Tuesday, May 22, 2012

bidisha launches book on palestine, chairs all-woman panel on international journalism

Anna Blundy (L) and Bidisha

On Wednesday evening four panellists – all of them women – discussed 'Writing a Path Through International Affairs: the challenges, rewards and responsibilities of international journalism' at the Mosaic Rooms in London. The writer, critic and broadcaster Bidisha chaired the event, which also marked the publication by Seagull Books of her fourth book Beyond the Wall: Writing A Path Through Palestine.

Earlier on Wednesday a memorial service for the American journalist Marie Colvin, of the London-based Sunday Times, had been held at St Martin-in-the-Fields Church on Trafalgar Square in central London. Colvin was killed with French photojournalist Remi Ochlik in the Syrian Army bombardment of a building housing the media in besieged Amr Baba, Homs, on 22 February. Sunday Times editor John Witherow described her in his address at the service as "the greatest war correspondent of her generation".  A book of Colvin's reporting, On the Front Line: The Collected Journalism of Marie Colvin 1986-2012, is newly out from HarperPress.

For the journalist and novelist Anna Blundy the service held a particular resonance: it was at St Martin’s that a memorial service was held for her journalist and war correspondent father David Blundy who was killed by a sniper in El Salvador in 1989 when Anna was 19. Blundy wrote the memoir Every Time We Say Goodbye: The Story of a Father and Daughter (Century, 1998) about her father's life and death and her relationship with him.

Speaking at the Mosaic Rooms, Blundy said that although she loves the atmosphere around war reporters, in which she grew up, she is also ambivalent about it. "There's an enormous amount of glamour to it. But there are children who get left behind. I spent my whole life waiting for my dad to get killed and then he was, and there's a heavy price." But the obvious thing which cannot and should not be forgotten "is that they are doing important work, clearly, especially someone like Marie who was so brave."

Bidisha and Blundy were joined on the panel by TV journalist and producer Rosie Garthwaite who worked for Al-Jazeera before setting up the Doha-based TV production company Mediadante  and Nitasha Kaul, shortlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize for her debut novel Residue. Kaul's website describes her as “a perpetually homeless Kashmiri novelist, academic, poet, economist, artist who inhabits many lives in the UK, Bhutan, India.”

Nitasha Kaul

At the beginning of the event Bidisha read an extract from her new book, describing the effects of an Israeli tear gas assault. "At first you think nothing's happened and you're some superhero who's impervious to it. Then the chemicals sweep forward to the front of your mouth, the edges of your nostrils, the jelly of your eyeballs and the insides of your eyelids,,,"

Bidisha travelled to the West Bank for last year’s Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest -  this video shows her on the writers' panel on the opening day) and stayed on in Ramallah to explore the realities of Palestinian life for her book. She said we tend to think we know a lot about Palestine from newspaper reports "but you can't understand an occupied territory until  you've been there. What I decided I'd do, as someone who wasn't an activist about that issue, was that I would simply as a reporter write what I saw in front of me, for better or for worse."

From Ramallah Bidisha embarked on a tour of Hebron, Nazareth, Nablus, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Balata refugee camp (a planned visit to Jenin was cancelled after the murder there of the Arab-Jewish Israeli actor, director and activist Juliano Mer-Khamis, co-founder of Jenin Freedom Theatre). She also lectured at Bir Zeit University. Bidisha is proud of her book "because I think it's accessible in a way that a lot of the books about the region and the issue weren't always."

Bidisha's book Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path through Palestine

The four panellists brought richly varied backgrounds to the discussion. Anna Blundy, a "Russianist" who read Russian at Oxford University, was the Times bureau chief in Moscow in 1998-99 and a columnist on the newspaper.  She is also the author of a series of novels about war correspondent Faith Zanetti, inspired by Marie Colvin. The novels are currently being adapted for Hollywood.

Blundy said that when war reporters are fictionalised in books and films they are portrayed as "terribly serious sort of warriors for truth." But war reporting is also fun and at Marie Colvin's memorial service, along with the tributes to her qualities as a journalist and her courage, "the thing everyone really came away with was what a laugh Marie was. And these jobs are very exciting it's why people do them, and they are extremely privileged and extremely lucky. The danger that goes along with that is something they embrace; people actually want to be in these places."

Blundy thought that a war reporter doing the job properly finds it difficult to have a settled family life.  "They are not stable people. They are away a lot. Family life seems very mundane compared to it. As the mundane family left behind, you feel like crap, and that's a shame." And for the returning reporter "it's hard to come back to normality. It's hard to talk to ordinary people about having their kitchen refitted and a parking ticket... and it's addictive to go back where things really matter." She suggested there is "a slightly suicidal tendency, to get to the edge."

Rosie Garthwaite

Rosie Garthwaite joined the British army at 18, during her gap year, as a  fast-track officer working in North Germany as part of the 3rd Royal Horse Artillery regiment. She read Ancient and Modern History at Oxford University and in 2003 joined the Baghdad Bulletin - the first English-language newspaper in post-invasion Baghdad.

Garthwaite freelanced for Reuters, the Times and the BBC from Basra where, she told the audience, she was the only Western journalist for months. She joined Al-Jazeera in 2006. Garthwaite's contacts from her days in the army stood her in good stead in Basra. But her history with the army put her in a delicate position when she discovered and exposed the first British torture case in Iraq: the death of Basra hotel receptionist Baha Mousa in September 2003 while he was in the custody of the British Army.  She described how she chased the story "and then sat on it for about 10 days and got the Reuters lawyers to look at it and then warned the army I was releasing it. They called me back the next day and said 'thank you so much, we didn't know this had happened and now we do'... Baha Mousa's family have had the biggest payout to an Iraqi family from US or UK government bodies, they got £1 million in damages."

Garthwaite's book How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone was published last year by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP - a review is here). She canvassed some 150 people including journalists, aid workers, filmmakers, doctors, hostage negotiators, and soldiers for their views and tips on keeping safe, and the book is full of valuable practical advice. But the element of danger will always remain, as the deaths of journalists in the Arab uprisings over the past year have shown all too clearly. In the wake of the killing or injuring of a reporter people often ask whether they shouldn't have gone to a certain place, or should have worn a particular item, and what can be learned from the death. But Garthwaite pointed out, the past year has for example seen the deaths of Marie Colvin in Syria and photojournalist Tim Hetherington in Libya, both of whom were "incredibly experienced, and there isn't any lesson to be learned - it's just bad luck."

Blundy thought that war reporters are getting closer and closer to the action "and risking more and more because there are more of them and with 24-hour rolling news you can't show the same stuff 24 hours." Garthwaite recalled how at Al-Jazeera there was a big controversy after "a very senior editor said unless you are ready to be martyred for your job, then you shouldn't really be doing the job at all."

Bidisha discussed with the panel the pressures from major news organisations to tell a news story a certain way. The  panellists gave examples of images favoured by news organisations: wailing women; the crying woman and the sobbing child; "brown people in peril"; angry men with beards and "an older woman in a veil lamenting over the body of a young man."  Such images may be used because they are good film clips rather than because they round out the  picture of what is occurring.

Blundy pointed out that although people may say they get desensitised to horror on TV news because there is so much of it around the world, the news is incredibly heavily censored: "When you see the raw footage it's absolutely unwatchable. We are not desensitised at all, we are not shown anything much compared with what is actually going on."

Blundy distinguished between TV and the printed media. She was trained in TV news by a very eminent correspondent who told her: "Think of the stupidest person you possibly can in America and explain to him in under a minute what is going on  in the Kremlin at the moment." This is "very different from the kind of thing Marie Colvin was doing, which was writing huge long explanatory things with a lot of history and background."

After publication of How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone Garthwaite was constantly asked by  magazines to write, from a woman's point of view, about survival. "One of the things I got asked by every single editor was, please will you find a journalist, a war correspondent, who has got children, who you can fit into this article. And I really struggled to find more than two or three people who I knew."

Blundy said the Mail had tried to get her to write a piece disagreeing with the war correspondent and mother Janine Di Giovanni "because I had written about being the child of a war correspondent." She knows and likes Janine, and she told the newspaper she didn't disagree with her and declined the request. Blundy thought the the reason the Mail wanted such an article was part of a wider criticism of women war correspondents. Fathers who are war correspondents rarely face such criticism. "It's awful for the kids whether the correspondent is the mother or the father."

When Bidisha was Palestine she found that international aid workers kept referring to the idea of "a parallel reality"- meaning that while  events in the occupied territory or war zone continue to happen,  they are not on our timeline and so don't come into existence. She wondered about the "fashionability" of certain conflicts; the Arab Spring being the big hit newswise of the last 18 months. What does it take for something to become that big? Blundy said it's what concerns us, and the Arab Spring concerns us in a huge way, and what happens there very much affects our own politics.

Nitasha Kaul added that it's also a question of how we are made to think whether a certain conflict concerns us or not. "At an analytic level, there are all these questions about the impact a story might have, the proximity of that story to the person that's hearing that, the bizarreness of a story, how strange, whether there is an economic interest, commercial interest involved."

Nitasha contrasted international media coverage of Tibet and of Kashmir. She is deeply involved in the situation in both places, but finds one doesn't hear half as much news about Kashmir as one does about Tibet. In 2010 in Kashmir "something like 100 young people were killed. Had that been happening anywhere else we would definitely have heard more of that here."

At the question and answer session with the audience after the discussion it was noted that Azerbaijan is temporarily under the spotlight, with the media flocking there to cover the Eurovision song contest in Baku., which is attracting the media. Azerbaijan is otherwise rarely covered in the media. (The BBC's Panorama was on Monday devoted to the situation in Azerbaijan, and the suppression of human rights). 

Bidisha raised the question of technology and citizen journalism, of which so much has been made in the Arab Spring. Will this continue, and do these  "rougher takes" have extra veracity? Kaul, who has recently taught university courses on media, politics and public life, said there are statistical reasons why it is not necessarily the case that having more stories from the ground, and multiple tellings of a certain situation, gives you a fuller account. The people who have access to that technology might be part of the same subset of people who would be reporting that story.  Where technology has helped, Kaul said, is in the ease with which stories get out, rapid dissemination and the speeding up of thoughts and reactions, but that's not necessarily a good thing.

Blundy felt that Tweeets are just like chatting, and that you still need the war reporter "on the balcony in the flak jacket - that's a tedious image, but you do need somebody or some institution putting it all together and making sure it's true and making it into a story. The technology has changed, but in the end the story is the story, what is going on, and that is still going to be conveyed as a beginning, middle and an end narrative." 

Nitasha cited the saying that regimes used to have to torture people to get the kind of information that people are themselves voluntarily reporting in the social media. She pointed out how the social media can be manipulated by the authorities. "In a lot of these countries there are governments that actually encourage people to go online." She gave as an example China's "50-cent censors" people who get paid to put forward the party line [they are sometimes known as the "50-cent Party or "50-cent Army"].

On the question of cultural stereotypes and reporting, Nitasha said  journalists share the assumptions of the rest of the society in which they function. That does not mean that we cannot critically see through it, but there are all sorts of  cultural stereotypes including in respectable media sources. She gave as example the Occupy Movement  and its moving in on St Paul's Cathedral and the City of London last winter. Had this happened elsewhere it might have been reported as  "rebels marching into the financial sector of the city" or something similar.
Susannah Tarbush 

Monday, May 07, 2012

Rasha al Ameer's novel 'Judgment Day' mingles love, poetry and Islam

a brief video extract of Rasha al Ameer's appearance with Jonathan Wright at the Mosaic Rooms

During an event at the Mosaic Rooms in London to celebrate publication of the English translation of her novel Judgment Day, Lebanese writer and publisher Rasha al Ameer defended the imam who is the novel’s hero and first-person narrator.

Al Ameer's compelling, risk-taking novel takes the form of a memoir addressed by the imam to the woman with whom he is deeply in love, but from whom he becomes separated after receiving death threats from a certain Islamist movement and being taken into “protective custody”.

Rasha was asked by an audience member: “When you put the sheikh as a symbol in this story, is there a problem of ignorance because of the cleric, or because of religion?” The questioner went on to ask the author, whose novel first appeared in Arabic 10 years ago, how she views the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and the coming to power of Islamists.

“I think that my sheikh is not ignorant at all” al Ameer replied. “I have great respect for any person who reads and writes and the hero of this book, of this specific novel, is a very special sheikh. He is not ignorant; he is someone who wants to be knowledgeable, who is intelligent and who wrote a book - he fell in love, he’s courageous: I think that only courageous people can change our world.”

She added: “This is a novel, this is not a political statement. But it oversaw in a way what may happen in the Arab world. It was clear for me as a writer that Islam is a very important component of our societies and that’s why I chose a sheikh as a hero of the book. I hope that Islamists will read this book one day and try to imagine what can be an intelligent sheikh that deals intelligently with his Islam.”

Al Ameer’s novel was published in Arabic in 2002, under the title Yawm al-Din, by Beirut publishing house Dar Al-Jadeed. It has appeared in six Arabic editions – in Lebanon, Egypt and most recently Algeria. In 2009 Actes Sud published a French translation by Youssef Seddik as Le Jour Dernier: Confessions d’un Imam.

Al Ameer appeared at the Mosaic Rooms alongside Jonathan Wright, whose translation of Judgment Day is published by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press. The well-attended event attracted an audience of Arabs and non-Arabs and was bilingual, with Wright speaking in English and Rasha in Arabic and English.


Judgment Day 'a masterpiece'

Wright said: “This is the first time we have presented the English version of Rasha’s book to the world”. He rates Judgment Day as “her masterpiece so far: maybe she has other masterpieces to come.” He found translating it “certainly the most difficult and time-consuming job I’ve ever done in this field.” It took him five or six months of solid work and was “a big job. It’s very slow work, it’s a very difficult book in many ways.” Wright has an afterword in Judgement Day on his approach to translating the novel.

Wright brings to his work as a literary translator a mixture of scholarship, journalism, and many years spent living in the Arab world. He read Arabic, Turkish, and Islamic civilisation at Oxford University and worked for Reuters news agency for 30 years from 1980, mostly in the Middle East. In his five years as a published Arabic literary translator Wright has established a high reputation. One of his translations, that of Egyptian writer Youssef Ziedan’s Azazeel, was recently published by Atlantic Books and is attracting much interest. The Arabic original won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2009. 

Wright's first published Arabic literary translation was that of Egyptian writer Khalid Alkhamissi’s Taxi, issued by Aflame Books in 2008 and republished last year by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP). This September sees publication by AUC Press of his translation of Saudi author Fahd al-Atiq's Life on Hold. His other translations include Egyptian Alaa al-Aswany's book of essays On the State of Egypt (AUC Press, 2011) and Iraqi author Hassan Blasim's collection of short stories The Madman of Freedom Square (Comma Press, 2009).

Wright outlined Judgment Day for the audience. “This is the story of a country boy brought up in a remote mountain village in some unstable Arab country – unnamed, everything in this book is unnamed – who goes to Qur’an school, goes through the seminary system – becomes an imam – goes to university, studies Islamic sciences and Arabic literature, then gets a job in the civil service, in the Ministry of Religious Affairs. He’s reclusive, very shy, very repressed both socially and sexually – he does well and he’s bright, he advances, he makes friends with an influential cleric who patronises him. He’s invited to go abroad to the neighbouring country, which is rich and more liberal, to act as imam at a mosque which caters to the citizens of his own country in that neighbouring country, so he goes off there.

“One day an educated independent woman contacts him and says that she would like to sound him out on whether he will cooperate in a project on the great 10th century Arabic poet Ahmad al-Mutanabbi. He agrees and they start to see each other and she proposes that they read his complete works together and go through carefully as part of this project which she’s preparing for some cultural institution. The relationship between them develops – he falls in love very quickly –her attitude initially is not so clear because it’s narrated by him, all that happens is his own perspective on this.

“Meanwhile there’s trouble at the mosque – there’s an Islamist insurgency afoot in both countries across the border and he gets deeply implicated in this conflict, essentially as what he calls ‘the Sultan’s cleric’ – in other words as a government stooge, as the Islamists would put it – and at the same time he gets invited to become the presenter of a TV show on Islamic affairs which is a great success. He becomes a kind of media star which draws lots of attention to him – so he’s deeply implicated in this whole conflict. Eventually he is abducted for his own safety and taken off to what would be called a ‘secure location’ where he lives for some months and starts to write this work describing his relationship with the woman he loves and how this relationship opened up a new world to him, how she helped him overcome his inhibitions and the repression that he grew up with.”

the rivalry between the Qur'an and poetry 

The book covers a whole range of interesting subjects, Wright said: for example the imam writes about “Islam, in its many guises. He talks about what he calls ‘the miracle faith’ of his childhood – the kind of superstitious childish faith – and then he talks about the way the seminary tried to drive this out of him and replace it with some kind of austere monotheistic faith. And he talks about the beliefs and the behaviour of his Salafist opponents and about other types of Islam.”

In their conversations the iman and the woman exchange "their thoughts about the relationship between Islam and other aspects of Arab culture, especially language and poetry and literature, and how the two are related: the phrase that Rasha uses in this context is the rivalry between the Qur'an and poetry, which is a constant theme in the book. And of course they talk at length about the personality of al-Mutanabbi himself which is extremely complex and much discussed over many years al-Mutanabbi supposedly purported or had ambitions to prophethood but probably abandoned those ambitions at an early stage in favour of poetry, perhaps in the belief that poetry was more likely to give him immortality than some kind of spurious prophethood which he may not have been able to sustain.”

Wright added: “But most importantly, perhaps, this is a true novel in the classic European sense in that it describes in detail the psychological evolution of a particular human being over time under the influence of the people and events around him. There’s a very clear progression from his childhood through all the stages of his relationship which accelerates as time goes on. The imam, the sheikh, the narrator, as he overcomes his inhibitions he becomes quite skilled at analysing himself and his own motives.

“I should mention in this context that this is a book narrated by a man, but written by a woman, which is not that unusual but it is generally considered to be quite difficult to do successfully. My impression is that Rasha has done this extremely well – I don’t think that there’s any false note in the narrator’s masculinity' – I put it that way – at any stage.”

During the event Rasha read a passage from Judgment Day in Arabic, which Wright read in his English translation. The passage was chosen, Wright explained, because “it brings in all the main elements of the book – it’s one of the transitional moments in their relationship when after keeping their distance for many days, maybe weeks, finally they start to talk about things that directly affect them.”

In the passage the imam and the woman focus on a poem in which al-Mutanabbi satirises the Egyptian ruler Kafour. The imam writes: "Like someone groping in the dark, warily, you read the next line. You had just reached the end of the line safely and passsed on to the next one — 'Is it the purpose of religion that you should trim  your moustache? / What a nation, at whose ignorance other nations laugh!' — when you let out a deep sigh, the essence of exasperation, and launched into a rant which you began by looking at me and saying: 'Mawlana, he's speaking for us, his complaint is our complaint, his criticism is our criticism and his diagnosis is our diagnosis...."

Wright discussed Rasha’s use of language in her novel. “Many commentaries on the book - its Arabic version – have commented on the language that Rasha uses, which is very striking and quite difficult to define. Some people have called it classical, traditional: in my afterword I initially use the word ‘pre-modern’ which is a sort of technical academic word for the type of Arabic before the industrial revolution essentially, before the Arabs were subjected to the onslaught of European intervention as a by-product of which there were very substantial influences on the Arabic language itself including many what are technically known as calques– direct translations from English and French essentially.”

Wright said he has been "trying to pin down what exactly it is about Rasha’s language that is distinctive and it’s a really difficult thing. I think it’s fair to say that she does use a fair number of words which even Arabs consider to be antiquated or obscure – or certainly erudite shall we say – which for some people has been an obstacle. To some extent she’s avoided too many modernisms, and when she uses expressions like ‘social function’ or ‘objective criteria’ or ‘environmental activist’ then those kind of phrases stand out as being exceptions rather than the rule. The narrator, the sheikh, feels slightly uncomfortable about using that kind of language. I don’t think she made a deliberate effort to exclude such things. I think her vision was that this was a man who was steeped in traditional works of literature – Qur’an, Hadith, theology and early poetry –  and this was the way he chose to express himself. Therefore it should not appear artificial to readers and if they care about their heritage they should make the effort to read it."

Wright added: “When you read this book in Arabic it has a certain timelessness, the language has a certain kind of abstract timeless quality and that impression is encouraged by the fact that there are no names or places in the book at all apart from al-Mutanabbi and a few other ancient characters. So the language is kind of terribly abstracted, shall we say, which creates a slightly strange impression. Obviously in English we have no real equivalent – there is no kind of timeless version of English as far as I am aware, it is pretty difficult to imitate that quality in English – so the best I could do in translating it was to try and portray the formal, slightly pedantic nature of the imam’s diction. I hope I’ve done that to a certain extent, but not to the extent that it deters the casual reader from enjoying the book.


The power of love

“I think the most important, distinctive, thing about Rasha’s language in this book is that she’s chosen her words very carefully and she’s chosen from a very wide vocabulary – the vocabulary is not showing off, it’s because she thinks this word is the right word for the purpose and it’s a book that examines in great detail the motivations of the narrator and the reactions of the woman he loves and the way the two of them together explore each other . So it’s very much a love story on top of all these other elements – the poetry, and the Islam, and so on. The love shines through in the end, and the power of love to improve human beings.”

In the question and answer session the poet, critic and physician Norbert Hirschhorn, who has written a glowing review of Judgment Day on Amazon, said that “from the novelist’s point of view he [the imam] develops as a human being as he is writing his memoir, and I think it’s extraordinary. We want the novel to show us the change in a human being.”

Wright agreed that one of the sheikh’s inhibitions is his inability to express himself. “He recognises that inability at a very early stage, and the process of writing this tribute to the woman he loves is part of his overcoming of that particular inhibition. He's aware of it as he progresses and it's a painful process in many stages. Along the way sometimes there are periods in the writing when he breaks down and can’t continue, and then he picks up later. So the writing process itself is an intense emotional process.”

Wright asked Rasha whether she had found it difficult to write as a man. She said writing as a man was “a strategic point of view I needed. I was sure a man should speak, not a woman. Men speak a lot in the Arab world, and the world in general, men have power. The power – the sulta – is not yet in the hands of women. I hope that women will one day be deciders much more in the Arab world, not only men."

A woman in the audience probed Rasha further on how she had managed to get so close to, and express so well, the feelings of love from a man’s point of view. Rasha said: “I am close to a lot of my men friends – I watch well, I try to be in their minds, and hearts. I want to have the feeling of the Other when I write a novel, I want to be in all the hearts all together. That maybe the dream of the writer, the novelist: to try to decipher the Other that is in front of him even though the Other is very different from him."

Another audience member said she had started reading Judgment Day in Arabic but had found it difficult and had not finished it. She is now reading the English translation, and has found that it makes her want to go back to the Arabic original. She thought the translation made the book more accessible.

 In Wright’s view the English translation may be more accessible “because of the nature of the language – you don’t have the same range of choices in English and there’s a limit to how you can express yourself. This is less so in Arabic, because of historical and cultural reasons. Arabic is a big, wide, open field covering hundreds of years and thousands of miles. This is less true of English: it’s a new language and we don’t have the same respect for old forms of diction.”

One member of the audience said she found the tone of the translated narrative reminiscent of the first-person narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. Wright said he was very glad to hear the comparison because “the language he uses in that book is an extraordinary example of discipline.”
Susannah Tarbush

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 D├ępart’ 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