television correspondent Nima Elbagir.

 Ellah Allfrey

Okri  was announced as the Vice President of the Prize last week. Ellah Allfrey OBE, deputy Editor of Granta magazine, is the new Deputy Chair. Okri has been involved with the Caine Prize from its beginning, and was the chairman of the judges in the prize's first year. In that inaugural year the prize  went to Egyptian-Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela, who has since flourished as a novelist and short story writer. But few other Arab African writers have been shortlisted for the Prize, and none has won.

Okri's championing of the prize was evident in a  gave a speech he gave in October 2009 at an event held in the British Library at the start of a Caine writers' tour of England to mark the Prize's 10th anniversary. Okri described the Caine Prize as being “the result of a love story: Baroness Emma Nicholson’s love for Michael Caine, and Michael Caine’s love for Africa.” The late Sir Michael Caine was the former chairman of Booker plc and for nearly 25 years chairman of the Booker Prize management committee. After his death, his widow Baroness Nicholson, a Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament, launched the Caine Prize in his memory. (The Caine Prize is often referred to as "the African Booker").

The Prize represents “the translation of grief into dream, and of the dream into reality,” Okri said in his 2009 speech. He  recalled how when the prize was first launched “we didn’t know how it was going to turn out; it had never been done before. I thought it was an extraordinary adventure: submissions were invited and suddenly from all over the continent these entries started coming in. We read our way through hundreds of stories.” Okri noted that the prize had in its first decade been won by five women and five men: “There has been no gender bias.” [The figures are now six men and six women, with Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo having won last year and Sierra Leonean Olufemi Terry in 2010].

Okri said he had warmed to the Caine Prize because it is for a short story. “I have always felt that the short story is, apart from the sonnet, the most difficult literary form,” he said. “I think what defines it is some mysterious element of inner completion in a small space.” What the Caine Prize had done in it first 10 years was "the enabling of a new generation of African writers scattered all over the globe."

Since the awarding of the 2011 Caine Prize, Dr Lizzy Attree has taken over as the Prize's administrator, succeeding Nick Ellam. Attree says: “This year’s shortlist represents the best of short African fiction published worldwide. I’m looking forward to working with Ben Okri and Ellah Allfrey to continue to establish the Caine Prize as the mark of excellence in African literature.”

As in previous years the shortlisted stories, together with stories produced at a Caine workshop in Africa, will appear in an anthology to be published in  June 2012 by New Internationalist. The anthology will also be published in South Africa by Jacana Media, and in Nigeria by Cassava Republic.

 Kenyan writer Billy Kahora, who has been one of Granta Magazine's New Voices.

The shortlisted writers will read from their work in London at the Royal Over-Seas League on Thursday, 28 June at 7pm and at the Southbank Centre on Sunday 1 July at 5pm. On Saturday 30 June at 3pm they will take part in the Africa Writers Festival at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, organised by the Royal African Society.

Once again the winner Caine Prize will be given the opportunity of taking up a month’s residence at Georgetown University, as a Writer-in-Residence at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. The award will cover all travel and living expenses. The winner will also be invited to take part in the Open Book Festival in Cape Town in September 2012 and events at the Museum of African Art in New York in November 2012.

Last year's winner NoViolet Bulawayo of Zimbabwe has subsequently been awarded the highly-regarded two-year Stegner Writing Fellowship at Stanford University, in the United States and her debut novel, ‘We Need New Names’, is forthcoming from Little, Brown in North America.

Previous winners are Sudan’s Leila Aboulela (2000), Nigerian Helon Habila (2001), Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina (2002), Kenyan Yvonne Owuor (2003), Zimbabwean Brian Chikwava (2004), Nigerian Segun Afolabi (2005), South African Mary Watson (2006), Ugandan Monica Arac de Nyeko (2007), South African Henrietta Rose-Innes (2008), Nigerian EC Osondu (2009) and Sierra Leonean Olufemi Terry.

The Caine Prize is principally sponsored by The Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, the Booker Prize Foundation, and Miles Morland. Other funders include the British Council, The Beit Trust, The Thistle Trust, the Royal Overseas League and Kenya Airways.

An “African writer” is normally taken to mean someone who was born in Africa, or who is a national of an African country, or whose parents are African. The African winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer and J M Coetzee, are Patrons of The Caine Prize, as is Chinua Achebe, winner of the Man Booker International Prize. Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne is President of the Council and Jonathan Taylor is the Chairman.
Susannah Tarbush

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