Monday, July 02, 2012

Caine Prize shortlisted writers meet their readers at 'Africa Writes'

 Tricia Wombell, Stanley Kenani and Billy Kahora

The five writers shortlisted for this year’s Caine prize for African Writing have been arriving in London in recent days for the prizegiving dinner at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library tonight. The £10,000 prize is for a short story of 3,000-10,000 words. This year's shortlist was chosen by a panel of judges - chaired by author and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Bernardine Evaristo - from 122 entries from 14 African countries.

Rotimi Babatunde 

The shortlisted writers are: Rotimi Babatunde of Nigeria for Bombay's Republic; Billy Kahora of Kenya for Urban Zoning; Stanley Kenani of Malawi for  Love on Trial; Melissa Tandiwe Myambo of Zimbabwe for  La Salle de Départ; and Constance Myburgh (the pen name of Jenna Bass) of South Africa for Hunter Emmanuel. The five stories are posted on the Caine Prize website. Kenani was first shortlisted  in 2008, with the story For Honour. In 2007 the Caine judges highly commended Kahora’s non-shortlisted story Treadmill Love.

As has been customary in the prize's 13-year existence, the shortlisted writers participate in a number of events in London in the days before and after the announcement of the winner. A well-attended event in the Brunei Gallery at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University on Saturday afternoon stressed the writer-reader relationship: it was entitled “The 2012 Caine Prize Authors Meet Their Readers.”

The event was part of the inaugural two-day 'Africa Writes' literary weekend, a celebration of contemporary African writing. Africa Writes is organised by the Royal African Society (RAS) and is to be held annually. Its ten partners include the Caine Prize, Black Reading Group and Black Book News Blog, and the London Afro-Caribbean Book Club.

The writers on the stage of the Brunei Gallery were flanked by the joint chairs of the event: Tricia Wombell of the Black Reading Group and Black Book News Blog, and Jacquie Auma of the London Afro-Caribbean Book Club. Wombell explained that the two book groups had come together on 27 May to discuss the five stories shortlisted for the Caine Prize. The joint meeting was held in the slot of the  regular monthly meeting of the Black Reading Group, held at Waterstones book shop in Piccadilly on the last Sunday of every month. Before the 27 May meeting Wombell recorded on her blog her first impressions of each story, and listed several questions for possible discussion.

At the event Wombell and Auma discussed the stories with their authors and raised some of the questions posed by members of their book groups. The floor was then thrown open for questions from members of the largely black and relatively youthful audience.

The format of the event made for a notably lively and frank session. This was very much Wombell's aim. In advance of the event she wrote on her Black Book News Blog: “This is an exciting first for us. In 2010 I went to my first Caine Prize discussion and could not quite get my head round why the talk was totally framed in a very formal and academic mindset.” She added: “ I know that Black Reading Group members will have stretching and searching questions, and I am really looking forward to an event that brings book clubbers - who love to read and talk about what they have read, face-to-face with an exciting group of supremely talented writers.”

Constance Myburgh 

The Black Reading Group is London's longest-running black book group, founded 13 years ago. The London Afro-Caribbean Book Club meets monthly in a restaurant; its members "read books by Afro-Caribbean, Afro-American or African authors, or any books that explore the current state of affairs of people of African origin all over the world".

The launching of the Caine Prize in 2000 has helped intensify the interest in African writing this century. The establishing of Africa Writes is a further sign of the growing appetite for the continent's literature. The past couple of years have seen a rapid growth in social networking activity around the Caine Prize. Last year a handful of Africa-related literary bloggers started an interlinked "blogging the Caine" circle critiquing each shortlisted story in turn in the weeks before the winner was announced. Some bloggers subjected last year's shortlist to considerable criticism, and it was alleged that Caine Prize shortlists focus on stereotypes of Africa: poverty, war, disease, the plight of children. Some bloggers used the over-the-top phrase "poverty porn".

Such allegations (which some observers felt were unfair and overblown) may have hit home: the chair of the 2012 judges Bernardine Evaristo said on announcing 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.”

This year the circle of Caine blogs expanded; in general the assessments of the shortlisted stories have been more favourable than in 2011. Bur the bloggers have varied widely in their opinions on the individual stories, and no clear frontrunner has emerged from what many consider to be one of the strongest-ever Caine shortlists. 

Love on Trial

Stanley  Kenani's story is centred around a gay Malawi villager, Charles, and begins with a drunken raconteur telling of how he stumbled across Charles and another young man in flagrante delicto. "The drunkard spreads the story at a price - a tot of kachasu, a popular drink in Malawi," Kenani said. "The story attracts the attention of the authorities and they arrest Charles. He gives some embarrassing public interviews and eventually goes through a trial in a court of law and is convicted for 12 years in prison, with hard labour." 

Kenani was asked about new Malawi president Joyce Banda's pledging in May to repeal the laws banning homosexuality. "It's one thing to announce and pass a law, it's another thing to change the mentality," he said. Banda had been in power for just one month when she made her announcement, and "people wrote the obituary for her political career on the strength of that statement."

Stanley Kenani  
Asked how his story had been received in Malawi, given its subject matter, Kenani said it  was published in South Africa and has not yet been published in Malawi. But it has been "read there and understood and appreciated in the context of the Caine Prize." People in Malawi are excited that Malawi is for a second time represented on the Caine shortlist - once again through Kenani - and he has "not received objective feedback, much as they may have issues with the story. Their reaction is muted, buried in the excitement." 

Kenani said of his story "if this is the least I can contribute to changing the mentality of people, so be it." He admitted he had long ago been anti-gay and had "agreed with Robert Mugabe's assertion that gays are Western dogs and pigs. But my views have evolved... because over the years I've made friends with people who are gay, and I've got some of the strongest friendships with them, and they are as normal as everybody else."

But Kenani warned that apart from Malawians who live outside the country, and some human rights activists, "I have yet to meet a single Malawian on the ground - whatever their standing in society, from the high and mighty to the hoi polloi - who supports homosexuality and the repeal of the laws." Ask a passer by in the street about homosexuality and  "you always get the response that Malawi is turning  from a God-fearing nation to a donor-fearing nation: homosexuality is always perceived to be an agenda of the donor countries - which to a large extent is the truth."

When told that some members of the reading group had thought his story might have been chosen for the shortlist because it promotes liberal Western views, Kenani said: "I normally choose not to abuse the intellect of the [Caine] judges. They are very independent people, who choose on merit."

Wombell said one of the biggest discussions on Kenani's story in her bookclub revolved around the feeling from some readers that they were reading a newspaper story rather than a short story: "Did you intend that? Was it deliberate?"

Kenani said "a story is a story - the story just comes. The first thing before I write a story is the voice and the moment I find the voice it's OK, I want to tell it, I want the voice to flow, it comes. Whether in the end it sounded like a newspaper  does not matter much to me. What matters is that the reader read the story and understood it and appreciated it in the way it was written."

La Salle de Départ

Zimbabwean writer Melissa Tandiwe Myambo's story La Salle de Départ is set in Senegal (hence the French title), where this much-travelled writer spent some of her university days. "I was studying in America and they tried to prevent me going to Senegal, saying 'you are already studying in America'.  But I managed to persaude them and went there and it was a very eye-opening experience."

The story is "about a brother [Ibou] and sister [Fatima] and a tense conversation they have because the brother has emigrated from Senegal to the US and the sister who is still in Senegal wants him to take her son to live with him in America because she thinks that will give him more opportunity. I think it's really  about when a community-oriented culture meets with a more individualistic capitalism, as the brother has become - I'm not very happy with clichés such as 'Westernised' - the brother is now part of another culture as well as being Senegalese where people are in a very community oriented culture. So it's about that conflict because they both have very different views of time and space, literally what time means and what space means." There is a cultural conflict within the family: "I don't want to valorise either culture becuase they both have problems. The more community-oriented one relies on women's labour to keep it going."

Auma said the story had "resonated with a lot of us in reading group discussions because many of us, are from different places."

Melissa said: "The story is set in Senegal but I think that many people can relate to it - I could have set the story in Zimbabwe, or in many other countries, in India, where there is a community-oriented culture and extended family system versus a more self-involved capitalism. Looking back I see I have quite a lot of stories about Senegal, so it really inspired me as a place and I think it's because I saw parallels there with was very formative for me to go to Senegal."

Her first collection of short stories Jacaranda Journals is about Zimbabwe: the stories in her second collection Airport Stories on which she is currently working, and of which La Salle de Départ is one, "is about other places I've been .".

Wombell said "we really enjoyed how you made the character who stayed at home so ambitious." Melissa explained: "I wrote this story originally for the character who doesn't migrate because there are many women who I know in Senegal, in Zimbabwe, who will never have the opportunity to travel - not that everybody wants to travel - travel can be overrated." She wrote the story as a tribute "to a friend of mine in Senegal who has never left Senegal and may never leave because it is very difficult for African passports to get visas, and for my cousin in Zimbabwe whose education was cut short by my uncle, and also for a friend of mine from secondary school.

"So I did write very much from the perspective of the person who doesn't leave, which is very much an untold story...  when I first wrote the story it was very much from the sister Fatima's  perspective, but a friend of  mine read it and said 'you know it's not fair to the brother' and because the brother's Egyptian girlfriend [Ghada] features in another story I said yes, I must give more to Ibou, the character of the I went back to the story in the second or third draft and tried to give Ibou a fair chance to defend himself"

Melissa said Ibou was very much a good brother, and that Fatima had her own flaws and problems. "You can see Fatima is oppressed by patriarchy but yet recreates patriarchy with her own son. So many women do that - women have a girl child and a boy child and they make the girl child clean the house, the boy child is lying on the bed doing nothing, and they recreate the exact system that oppresses them".

She wanted the reader to love Fatima but alsoto love Ibou "because all characters come from some place inside of me and I love all my characters, but they're not perfect. All the characters are very trapped, even Ibou although he's the one with the great future in Great America etc - he is very trapped and Fatima is also trapped and that is what I think is painful"

Hunter Emmanuel

Wombell said it was exciting to see Constance Myburgh's detective story Hunter Emmanuel on the shortlist because it is a genre story, whereas the Caine Prize tends to focus on literary fiction. Constance Myburgh is the pseudonym of 25-year-old filmmaker Jenna Bass who has worked inter alia as a music video director, cinematographer, band photographer and magician. Bass said her main reason for writing under a pseudonym was that when she started her African pulp fiction magazine Jungle Jim last year,"we didn't have too many writers originally, and I wanted to write a story but I didn't want to publish it under my own name."  She added "the first story I published in the magazine was pretty much the first story I published anywhere and being South African I was obviously very insecure .."

Myburgh's story aroused particularly strong reactions among the Caine bloggers. Some hated it, but Matthew Cheney on his blog The Mumpsimus says it is one of the two shortlisted stories he most enjoyed,  and quotes a "wonderful lyric passage" set in the forest.

Blogger Ikhide (Ikhide R. Ikheloa) writes:  "I imagine this story may be classified as genre writing under the umbrella of pulp fiction, I am not sure. Bass is a good writer, expertly delivering muscular prose and believable dialogue". In his view the story is "a morality story" on the evils of misogyny and so on. "Bass, the writer has my respect. There is a lot of imagination here, even if most of it is inchoate and disconnected from reality, thanks to perhaps a desire to arrive at a story’s (non) conclusion. She will only get better as her demons mature in the darkness that is her South Africa. She should probably be given the Caine Prize this year if only to encourage her to keep babbling. It would make great copy. I can see it now.." 

Myburgh summed up her story as a detective story set in Cape Town and featuring ex-policeman turned lumberjack Hunter Emmanuel who is "very complexed about what he should be doing with his life. In the process of cutting down trees he discovers a woman's leg hanging from a tree and it triggers his love of investigation." As well as being a crime story, it is about Cape Town and its "pervasive atmosphere of desperation."

Wombell was curious as to whether Hunter is black or white; it is not made explicit in the text. Myburgh explained the term coloured "which was used in a very offensive way during apartheid and is now used of a culture that is really specific to South Africa and to the Western Cape and to Cape Town. It has confused some people because there are very specific elements to this character."

 issue 6 of Jungle Jim magazine in which Mayburgh's story appears

Asked if she sees her story as a "purely detective" story, working towards a solution, Constance said she approaches story writing in the same way she does her film writing "which is that the audience is giving you two hours of their life, and that's a lot of time, and I feel that just to tell the story is not enough, I feel like that's wasting someone's time. For example this story is a set of events, a journey, a solution - but that doesn't quite feel enough for me. I'm not really interested in writing something which is just A to B to C - arriving at a solution is just not enough.

"Why I love detective stories, but noir specifically, is that --of course you have to have some resolution but detectives in noir are always ultimately defeated by the unknowability or life. What they are really chasing is a truth, about not just the murderer ...  but they are chasing  the answer to life, and of course we can never really get that far ourselves and ultimately they are always defeated."

Wombell said there was a lot of talk in her reading group around the prostitute whose leg has been cut off, called derogatorily by characters in the story Zara Swart (swart is Afrikaans for black); some readers wondered why the story dealt with her so negatively.

Myburgh said: "These are tough times wherever you are and there is an element of our society which is very misogynistic, which calls women names, and to exclude that from our stories would be to deny that aspect of life. I certainly don't feel that way." She added that the story is "very much from Hunter Emmanuel's perspective and he has a very strange relationship with women I'm sure. I think that's reflected, and I think throughout the story that is challenged a lot because he encounters someone who he cannot understand. In the past maybe women in his life have been people he has condescended to because he's always thought he's understood them but Swart is a complete enigma and he just cannot understand her motivations and why she's done what she's done."

At one point in the story Hunter sees "the bleeding stumps of the trees they'd cut the day before." Asked about the environmental aspects of her story, Mayburgh said the cutting down of trees in the forest was happening at the time she wrote it - "I'd never seen anything like it; he talks about it in the story looking like a bomb dropped in the mountain, it really did look like that, it was such an intense image...What surprised me a lot about Cape Town was that in many ways it has these different multiple universes, environmentally as well, you commute from the  docks to the city to the forest in 10 minutes... ".

On the question of whether there are plans for Hunter Emmanuel to feature in  a series of stories, Myburgh said this had been her idea originally. "I love the idea of creating a character maybe as durable as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, with multiple stories, dealing with new cases. I have been writing his other adventures and I hope I will publish them."

Bombay Republic

Babatunde's story is about a Nigerian named Bombay who goes to fight the Japanese in Burma for the British during the Second World War.  "His life was transformed in many ways by that experience. He comes back to Nigeria and he wants to set up  his own republic." Colour Sergeant Bombay, who is armed, takes over a deserted jailhouse, lowers the imperial flag and declares independence from the British Empire.

During his service in Burma, while on sentry duty he had killed an unstable and aggressive white bombardier who had been grounded. He planned to kill himself (he remembered Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe's novel Things fall Apart committing suicide after killing a white man, "an arrogant constable of the new colonisers") but to his amazement Bombay is commended by his commanding officer for his action. He returns to Nigeria heavily decorated for his bravery.

During the Second World War the British 14th Army was composed of units from Commonwealth countries including from Africa. It has been referred to as the "Forgotten Army" because its contributions to British military campaigns were for long neglected.

Babatunde noted that most African soldiers were "quite proud to fight for the empire". But for Bombay "there was a slight shift, I think he was watching more, observing, he was neutral - by the end of the war he knew where he was going." (There is an interview with Babatunde on his story on Pen International  - Babatunde is among other things the chair of Nigeria's PEN Writers in Prison Committee).

Wombell told Babatunde that this had been the shortlisted story that her book club members had wanted to go back to.  "One of the issues was around  the character of Bombay and they wondered why, on his return, you made him so singular, so individual."

Babatunde said the crux of his story is about choice:" This was a man whose sense of the possible was widened when he went to war so on coming back he made a radical choice which he couldn't have made before the war." Wombell discussed with Babatunde the research he had done for the story in terms of speaking to soldiers who had served in Burma. He said he had grown up listening to stories from former soldiers and had done more systematic research in recent years including online. He had wanted to know "how it was, the real life experience" for African soldiers in Burma, rather than the processed works of historians.

Urban Zoning

Billy Kahora said his story is "about a young man in Nairobi in the 1990s who is going through a lot of personal  stuff. But the foregound of the story is him trying to defend himself before his employers and trying to defend his behaviour over the last few days. He meets a committee which grills him about why he's been an absentee from work." The character is facing "a lot of stuff that's happening in his life He's having problems with his mum who has just had some issues. He is almost completely drunk, trying to go between sobriety, the present, the past, the future, and trying to find himself between all these things."

Auma said Urban Zoning was one of the stories that "polarised our group. Some of us really liked Kandle, the anti-hero - and others just couldn't stand him. Was Kandle based on your personal experience, or on someone that you know?"

 Billy Kahora

Kahora replied that his story is "a collage of many things. For me he's a metaphor, a collective kind of attitude, a collective kind of behaviour, a collective kind of experience that I think I went through ... it is my view of 1990s Nairobi. He is a repository of all these things. But he is also a way for me to try and figure out what all this stuff meant. What does this sort of behaviour mean, this kind of absurdity. I really tried to ratch up the absurdity through him. But also to try and see it as a combination of a kind of good and bad mixed up stuff where he is going through all these confusions ."

When Wombell said "a lot of us struggle  to find the good in him" Kahora said it's not so much a question of good as that "these are tough times, times that are not for the weak. His experiences cover a lot of this generation - alcoholism,  car accidents." Kahora is interested in how people survive without going insane or becoming sick: Kandle becomes "a hustler - a sly kind of character who is trying to negotiate himself through this tough time."

Kahora pointed out that the story is set in the 1990s, with an 18-year-old protagonist. "Now that I am slightly older I tend to think of the 90s as the craziest, most explosive time, but somebody who is 18 right now tells me that it's even worse now." He was "specifically interested in capturing a time I feel was significant for my generation."

Auma said one thing she struggled with was the story's  portrayal of women. "Women are passed around ... there are young girls whose panties are collected by ministers. I thought the treatment of women was quite harsh." 

Kahora repeated that the story is set in tough times when people of that generation were "going through a lot of crazy things... but the real reason Kandle is having these problems is that something has  happened to his mother - this is the biggest thing. I don't know if it comes through, that this kind of collapse he is going through is really related to a woman he loves very much, and he is unable to deal with that in reality." 

Kahora said that a certain kind of class in sub-Sahran Africa "can get away with murder simply because they have enough money, family networks and contacts to buy their children off a lot of things." Kandle and the people he is associated with "are committing all kinds of social atrocities..."  

Do you consider yourself African writers? 

When the floor was opened to questions from the audience, the first question was: "In terms of the idea of things like double consciousness in the age of globalisation, in what sense do you consider yourselves African writers?"

Stanely Kenani said such a question irritates him; writers from across Europe are never asked whether they consider themselves European. "I am Malawian and I'm an African - as Wole Soyinka has said, a tiger cannot question its 'tigritude'. It is redundant to ask a tiger whether it considers itself tiger-like. I don't know the intention - what kind of response people want to get. Because many high-profile journalists whether it's from the BBC, CNN, or whatever will always ask you that question, 'do you consider yourself an African writer?'" To applause he declared: It's not a question that I will answer, unless one day I hear them ask a French writer whether they consider themselves European."

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo told the questioner:  "When you ask that question, you also have to tell us what your definition of African is." The questioner said:  "It will take a while - I guess history, tradition, culture, that is why I also squeezed in the narrative of double conciousness, I think we are part of that world and also part of another world, we all share the same world in a sense. I wondered if individually in your approach to your works you don't start out thinking 'I am an African writer, writing an African story' -  you're just writing stories, I imagine."

Melissa said it is such a difficult question to answer, with people disagreeing on the definition of African.  "Some people don't think North Africa is part of Africa - if I am in Egypt and I tell someone I am going to Uganda they say 'oh, you're going to Africa'. If I'm in South Africa and going even to Botswana, they say 'oh, you're going to Africa'. So if South Africa doesn't want to be in Africa, and Egypt doesn't want to be in Africa, then really who is in Africa?"

Myambosa added that "characters come to me, who knows where they are from? - I have a  novel about a Korean adopted by a white American family - who knows why I wrote that. ...On the other hand as Africans, especially as we have borders imposed on us from outside, I think we as African writers should question the nature of borders."

Rotimi Babtunde recalled the British poet Craig Raine and his "Martian" movement of writers "writing from the point of view of Martians, and I'm not sure it was about us! I wouldn't mind being a Martian writer. In Nigeria, am I a Yoruba writer? A Nigerian writer? An African writer? or a non-African writer?  "I want to write as freely as possible, not under any constraints."

Another member of the audience, a Nigerian who has lived in the UK for many years, saying he was speaking as a supplement to the first question, said  "there is a sense that the African fiction of this generation speaks only to a Western consciousness. For a Nigerian like me there's a lot happening in Nigeria which is not captured by fiction, or by what I call documentary writing. A lot of the kidnapping that goes on, a lot of the militancy."  It is difficult to see any African fiction "that captures the schism that happened between the 80s and the 90s when a lot of us came here as economic refugees bascially - we can say what we like about it, that's what we came here as.  There is very little that captures the experience of our generation and I think when he talks about double consciousness, that's what this question speaks to. I personally don't think it's something we should trivialise because I think there's a vacuum in African writing."

Billy Kahora  said he is not sure that literature covers whatever percentage of whatever assumptions of realilties are going on at any time. He asked whether there are silences about specific things, and said he agrees, but  he doesn't know that this has anything to do with "African consciousness". His story addresses what he feels is "a particular silence about the 90s, not even in Kenya, not even in Nairobi, not even in the city centre, but in a particular neighbourhood. That is what I am interested in. It's already a struggle for me as a writer to capture a certain neighbourhood.. For me I think a writers' place is the specificity of the experience."

Stanely said he thinks sometimes too much is expected of an African writer. "Just because there is  hunger, famine war it doesn't mean we should all the time be giving a historical account." Babatune agreed with the questioner that a lot of stories from Africa are being lost at this moment, and for the past couple of decades. "I think we need more non-fiction books from Africa: that would take care of a lot of the issues that you mentioned."

Jacquie Auma

Caine anthology African Violet launched

At the conclusion of the event the new Caine Prize administrator Lizzy Attree ascended the stage. She flourished a copy of the hot-off-the-press Caine anthology for this year, African Violet, copies of which were instantly available for sale to those attending the event. The anthology includes this year's shortlisted stories plus ten stories produced at the Caine Prize Workshop held in South Africa in March this year. The workshop participants featured in the anthology are Mehul Gohil, Grace Khunou, Lauri
Kubuitsile, Beatrice Lamwaka, Brenda Mukami, Tendai Rinos Mwanaka, Waigwa Ndiangui,
Yewande Omotoso, Rehana Roussouw, and Rachel Zadok.

Report and pictures by Susannah Tarbush

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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