Wednesday, July 15, 2009

caine prize winner e c osondu of nigeria

EC Osondu at the awards ceremony holds the latest Caine anthology "Work in Progress and other Stories" which includes the stories of all five 2009 Caine finalists (published by New Internationalist Publications in the UK and Jacana Media in South Africa).

Short story on displacement wins Caine Prize for African Writing
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette July 13 2009

Announcing last Monday that the Nigerian writer EC Osondu had won the tenth 10,000-pounds ($16,000) Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story “Waiting”, the chair of the Caine judge Nana Yaa Mensah praised the story as “a tour de force describing, from a child’s point of view, the dislocating experience of being a displaced person.” The announcement of Osondu’s victory was the climax of the Caine prize-giving dinner held in the Divinity School of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.

In an interview in London the day after winning the prize, Osondu told Saudi Gazette that “Waiting” had been inspired by his experience in 2005 of teaching a summer program in Syracuse, New York, to a group of Sudanese and Somali youngsters uprooted from Africa by conflict.
“I was their creative writing instructor, and we ended up telling stories instead of writing them,” said the genial Osondu, who radiates a calm energy. “One of the things that struck me most about these guys, which is what informed my story, is that they were the happiest people on earth. They were always smiling. I thought that if I’m going to write this story, I have to write it so that their laughter shines through.”
“Waiting” is set in an African refugee camp and is narrated by a young boy who has been encouraged to write by a kindly nun who has also given him “Waiting for Godot” to read. In a simple, yet powerful passage, the boy explains why his name is Orlando Zaki. “Orlando is taken from Orlando, Florida, which is what is written on the T-shirt give to me by the Red Cross. Zaki is the name of the town where I was found and from which I was brought to this refugee camp.” His friends in the camp are similarly known by the inscriptions written on their T-shirts.
The children are waiting for a photographer to take their pictures, which the Red Cross will send to people abroad. The children hope that the pictures will lead to their being adopted. Orlando hears from his friend Acapulco that there used to be dogs in the camp, but during a time of food shortage the dogs turned on the people and tore a child to pieces. Osondu comments: “It has been known for dogs to grow suddenly aggressive, and this is like what the country has done to its children. The country has suddenly turned on its children and started eating them up.”
Osondu had pursued a career in advertising in Nigeria at one time, and he says this background helps him produce the lean prose for which the Caine judges praised him. “Because I used to be an advertising copywriter, the urge to pare down, to contract, is very strong,” he explained.
He had a number of short stories published in anthologies in Nigeria, and was then offered a place on the three-year Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing course at Syracuse University, New York. He now teaches creative writing in the English Department at Providence College, Rhode Island.
This is not the first time that Osondu has been shortlisted for the Caine Prize, which is awarded for a short story of between 3,000 and 10,000 words written by an African writer and published in English. In 2007 he was shortlisted for “Jimmy Carter’s Eyes” which tells the story of a village girl who is blinded by boiling cooking oil and gains a kind of second sight.
There were 122 entries for the Caine Prize this year, from 12 African countries. The four writers shortlisted along with Osondu were Ghanaian Mamle Kabu for her story “The End of Skill”, South African Alistair Morgan with “Icebergs”, and two Kenyans – Parselelo Kantai with “You Wreck Her”, and Mukoma wa Ngugi for “How Kamau wa Mwangi Escaped into Exile”. In addition to the cash prize, the Caine winner is awarded a month at Georgetown University as a Writer in Residence, with all travel and living expenses covered.

Osondu’s short stories have over the years appeared in a variety of anthologies, magazines and online publications. His growing stature within African literature was confirmed recently by the inclusion of one of his stories in “Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing.”
“Waiting” first appeared in the arts and politics magazine Guernica.

Other Osondu stories to have won accolades include “A Letter From Home”, published in Boston University’s AGNI literary journal. It was chosen by the Million Writers Award as one of the top ten online short stories of 2006. The story “Teeth” won Stone Canoe Journal’s Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize for Fiction in 2007.
Osondu’s story in the current issue of Fiction Magazine, “An Incident at Pat’s Bar”, features an American oil company executive who is kidnapped in Nigeria’s Niger Delta.

While the majority of Osondu’s stories are set in Nigeria, others involve Nigerians in America. He is intrigued by what happens to immigrants when they are taken out of their “natural ecology”. He asks: “How are immigrants affected by new geographies? How does it change them: does it turn them into better people, or into lunatics?”
Osondu’s winning of the Caine Prize is bound to increase the interest of publishers in his work. Although a collection of short stories has been in preparation for some time, his priority now is to finish the novel he is writing. “But I’m taking my time, I refuse to pressure myself into rushing pell-mell to finish it because of this prize,” he said.
Osondu reads widely, and is particularly impressed by the work of certain Arab writers, including Egyptian Alaa al-Aswany’s novel “The Yacoubian Building”. His fondness for Arab literature was sparked by the novels of Egyptian Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz and the works of playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim, including “The Fate of a Cockroach”.
Osondu says: “There is a certain love of storytelling in literature from the Arab world – this ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ quality – that I admire so much.” Like African writing, Arab writing is rooted in story, narrative and the oral tradition. “When I read ‘The Cairo Trilogy’ by Naguib Mahfouz I said this voice sounds similar to the voices I hear in my own neighborhood.” Osondu also has a penchant for the songs of the great Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum: “When you listen to her it’s like poetry.”
Caine update: In the ten years since the inception of the Caine Prize its winners and finalists have notched up an impressive roster of achievements. Now Jonathan Cape has published a novel, "On Black Sisters' Street", by Nigerian Chika Unigwe who was shortlisted for the Caine in 2004 for her story "The Secret" and who lives in Belgium.

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