Blogging the Caine Prize

by zunguzungu

A few weeks ago, the shortlist for the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing was announced, and all of the stories are available for your perusal as pdf’s on the Caine Prize website. Individually, they are:

I’m going to read and blog the short list between now and when they reveal the winner, July 11th. If you want to join me — and an exciting slate of bloggers to be named later! — I’m thinking to go in the order above, one story a week. I’ll blog the first one — NoViolet Bulawayo’s “Hitting Budapest” — this Friday.

A quick note on the Caine Prize and “African writing.” A decade in, it’s become one of the more important institutions by which new African writing gets an international audience, an especially important function ever since Heinemann discontinued the “African Writers Series.” But while African writers are still able to get some international attention by winning things like the Booker Prize or the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the intensely Anglophonic nature of those competitions points us towards the problem with a prize like the Caine, or at least the limitation it shares with the others: insofar as there are prizes and publication series that emphasize African writers as such, they use the continental adjective without any serious effort at a continental scope. Because the Caine Prize is only geared to writers writing in English, the short list is always dominated by the same half-dozen countries, with only very rare exceptions; the Caine prize’s “Africa” more or less means South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and the diaspora living in Britain and the US.

A few years ago, Penguin sort of revived the African Writers Series (at least in name), and while they initially only seemed to be interested in publishing already well-established writers, they’ve since shown signs of wanting to support newer writers as well. They even awarded the first “Penguin Prize for African Writing” last year, and I hope they continue to do it. But as M. Lynx Qualey noted, there were no North Africans on the shortlist, to which I would the complete absence of Francophonia, Lusophonia, and any -phonia other than English. Which simply is what it is: like the Commonwealth, Booker, and Caine, the Penguin AWS and other “African” prizes/series only include an exclusively Anglophonic sense of Africa.

This is a complaint only if you think this is all a bad thing. I’m not sure I have more than a shrug of my shoulders about it. But it is worth noting that while the original African Writers Series sometimes came in for its share of criticism — it was too important not to be criticized — it truly was continental-wide in its ambition, and if you scan the list of books that were first published by the AWS, you’ll see classics from a remarkably broad geographical sway. From the start, Francophone Africa was very represented, they published translations from the Arabic of Tayeb Salih, Naguib Mahfouz, and Sonallah Ibrahim and from the Portuguese of Pepetela, Mia Couto, and Luís Bernardo Honwana, and there was also all sorts of other stuff, everything from Swahili love poetry and Onitsha market literature to collected creation myths and memoirs, plus a sprinkling of translated writing from “sub-national” linguistic groups, if I’m putting that the right way (and I’m not sure there is a right way).

There is nothing like that now, and so the Caine Prize is as good as it gets. If you want to read something from Lusophone Africa, you have to go out and specifically look for that scene, and the same is true for North African writing, Francophone African writing, and writing from the parts of Africa where the dominant literary language is not European (like Tanzania and Ethiopia). Some people will even say that localism is the way to address African literature anyway, and that rather than reducing an astoundingly heterogeneous and vast continent to a fictitious singular unity. Africa is not a country, after all. And perhaps the real action is in journals like Kwani?ItchChimurenga and Saraba, not to mention the ones I haven’t heard of because I’m not there.

Back to the Caine Prize: while it, too, gets its share of criticism — see Ikhide Ikheloa, for example — I’ve come across a lot of writers that I like a lot by reading the short lists and then reading other stuff by those people. They aren’t representative of Africa — and shouldn’t have to be — but they are good, and that’s the main thing I’m interested in. I get excited with each new list of unfamiliar names, each year, and I’m excited now. So let’s do this!

By the way, if you’re interested, Neelika Jayawardane profiled the shortlist for last years Caine Prize over at Africa is a Country, as well as the short story collection A Life in Full, which re-published both the shortlist and stories from a writers’ workshop in Kenya that was in some way affiliated. Of that workshop, she asked:

Why do writer’s retreats take the writer out of their urban environments, and place them in idyllic locations that is more reminiscent of the 19th Century’s vision of the safely romantic? What did these writers – many of whom are combatants of urban landscapes – make of the “puff adder settled right by the entrance to the workroom” and the impala, elephant, and lion who “showed a close interest” in their proceedings?

To which I would respond: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story “Jumping Monkey Hill” (which you can read here) has the answer, an answer that makes me unable to read the words “Africa Writers Retreat” without shuddering a little. And with that cautionary tale…