Judges Series: The Politics of Writing

As a judge for the Caine Prize for African Writing, I had the opportunity to read an amazing set of short stories by a prolific, diverse set of writers. As a first time judge, I was not sure what to expect and the occasion to judge reminded me of the seriousness with which writers undertake their craft. As an academic trained in the diverse methods of literary criticism, I enjoyed being part of a panel of judges who themselves were writers and not necessarily or solely critics of writing. 


That is, their insights, both in terms of the aesthetics and politics, proved useful in amplifying the conversation we had about the stories, as well as in increasing the attention I paid to the stages of writing, including the risks that writers took in sharing their stories, cultures, lives, and emotions. However different and unique each story was, each one gave us a glimpse into the writers’ imaginations and reminded of the intricate relationship that exists between writing, politics, and political action. 

Love, sex, death, illness, wellness, and family are themes that constantly emerged in the short stories, and how the author approached the delicate navigation between and among these themes influenced how compelling I thought the story was.  Stories that stood out the most to me were the ones that didn’t recycle these themes, but rather provided alternative visions that would help us to re-imagine our very understanding of it.  What for, for example, does it mean to leave the love and family one has known to chart out a new, not yet imagined family and love?  Would that new family and love even be recognizable within the framework we already know? Stories like these pushed the envelopes on both cultural norms and the imagination and it is in these spaces that we create revolution.  If the stories submitted to the Caine Prize gesture toward the possibilities for a world re-made, we certainly have good reasons to be optimistic. 

Written by Caine Prize 2016 Judge Robert Patterson. To find out more about the 2016 judges click here

Judges Series: "What stories of the continent do we long for?"

The news - vibrating with Hillary and Trump, Orlando, Jo Cox, Brexit, Labour & Tory party meltdown, England's ignominious Euro 16 Icelandic defeat ... But of dreadful floods in Ghana, death & destruction along Cape Coast? Vibration was there none....

Often I bemoan the misery-focussed stories reported on from our continent, but at this moment in our local Western turmoil, not even this African misery impinges.

As human beings all our learning is from stories. From Anancy to Algorithms, we make stories to enlighten ourselves, to communicate ideas, to send out warnings, to raise our spirits.

The story of the policeman at London Gay Pride flanked by fellow officers on duty proposing to his boyfriend watching the parade or the story of drunken English football fans throwing coins at refugee children, proposing they engage in disgusting sexual acts for more coins - stories shape opinion, shape climate, shape behaviour..

What stories of the continent do we long for, to shape an international consciousness of who we Africans in our infinite variety are?

In the  enlightening submissions to the 2016 Caine Prize , shine all the joys, terrors, complexities, absurdities and nuances of any life acutely observed.

I cannot tell you how exhilarating it has been for me as a judge, to have become lost and found in Africa through the  stories as presented in these submissions, nor how powerfully they illuminate and shape new perspectives on the richness of who we are, have been and can be as members of the African continent and her diaspora.

A thrillingly moving literary journey of wit, surprise and skill, and one I am honoured to be a part of this year, as it sings to the world new songs of Africa!

Written by Caine Prize 2016 Judge Adjoa Andoh. To find out more about the 2016 judges click here

Judges Series: "African writing is in brave hands"

Seventeen years. I celebrate the Caine Prize’s enduring power in opening doors for outstanding African writers. That the prize attracts criticism is a good thing – as the saying goes: To escape criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.  Controversy attracts attention, and any attention that stimulates heat over the merits of African stories, particularly by Africans, is worth the price of admission. And if it indirectly puts money in the pockets of African writers, who am I not to celebrate that as a good thing?!

As a virgin judge, what hit me was how many stories ticked the unexpected box. Yes, I had pre-conceptions of what a Caine prize ‘was like,’ and came into it prepared to do my bit to shake things up. But the stories submitted covered a wide range of genres, voices, styles. The future, past and present were all in there. Most of the stories that got our attention took risks. They risked upsetting, risked sounding un-African, risked taking new forms(In fact, African writers seem to be taking more risks than most others out there - read Nnedi, Awuor, Abubaker, Selasi et al - just saying).

Perhaps due to their more nurturing culture, role models and facilities for writers, two countries offered more strong submissions than the rest of the continent combined. Perhaps they  have more interest in the Caine Prize. No matter. The rarer talent came from wide and far, and, like cream, rose to the top. And the best stories submitted felt intimate and big and true. Writers insisted on seeing what they saw, what moved them, listened to their own voices, offered unsettling insights. They lingered in my head and bothered me, and made it ridiculously difficult for the judges to narrow the best to five. The critics in my head, baggage I’d carried into the judging room - poverty porn, pandering to the West, exotica, recycled narratives and expected forms – were silenced. Humbled to be so moved by our stories, I salute African writers. African writing is in brave hands.

Written by Caine Prize 2016 Judge Muthoni Garland. To find out more about the 2016 Judges click here

Judges Series: The Stories That Haunt You

I’ve always had an idea of what grabs me the most when reading short stories: painfully beautiful writing, the skill in capturing something, maybe a mood, an encounter, an action, a transformation, perhaps something more elusive while fully exploiting the form of the short story. Good dialogue. Stories that are surprising, unexpected. The way a story moves, perhaps turning around on itself, that underlying flow. And as I read through the entries for the Caine Prize, I enjoyed the different ways that writers realised these possibilities, and the other ways in which they showed their skill.

But the unexpected pleasure for me was when stories spoke to me in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. Sometimes stories come out of nowhere and give a face punch. Sometimes they grab you by the collar and hiss, listen to me. Sometimes they send out little hooks and you don’t even know until days later, and you’re thinking about a landscape somewhere else, a moment between two fictional characters, an image, a sentence.  The most powerful stories for me were the ones that haunted me long after reading them. The stories that stayed with me, that I needed to go back to. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what the alchemy is here.  But for me, there was certainly an elusive something that lit up some stories, that allowed them to be more than words on a page and I think this is more than evident in each of the five shortlisted stories. 

Written by Mary Watson, Caine Prize Judge 2016. To find out more about the 2016 judges click here

Judges Series: Finding Something New in the Caine Prize 2016 Shortlist

It’s almost ten years since I last served as a Caine Prize judge. So much has happened. Countless compelling stories, careers taking off, millions of twists and turns on the cultural stage! As an apprentice judge, I experienced much doubt and felt a little overwhelmed. The endless divisions and factions we encounter – African, Nigerian, Ghanaian, Kenyan, black and white, straight, gay, trans. Who was I to critique others? How could I assess the multiple possibilities and varieties that manifested themselves among the entries?


But this time, I was happier, more sure-footed. I welcomed the storytellers who insinuated themselves into the few spare hours of my reading day, the ones who seemingly refused to be put aside. They were making up Africa, I felt, showing what the continent is or could be. I liked hanging out with them.

With those storytellers in the house, I had a feeling of moving around the African continent and beyond, sometimes hearing familiar voices – someone who sounded like my Auntie - or encountering well-known concerns – health problems, fear of mortality and loss - but occasionally feeling here is something genuinely new. Places, characters and emerging styles that bore no resemblance to the stories I’d heard before. I read and re-read. Made lists and made notes, and waited for my fellow judges to tell me who had moved in with them.

Written by: Delia Jarrett-Macauley, Chair of Judges 2016. To find out more about the 2016 judges click here


Record breaking number of entries for 2016 Prize


We've reached the seventeenth year of the Caine Prize for African Writing and our office is filled with a record breaking number of entries: 166 short stories from writers representing 23 African countries. Last year 153 qualifying stories were submitted to the judges from 17 countries.

Our 2016 judges, who were announced in London last month, will meet in early May to decide on the shortlisted stories, which will be announced shortly thereafter.

Caine Prize Director, Dr Lizzy Attree, commented on the entries, saying: “Once again we have received a record number of entries and we are delighted that so many of the best writers and publishers in Africa chose to submit their work. We are also excited to see an increase in the number of countries represented among the work submitted. Alongside nations with long histories of representation in both our shortlist and the roll call of winners, countries, like Ethiopia, Burundi, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Gambia, entered work which our judges now have the enviable task of reading and judging.”

Once again, Blackwell Hall, Bodleian Libraries, in Oxford, UK, will host the Caine Prize award ceremony on Monday 4 July 2016. 

Want to know who will be judging this years entries? Meet our 2016 judges here.

2016 Judging Panel Announced

With applications for the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing closing at the end of January, we're delighted to announce our five judges who have been tasked with reading through all the entries and picking their favourites. 

The panel of judges will be chaired by the distinguished author and broadcaster Delia Jarrett-Macauley. She will be joined by the acclaimed film, television and voice actor, Adjoa Andoh; the writer and founding member of the Nairobi based writers’ collective, Storymoja, and founder of the Storymoja Festival, Muthoni Garland; Associate Professor and Director of African American Studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC, Dr Robert J Patterson; and South African writer, and 2006 Caine Prize winner, Mary Watson.

Announcing the 2016 judging panel, Chair of Judges, Delia Jarrett-Macauley, said:  “I'm delighted to be chairing the 2016 Caine Prize judging panel. 2015 was an impressive year for the Caine Prize, with record entries, an excellent shortlist and marvellous winner. I look forward to joining my fellow judges to read some equally impressive stories this year.”

The judges will meet in April 2016 to decide on this year’s shortlisted stories, which will be announced shortly afterwards. The winning story will be announced at a dinner at the Bodleian Library in Oxford on Monday 4 July 2016, with £500 awarded to each shortlisted writer.

Find out more about our 2016 judges here. 

Key dates:
31 January – entry deadline
Late-April – shortlist announced
4 July – winners announced at dinner in Oxford

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for all the latest news @CainePrize



Cóilín Parsons on Judging the 2015 Shortlist

I was well over three quarters of the way through the 153 entries for this year’s prize when I opened one story and found a courier shipping label. It had been neatly filled out by the author, with her name and address, and a description of the contents (6 copies of a short story; no monetary value). She had spent about £25 to send the packet to a very unlikely address—the Menier Chocolate Factory in London—and had surely wished it well as she dropped it off. She was, after all, sending it to be judged, asking a panel of strangers to determine whether it counted as among the best of African short stories. As I thought of that writer in Nigeria, I was struck by the weight of responsibility on my shoulders as a judge, and the duty of care I had towards each story and every author. That night, I dreamt that I had forgotten to read her story. It wasn’t the last time that I had an anxiety dream about the Caine Prize. The subject of the dreams was always the same—I dreamt that, whether by losing my box of stories, or having them stolen, or passing over some by mistake, somehow I had failed to read all of the stories in time for the shortlisting meeting in late April. The responsibility of judging the Caine Prize weighed heavily on me in the early months of this year.

W.B. Yeats opened his 1914 collection, Responsibilities, with an epigraph marked by characteristically awkward Yeatsian locution: ‘In dreams begins responsibility’. Responsibilities was an extended poetic meditation on the politics of representation. Yeats worried about whether the poet could indeed represent his country in both senses of the word—to re-present it in his art, but also to stand in for it, to be its representative. In English we have the tendency to conflate these two senses, though they are quite separate. The latter responsibility weighed more heavily than the former, yet it was one that Yeats had long sought out, and would continue to cherish until the end of his life. At that time, when Ireland was emerging into nationhood and on the path of decolonisation (with all its utopian promises and dystopian realities), the question of who gets to be a representative of the people and how was one of the most pressing of the day. Now, one hundred years and many decolonisation movements and wars later, the issue remains just as fraught as it was then. African writing, whatever that may be, is frequently tasked with representing an entire continent, and the Caine Prize shortlisted stories are doubly charged—they must represent both Africa and good writing. Did our entrant from Nigeria think of this as she wrote her story? Or only as she posted it to the Chocolate Factory? Or was it never in her mind at all? Did she, as I did, lie awake at night under the burden of responsibility? Did she wonder how her story might, if chosen for the shortlist, be asked to speak for Cameroon and Angola, Egypt and Botswana? I hope and suspect not.

While one author might be able to rest easy in the knowledge that she can only mistakenly be called on to represent an entire continent (as, no doubt, the winner will), a literary prize with ‘African Writing’ in its name carries a substantial burden of responsibility. The Caine Prize has, of course, become a lightning rod for questions of representation and responsibility—can or does it represent Africa? Can any prize claim to encompass such a diverse continent? Why should a prize awarded in the UK be the premier prize for writing in Africa? Does this or that winning story offer a new narrative for Africa or traffic in clichés? These are questions that treat of the Caine Prize as an institution, as a monolithic arbiter of what is good in literary Africa. But I came to realise as I sat in our shortlisting meeting (having, thankfully, managed not to forget any of the stories) that each jury constitutes its own values and its own criteria from the materials in front of it. The judges and the entries differ every year, and the shortlisted stories represent not the jury’s estimation of some vague thing called ‘African Writing’ but their determination of the five best stories on the table in front of them. It is a somewhat arbitrary process, then—a ‘bundle of accident and incoherence’, to repurpose another pregnant phrase from Yeats. But it is a happy accident and a necessary incoherence, for to be any otherwise would be to do an injustice to the complexity of all the authors and narrators and stories and characters in front of us. This is the genius of the board of the Caine Prize and its director, Lizzy Attree—they convene every year a disparate committee of judges, and gather together a multitude of stories from around Africa and beyond, and somehow what emerges is a coherent idea, ‘something intended, complete’. In short, the winner that emerges every year is genuinely outstanding, but never categorical—it does not define African writing, but only marks a special achievement under that broad umbrella.

All this talk of responsibility and representation—this sense that the prize and the prizewinner carry on their shoulders the burden of representing (in both senses) an entire continent—calls to mind a hoary old chestnut of postcolonial studies. When the American literary critic Frederic Jameson wrote ‘Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capital’, he was attacked for, among other things, implying that all literature from what we would now call the Global South was in thrall to the demands of the nation, unable to represent anything other than a story of decolonisation and national emergence. The essay also denies a space for specificity and creativity in the Global South—Aijaz Ahmad takes him to task for writing ‘All third-world texts are necessarily…’, a formulation that sweepingly refers to half a world as if it were indivisibly other. Despite the thorough debunking of Jameson’s essay, however, much of the criticism of the Caine Prize reprises his error, assuming and sometimes demanding that each story be a proxy for African Writing and each author an image of the African Writer. In one sense, that expectation is not unreal, given the title of the prize, but who demands that the winner of the National Book Award in the US define ‘American Writing’, or the winner of the Man Booker ‘International Writing?’ While writers from the Global North are seen as simply writers, unmarked and universal, those from the Global South are restricted to being representatives of their types—Indian or African or South American above all else. They become impossibly responsible for a whole people, state, or continent. When critics take the Caine Prize stories to represent African writing or Africa tout court, or even a ‘western’ view of African writing, they assume that such a project is unproblematically possible in a way that essentialises Africa.  The argument is an old one, but it is worth repeating, for although this and all other prizes are marked by many and varied responsibilities, standing in for all of Africa is not one of those.

None of the stories on this year’s shortlist purports to be definitionally ‘African’ in any way. F.T. Kola’s sympathetic portrait of a wife and mother’s agonizing evening; Segun Afolabi’s delicately woven tale of a journey filled with stories and disappointments; Namwali Serpell’s masterful account of disease and decay; Masande Ntshanga’s subtle and careful narrative of disease, parenthood, and estrangement; Elnathan John’s moving, textured story of surrogacy and love. Each of them offers something unique, surprising and clarifying, which is perhaps the best definition of a successful short. But they don’t make any large claims to stand in for a continent. Their responsibilities are to different scales and stories—to their characters and their settings, to the intimate and the local, to the present and the past, to the art of narrative and the short form. Their materials may be gathered from contexts throughout the continent, but they are comfortable in their skin as stories without national or continental allegories or burdens attached. I’ve spoken a lot about responsibility—as both burden and privilege—but very little about the other overwhelming feeling I had as I read all of these stories: pleasure. While I hope that the feeling of responsibility rests on the shoulders of the judges alone, I know that the pleasure of reading is something that we will share with everyone who picks up (or, more prosaically, downloads) these fine stories.

Read the shortlist here.

Cóilín Parsons is Assistant Professor of English at Georgetown University, where he teaches Irish literature, modernism, and postcolonial literature and theory. His work on Irish, South African and Indian literature and culture has appeared in such journals as Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies,Victorian Literature and Culture, The Journal of Beckett Studies, Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa, English Language Notes and elsewhere.

Cóilín, who is from Ireland, received his PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Before joining Georgetown’s English department, he was a Lecturer in English at the University of Cape Town.

Sex and the African Short Story

Judge Neel Mukherjee on the 2015 Shortlist 

‘God, there’s a hell of a lot of sex going on in Africa,’ exclaimed one fellow- judge halfway through our reading of this year’s entries for the Caine Prize. In the year of the highest number of submissions for the prize – 153 stories – there is yet another record, dubious this time, which cannot pass unnoticed: the highest number of stories centred on sex. Masturbation features a lot, especially female masturbation. Male genitals, erm, dismembered (and disembodied), appear on a wall (yes, you read that correctly). There’s even sex – well, almost – with a tokoloshe. There’s an explicit little number, by no definition a story, in which a male narrator justifies his infidelity by his wife’s refusal to shave her legs or blow him after their marriage. And there’s your common-or-garden variety sex as well; often called vanilla, I’m reliably informed. Oh, did I forget female orgasms and ubiquitous ejaculations? 

The judge who commented on the pervasiveness of sex in Africa got an eye infection halfway through the reading because ‘all that ejaculation got into my eye’. What on earth is going on? One of the reasons behind this high incidence of writing about sex could be the (baneful) influence of Fifty Shades of Grey, the judges surmised. If this is true, then one can only lament. 

But it set me thinking: could it be that, after decades of being expected to write about poverty, famine, AIDS, corruption, dictators, writers from most of the countries on the continent are writing about whatever the hell they feel like writing about? But the problematics of this ‘liberation’ don’t need spelling out. 

The other problem is the knotty business of writing about sex. It’s notoriously difficult – bordering on impossible, in fact – to write well about it. While it is to be lauded that this has not held back some of the writers whose stories I have in mind – nothing ventured, nothing gained,

remember? – I wish the outcomes, in each of these cases, had lived up to the risk taken.

Two of the shortlisted stories show how to write about sex in extraordinary and powerful ways. One casts the briefest of glances at homosexuality in the subtlest way imaginable; it is barely a whisper. The other works by the suggestion of adultery or unfaithfulness -- the story leaves so much unsaid that one wonders if it is really that -- that casts a long shadow and seems to be one of the undersurface motors driving the motivations of the characters.

Read the 2015 Shortlist here. 


Neel Mukherjee is one of the 2015 Judges of the Caine Prize and the author of the award-winning debut novel, A Life Apart (2010). His second novel, The Lives of Others (2014), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He has reviewed fiction widely for a number of UK, Indian and US publications. He lives in London.

Child Narrators and Poverty Porn

Chair of Judges, Zoe Wicomb, on the 2015 Caine Prize Shortlist

The Caine Prize has of late been roundly criticized for favouring child narrators, the charge being that their perspectives contribute to the infantilization of Africa. This year’s judging panel has failed to heed the warning; perversely, we have allowed three child narrators on the shortlist. Moreover, all three tell stories of impoverishment, the nasty addictive ingredient, we are told, that converts so readily into ‘poverty porn’. Have we then deliberately chosen to perpetuate the parlous condition in which the representation of African writing is said to find itself? If child narrators are accused of trading in pornographic sentimentality, our three chosen ones deftly sidestep such charges. 

Yes, the stories (‘Flying’, ‘The Folded Leaf’, ‘Space’) deal with poverty and disadvantage, but literary value is, of course, not based on content. Stylistically, these stories prove irresistible; their simplicity is strategic; and far from infantilizing the societies in which they are set, they make extraordinary and sophisticated demands on readers’ inferential skills. Poverty is not presented as a single meaning, begging bowl in hand; instead, meaning proliferates as we are prompted to infer the unspoken: that which lies just beyond what can be seen, or what can be heard, said, or done under social restrictions and conventional morality (––or, in western words, beyond what-Maisie-knew). Beyond poverty and underdevelopment are the clear-sightedness, the aspirational, the will to truth, the empathy and the ethical that lie within reach of the child as artiface. Through the child narrators ambiguity and irony are introduced. 

These stories seem to go a long way towards answering a pressing question that we fail to ask whilst we focus on what African writing looks like from the outside: Why do so many literary writers choose the narrative perspective of children?


Zoe Wicomb is a South African writer who lives in Scotland where she is Emeritus Professor in English Studies at Strathclyde University. Her critical work is on Postcolonial theory and South African writing and culture. Her works of fiction are You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, David’s Story, Playing in the Light, The One That Got Away and October. Wicomb is a recipient of Yale’s 2013 Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction.