To Experience the Birth of a Heart-breaking Work of Staggering Genius.* - by Troy Onyango

 Troy Onyango. Photo credit: Dilman Dila

Troy Onyango. Photo credit: Dilman Dila

1. Kisumu-Nairobi

The huge metal bird runs on the tarred road then leaps into the air, its full weight tearing into the dense, humid wind and its large, powerful wings spreading outwards, casting a shadow below. The lake becomes a pond, the rivers that feed it become tiny streams, veins running through the landscape, and the city below is an elaborate thing for a child to play with. I am inside the bird, its beak inching towards Nairobi, and its tail flapping, faning Kisumu.

Before. Before.

The email comes in on the afternoon of my birthday. An invite to the Caine Prize Workshop in Gisenyi, Rwanda. I shriek and jump around, excited about the fact that I will be spending two weeks writing in a serene environment, away from all distractions of life, surrounded by amazing writers from different countries, and with the help of the two facilitators, beat my story into shape until, eventually, it is good enough to be included in the Caine Prize Anthology. My excitement stays with me, even if the workshop is still a few months away.

 

2. Kigali

Kigali is a city out of a hyper-realistic painting. My friends and I joke always that Kigali is not an African city. Of course, this does not mean that African cities are homogenous in the way they exist, but in our imagination, limited by the very little travel, African cities as supposed to be characterised by a certain organisation in their disorganisation. Orderly in their chaos. Alive, brimming with life, bustling.

Imagine this: Take Nairobi for example, minus the chaos, without the robbery, remove the hawkers that meet you and want to sell you anything from mitumba clothes to cockroach and bedbugs pesticides, take away the Nigerian-Congolese-Nigerian music that filters from the small cubicles that sell phone chargers and bleaching cream, replace the colourful, noisy matatus with tourist buses, make the police polite and not corrupt, and finally, don’t have traffic jams that snake through and through. There, now you have Kigali.

At the airport, I am met by a guy holding a white sheet of paper with my name neatly printed on it. This is the first time I am feeling this important at an airport. Sigh, vanity. As soon as I walk up to him, he takes my suitcase from my hand and leads me to the car. I sit there and wait for him to pick up another client. A lady opens the door and tells me she is from the hotel and she has been told to come and help me wait so as not to get bored. She speaks very little English so we mostly just sit and let the silence fill the space and time.

Finally, the other client, a German lady with hair that is a sheep’s wool, comes and we head for the hotel. She tells me she is here for a conference. We talk about colonialism and the Berlin wall. After about an hour, we get to the hotel. Vimbai Shire, the coordinator of the workshop meets me at the reception and helps me to check in.

 

3. Gisenyi

Week I

We depart for Gisenyi in the morning.

The bus ride to from Kigali to Gisenyi, we were made to believe, would only take 3 hours. Four hours after leaving the hotel, we are still on the road, approaching Musanze. The occupants of the bus wish for one thing only – to get to their destination, rest and start working on their short stories.

As soon as we get to the hotel, the serenity brought by the lake alone compensates for the long hours spent in the bus. We all gather at dinner and Vimbai tells us what the itinerary looks like. For the next ten days, we are going to be staying at this hotel, working on a short story that will be included in the 2018 Caine Prize Anthology alongside the five shortlisted stories (and the eventual winner). True to her word, we start work the next morning, pitching our ideas, reading the small bits that we have already, discussing the stories and appreciating the chance to write and write and write without any distractions.

Before we realise it, the first week has ended, with every one of us having read out the bits of our stories and worked on them to produce a first draft for editing during the second week. We hand the drafts in to Elise and Damon, who have been guiding us through the workshop. Their experience and expertise is helpful, for they are able to advise us on what works for a particular story.

Week II

The rain falls in sheets, the tap-tap-tap sound is the background music to my editing. I have received feedback on my story from both Damon and Elise and I am using that to rework my story so that it reads better. Everyone else is busy in his or her room doing the same, or at least I imagine that is what they are doing.

In between the writing and the editing, we get to dance, go for long walks along the beach and swim in the lake.

The school visit comes on Tuesday just when we had thought it would not happen because most schools are closed for the holidays. We are lucky to find one school that will host us. After an introduction from the head teacher, we get to talk to the students about storytelling and writing.

It is my hope, truly, that we leave the school having inspired a few of them to become writers.

 

4. Kigali, again

We are seated around a table waiting for our meal.

The upper floor of the restaurant offers us a beautiful view of the city, thousands of lights flickering through the hills and valleys that make Kigali. A million or more glow-worms perched on the green walls of the hills. I wish to capture this moment and store it forever with me.

It is our final night together.

Before this, we have made the long, dreaded trip on the winding roads from Gisenyi to Kigali. During the trip, I sit next to Lucky Grace, and we share the sad songs that we have on our playlist. This, in a way, is our goodbye.

On our minds, the public event at Shokola Café.

The event, which happens from 6pm to 8pm, is well attended by the Kigali Literary Community. Readers, writers and friends who have come to show their support. Arinze Ifeakandu, Bongani Kona and Paula Akugizibwe do a reading of their stories. Afterwards, we discuss writing, reading, editing and publishing, with every writer at the workshop being given an opportunity to talk about his or her writing experience and the workshop too.

 

5. Kisumu

Home, with wonderful memories of meeting these brilliant writers who have been a part of my community for the past two weeks, with friendships that will continue to exist even after this moment, with new lessons that will persist through my writing career, and with a heart full of gratitude to have seen a story come from nothingness (or merely an idea) into what Bongani Kona refers to as, “a heart-breaking work of staggering genius.”

* A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a memoir by Dave Eggers.


About the Author

Troy Onyango is a Kenyan writer and lawyer. His work has been published in Ebedi Review, AFREADA, Caine Prize Anthology, Brittle Paper, Afridiaspora, Kalahari Review, Cosmonauts Avenue and Transition .  His short story ‘The Transfiguration’ was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2016. He won the fiction prize for the inaugural Nyanza Literary Festival Prize for his short story ‘For What Are Butterflies Without Their Wings?’ His nonfiction piece, “This Is How It Ends,” was shortlisted for the inaugural Brittle Paper Award for Nonfiction. He was shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Morland Foundation Scholarship. He is a Senior Editor of Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. He is represented by the Elise Dillsworth Agency.

Caine Prize Judges' Series - Unboxing the Caine Prize by Henrietta Rose-Innes

 Image credit: Martin Figura

Image credit: Martin Figura

When the entries for this year’s Caine Prize arrived in the post, they came nicely compacted into a cardboard box of modest dimensions. On opening, the contents expanded magically to cover my entire carpet.

These documents had already travelled far: in the minds of their creators, to publishers from Lagos to New Orleans to Bulawayo; to Caine Prize HQ in London; and now back to Africa for my reading pleasure. One hundred and thirty-three unique worlds.

Glancing at the sub list, seeing where all the writers came from and where they’d been published, I had a vision of the spread of paper on my floor growing again, bulking upwards into three dimensions. Because I knew that beneath these stories lay an intricate foundation: the small presses, magazines, editors, publishers, designers, typographers, teachers, readers, writing circles, in some cases funders – the scaffolding around which great stories are built. There were one hundred and thirty-three writers there on my carpet, and maybe five times as many others who’d helped them, in small or large ways, to be there.

This support can go unseen. Often, as with editing, you know it’s done best when it’s done invisibly. But here it all was, made visible on my study floor. One of the pleasures of the judging was this: seeing, so concretely embodied, how writing from Africa is flourishing. So many small local presses and magazines I wasn’t familiar with, alongside the bigger names.

I know what it’s like to write your heart into a story and send it off – and to feel like it’s disappeared into the ether. Unless you make it onto a shortlist or into publication, it’s easy to suspect that your words were never seen; that they were tossed aside, or just evaporated.

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Writers and publishers reading this, I want to tell you: you were seen. Every story on that carpet got picked up and turned over and admired from every angle by all the judges; we read every story, some two or three or more times; we savoured and discussed.

And while a handful of complex and wonderful stories will now be celebrated, with one taking the Prize – plus a double handful more that we loved but had to set aside, regretfully – the rest are still there, in a pile next to my bed, and many of them in my mind.

One of the satisfactions of the judging process is that I get to keep the books we’re sent. A few I will put on my own shelf; the others I will pack away into another cardboard box and send to a library or a school that needs more African literature (they all do); and one day soon they’ll get to spring back out and expand and spread and rise again, as stories do.

Written by Henrietta Rose-Innes, 2018 Caine Prize Judge, find out more about the judges here.

Announcement: Morland Writing Scholarships 2018

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Morland Writing Scholarships 2018

The Miles Morland Foundation is pleased to announce that the 2018 Morland Writing Scholarships for African writers will open for entries on Saturday 30th June. The deadline for submissions is Sunday 30th September. For all information on how to apply, please see the page marked ‘Entry Requirements and FAQs’ on our website.

We continue to be impressed by the quality of writing we receive and are pleased to see entry numbers increase each year. Last year over 500 people applied, we hope to receive even more applications this year.

We look forward to discovering the winners for 2018.

We would be grateful if you would help us by passing this information on to anyone you think might be interested, as well as announcing the opening dates on Facebook and Twitter using the link below. Thank you.

https://milesmorlandfoundation.com/morland-writing-scholarships-2018/

Caine Prize Judges' Series - Judging The Caine by Ahmed Rajab

Ahmed Rajab.jpg

Reading the 133 short stories submitted for the 2018 Caine Prize was a daunting task, in the sense of being intimidating. I don’t remember having been in a similar quandary before.

Part of the problem was the luminosity of African talent on the pages. It was dazzling. It was difficult to select a few gems from among the jewels we encountered. The onus was on the four of us to subjectively decide on what objectively we saw on the pages.

There was another matter that vexed my mind when we met in the sedate surroundings of the Royal Overseas League in London to decide on the shortlist on 29th April.  I was torn by the inclusion of fairly established authors in the same basket as the relatively new ones. Luckily I need not had worried. My three colleagues were of the same opinion that we should give preference to emerging writers.

It was not a case of penalising success. Yet the world would be an unfair place if established success is allowed to crowd out new talent. The operative word is “emerging” rather than young.

There is also something to be said for giving due recognition to the smaller publishing outlets in Africa that are producing admirable literary works.

The measure of a good story should be in the story-telling as a vehicle of transporting ideas – the marrying of structure with wisdom or even the grande idée of the narrative, adopting a bold vision which goes beyond the ordinary. The short story defines itself as short. As such it should be compact and inelastic.

A few of the stories are multilayered, grappling with myriad thematic preoccupations — ranging from the politics of identity, sci-fi, gender equity, and changing social mores.  It is impressive to see how some capture the eruption of emotions or the politics of memory.

But where there is squalor, deprivation and tortured souls, the collective narrative of the tortured is hemmed in. And it, too, becomes tortured.

In depicting such situations a few writers have been bold enough to subvert grammar and syntax to create a fresh language, although rough at the edges. It is spoken in a social landscape where the powerless speak truth to power in a manner that somehow at least frees them from the perimeters of oppression through their subversion of polite language and ownership of the alternative diction. In a way, it empowers them.

The human condition is a political condition and should, of necessity, be dissected through the prism of power relations which essentially translate into politics.

The Caine has come into its own with exacting standards and expectations. These stories do not disappoint. Indeed, some of them are unexpected literary and metaphorical gifts. They give us a glimpse of the many ways that one can be a successful writer. They are offerings by  consummate storytellers who happen to be African.

Written by Ahmed Rajab, 2018 Caine Prize Judge, find out more about the judges here.

The Caine Prize for African Writing: A vision for the future – by Dr Delia Jarrett-Macauley

  Book spines of the Caine Prize for African Writing anthologies from 2001 to 2017

Book spines of the Caine Prize for African Writing anthologies from 2001 to 2017

What a busy start we’ve had to the year! So much of the work is hidden from public view. But there are times for showing and telling.

The 2018 judges are currently reading this year’s crop of short story submissions, and the board of trustees have approved the London programme for those writers who’ll make the judges’ shortlist. As of last week, the Caine Prize writing workshop was being held in Gisenyi, Rwanda, writing stories for this year’s anthology.

Organisations must change with time, and transition brings new relationships and opportunities. It is important for the Caine Prize and its supporters that our vision for the future is communicated. After many wonderful years of hospitality from the Bodleian Library in Oxford, for which we are very grateful, we have established a partnership with SOAS, University of London. There, on July 2nd, we will celebrate the award dinner for the second year running.

The Royal Over-Seas League in St James’, which provides accommodation for our shortlisted writers each year, is launching its parallel ‘ROSL Favourite’ competition, whereby its members will vote on this year’s shortlist – a financial boost for one of those talented writers - and the Caine Prize is starting its own ‘Online Editing’ scheme, which is specifically targeted at emerging writers on the African continent. This year has also seen the implementation of our expanded East Coast Programme, enabling more of the Caine Prize writers to read and speak about their work to North American audiences. I would personally like to thank the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice, Georgetown University, who hosted Bushra al-Fadil and Magogodi Makhene in February.

The Caine Prize, like any organisation, is a living thing – breathing, evolving and keeping a watchful gaze on its environment. It is a historical fact that this is a London-based organisation, necessarily under pressure to engage with the cultural, political, economic and social questions that arise from its stated aim to celebrate contemporary African writing, and it needs to continue to develop modes of analysis – whether to be applied to questions of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexuality or religion – which are non-essentialist and worthy of the complexities of contemporary African writing. Not an easy task! But today, our intern, a Guyanese student from Kingston University’s MA Publishing course, whose second nature awareness of how digital linkages create global connections never dreamt of when I was a child, reminds me that practices change as we adapt to new realities, and we keep moving on down the road.

This is an exciting time for the Caine Prize, leading to greater opportunities for writers on the continent. As we approach our twentieth anniversary year, we must look for new ways to ensure the next 20 years are a celebration of African writers. That is, of course, why we’re here.

Written by Dr Delia Jarrett-Macauley, Chair of The Caine Prize for African Writing

Kiswahili Translations of Shortlisted Stories for the 2016 Caine Prize

 Cover of 2016 anthology 'The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things' including the shortlisted stories that were translated into Kiswahili.

Cover of 2016 anthology 'The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things' including the shortlisted stories that were translated into Kiswahili.

During the 2017 workshop in Tanzania I commissioned translations of four of the 2016 shortlisted stories in to Kiswahili. Elias Mutani and Richard Mabala worked on translations of extracts from Lesley Nneka Arimah's What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky’, Lidudumalingani's Memories we Lost, Bongani Kona's At your Requiem’ and Abdul Adan's ‘The Lifebloom Gift.

Both translators, Elias and Richard, worked in partnership with the writers so that they had a full understanding of the work and were able to ask questions about complex meanings and ideas during the process. 

Unfortunately Bongani Kona was unable to join us in Tanzania but at a pubic reading in Dar es Salaam, participants Lesley Nneka Arimah, Abdul Adan and Lidudumalingani read excerpts from their 2016 shortlisted stories in English at the Pan African Writers’ Lounge on April 1st 2017.  Translations were first read in Kiswahili by Baraka Chedego and Zuhura and an interesting discussion about the nuances and challenges of translation followed with questions from the audiences to both the authors and the translators.  

After the workshop I contacted NS Koenings and she agreed to translate the whole of Tope Folarin's story Genesis, so that all five of the 2016 shortlisted stories would be translated in to Kiswahili and we could post them up online for others to read.

It was an extremely interesting experiment for the translators and it is one that I hope inspires others to translate Caine Prize works in to African languages so that the stories can be shared more widely. 

 

Written by Dr. Lizzy Attree, Director of the Caine Prize for African Writing

An Unexpected Prize - by Efemia Chela

 Efemia Chela

Efemia Chela

I was 22 when I got nominated for the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing. I was working illegally in a job I was terrible at, living on the floors of my friends’ houses, moving in and out every week or so. Before that I remember thinking I couldn’t ever be a real writer or at least not for long. An abridged list of reasons - what more would I write? Would I like what I wrote? Would other people get my work? If I kept writing to entertain myself could I keep convincing people to come along for the ride? Could I even make any money from it?

Then I got the call that changed my life, and not in ways I ever expected.

Before the Caine Prize my knowledge of the contemporary African literary ecosystem as well as its digital blossoming was minimal. In that way I was quite insular, I was just writing in my (or someone else’s) room and yet I simultaneously had the dream of wanting to be a publisher. It’s ironic I had to leave the continent for a couple of weeks to open my eyes to all the exciting initiatives in my midst back home. The experience of being a nominee allows you to talk to and be exposed to amazing people from the head curator of The British Museum to the clerk at The House of Lords post office (where I sent a letter from my past self to South Africa to be read by my future self). I met readers, writers and academics I didn’t yet know would be in my life forever. Physical distance gave me clarity and directly feeling the rest of world’s interest in fiction from Africa gave me hope and ideas for what I might do next. And it made me bolder.

Not winning The Caine Prize that year, my immature mind took as a kind of rejection. But that event made me realise I could survive “rejection” and so I took more and more chances to possibly get “rejected”, a kind of professional masochism. I started asking for things out of my reach. A lot of them I was 75% sure I couldn’t do but that just made me force myself to learn how to do them.

Social media – why not?

I jumped into running Short Story Day Africa’s social media presence, since they had started my creative career as it were, by first publishing ‘Chicken’, in 2013. Surveying the digital landscape, looking for watering holes of good writing really gives me a sense of what’s happening with African literature better than going into a bookshop can.   

Editing strangers’ work (with strongly held contrarian views on Oxford commas) – why shouldn’t I?

Working on the Migrations anthology with Helen Moffett and Bongani Kona (also a Caine Prize alumnus) really pushed me to think about editing differently – it’s as delicate as international diplomacy - and how the role of an editor can really sway a piece, for better or for worse. A lot of power and responsibility comes with touching people’s talent. I’m very proud of the collection we helped give birth to. And needless to say it was also great fun.

Being a writer is a notoriously lonely undertaking and all these projects have helped to cut the isolation in between having my stories published. They make writing a lot more fun than if I just kept to myself. I think dialogue, debate, critique will keep African writing vibrant. For me being part of the conversation is a way of keeping the quality of work high, my literary palate balanced and mind sharp. It does this in a more immediate way than annual prizes although great, just can’t. Just don’t stab anyone!

Judging established authors’ work when I haven’t even finished a book myself sign me up!

I thought The Johannesburg Review of Books were joking when they asked me to come on board as a Contributing Editor. I’ve gotten to interview Claudia Rankine, flex my translation muscles and do some exciting literary criticism. It was daunting at first, but a couple of issues in, my imposter syndrome is wearing off a bit and the rest of the team are getting used to my, let’s just say, “unique” pitches.

 Efemia at Writivism 2017 with A. Igoni Barrett, Nii Ayi-Kwei Parkes, and Gaamangwe Joy Mogami. (2017)

Efemia at Writivism 2017 with A. Igoni Barrett, Nii Ayi-Kwei Parkes, and Gaamangwe Joy Mogami. (2017)

Being invited to Writivism this year was a kind of the culmination of what’s happened in the past three, four years of my writing life. I was in Uganda, a country I’d never visited before but definitely have to return to. On a rooftop sharing Nile Specials with a lot of friends I’d bonded with talking about African literature online but never met in real life. Eating a rolex after a cheeky Writers Night Out that turned into a morning. Riding boda-bodas up and down the verdant hills of Kampala, listening to the slam poetry, chatting to editors of other literary journals, being asked when I’ll start writing fiction again – it was like coming full circle. Running my second writing workshop this year on behalf of Short Story Day Africa, made me realise how much I enjoy facilitating workshops that nurture emerging talent and focus on writer development, so a new adventure on that path may be ahead of me.

In the end The Caine Prize wasn’t what I thought it would be. I erroneously thought only winning the big prize could make me a real writer but it isn’t about what happens in Oxford (beautiful as the Bodleian library may be). What made me a writer was what I did afterwards – scribbling away, keeping my creative channels open, talking about African writing with other enthusiasts, and gorging myself on life. I had thought there was only one way to be a writer. It took me a while to realise the real prize that I had been given was the knowledge that there are a several paths, up, down and roundabout that can lead to you to producing great writing, getting involved in meaningful projects and finding a literary family along the way.


About the Author

Efemia Chela is a Zambian-Ghanaian writer, literary critic and editor. Her first published story, ‘Chicken’ was nominated for The 2014 Caine Prize For African Writing. Efemia’s subsequent stories and poems have been published in places like Brittle Paper, Short.Sharp.Stories: Adults Only, Wasafiri and PEN Passages: Africa. Efemia recently co-edited the 2016 Short Story Day Africa collection, Migrations. She is currently the Francophone and Contributing Editor for The Johannesburg Review of Books.

A tribute to Angeline Kamba from the Council of the Caine Prize for African Writing

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Dr. Angeline Kamba, who died on 12 September 2017 at the age of 81, was a member of the Council of the Caine Prize almost from its foundation. She played a key role in the first Caine Prize event held in Africa – the Award Ceremony in Harare, Zimbabwe, in July 2000 – and provided a Caine Prize presence in Zimbabwe thereafter, notably helping with the organisation of the Caine Prize Writers’ Workshop held in Zimbabwe in March 2014.

Angeline Kamba was the widow of the first black Vice-Chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe, Walter Kamba. He had previously been Dean of the Faculty of Law at Dundee University and Angeline had been in charge of the Law Library there. On their return to Zimbabwe shortly after Independence, Angeline was asked to take charge of the National Archives as Director. So successful was she at winning the respect and adoration of its initially mistrustful staff that she was then asked to take on the directorship of the Zimbabwe Government’s Manpower Commission, charged with achieving the progressive Africanisation of the Civil Service, a role which she accomplished with persuasive tact, skill and sensibility.

International appointments followed. She was made a member of the UNESCO World Commission on Culture and Development; she was a member of the Board of Trustees of the International Rice Research Institute and for two years held its chair; and she was an enthusiastic trustee of an organisation developing an emergency service of motorbike-borne medical practitioners in African countries. At home in Zimbabwe, Angeline was very much involved with the Harare International Festival of the Arts, serving for ten years as its Chair.

From the moment of their return to Zimbabwe in 1980, Angeline and Walter Kamba were veritable stars in that newly independent country and each played a very important role in its exciting early development and stayed on through more difficult times. They both had friends all over the world who will remember them with great admiration and affection.

Individual councillors offered their own personal tributes:

“Angeline was one of the great ladies of Africa. Directing the National Archives in Zimbabwe presented many scholarly and conservation challenges and always had to be done with half an eye on what the government was up to. I have always been told that she did the job with great astuteness and judgement, a role model for how such a post should be filled. She was also of course a mighty support to her husband, Walter Kamba, one of the great figures among African educationalists. I am very sad to hear of Angeline's death but she and Walter will both be remembered with huge respect.” – Alastair Niven.

“The contributions Dr Kamba made in the field of cultural heritage had historic significance and will be remembered. Many condolences to her family.” – Margaret Busby.

“Dr. Kamba's involvement in the key African Zimbabwe International Bookfair is of great importance to me and many others. Her role as a pioneering archivist and her passion for literature and books is one which will endure. May she rest in peace.” – Wangui wa Goro.

The thoughts of everyone involved with the Caine Prize for African Writing are with the family of Dr Angeline Kamba.

The Caine Prize For African Writing wishes to thank Nick Elam for his contribution to this tribute, which is published on behalf of everyone on the council.

Raising the Next Generation of African Writers - by Esther Karin Mngodo

   Esther Karin Mngodo speaking to pupils at English Medium school for this year’s workshop in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. Photo courtesy by Esther Karin Mngodo.

Esther Karin Mngodo speaking to pupils at English Medium school for this year’s workshop in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. Photo courtesy by Esther Karin Mngodo.

The faces of the children seated in front of us froze. A boy who just narrated a fictional story about a child living in poverty seemed to be lost for words, the other children looked puzzled too. A poster of Harry Potter’s face hung on the wall to the right, while rows of American books were on the shelves towards the left. Was it possible that at some point in life, the writer they held to high esteem, Ms. J.K. Rowling, shared something in common with them? They found it hard to believe when I told them in Swahili – alikuwa masikini – that she was poor. Was she really that poor when she created Harry? Wazungu are never poor, not that poor. Yet the answer to that question made all the difference. If Rowling, a poor woman in Scotland at the time, could create Harry, could a poor African writer do the same?

“But we do not have Hogwarts here,” one boy said.

“Nor did Ms. Rowling in Scotland,” responded Tendai, one of the fellow 2017 Caine Prize workshop writers. The room fell silent.

Three of us from the workshop were at the English Medium school in Bagamoyo, a town located about 75 kilometres from the big city, Dar es Salaam. In my group was Tendai (Zimbabwe), Lizzy (Caine Prize Director), Darla (Rwanda) and Elias, a Tanzanian writer based in Bagamoyo who tagged along. It was the first time the children had met writers from different African countries. The children were lively, well updated on current regional affairs. They had a few comments on Nkurunziza, the President of Burundi. Some of them said they read The Citizen, the newspaper I write for, which was impressive. However, they didn’t know their geography well. They were amused with Tendai’s long well-groomed hair, but weren't sure where Zimbabwe was when he asked. ‘West Africa?’ one guessed, and another, followed by a couple more, wrong guesses were made in the room. Mugabe they knew, but Zimbabwe? Not exactly.

Tendai was the last one to present. He introduced a game where everyone had to narrate a small part of the story and pass the storytelling along to the person next to them. It was a ghost story the children chose to tell. Their skills in storytelling were impeccable. If nurtured, we could get a number of bestsellers just from that one class. However, at some point, it was obvious that one child tried to retell the ‘Ghostbusters’. Characters were described as white with blonde hair. And at another point, the hero became a white man with a bodysuit. Bagamoyo was hot like a sauna. Why did the hero have to wear a tight bodysuit?

Our venue was the school library. Unlike what I had envisioned, it was big, widely spacious with shelves full of books. However, moving closer we realised that 90 per cent of the books were American literature. Talking about J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter made the children excited. They knew Mr. Miyagi and Vampire Diaries. Yet when we asked them to name just one South African writer, or Kenyan, or any African writer, they could not.

What if Harry Potter was African?

Most of the children couldn’t see how that was possible. Can an African writer create Harry Potter? It was a big question. The question wasn’t whether or not it was possible to copy and paste this character, since we already knew that they were capable of that (with how they told the ghost story). The question was, can there be any creativity coming from Bagamoyo? Can they tell their stories, in their context, without making a work of fiction feel like a bad essay?  It was a stretch for the children to think that they could use the things they saw every day in their stories – a coconut tree, women dressed in kanga, a witch on a winnowing basket instead of being on a broom.

That Harry was fictional, was hard to grasp. That Harry himself was poor, did not seem to have registered well. Although this demonstrates what a great writer Rowling is, to create such real characters, it also shows that there is need to deconstruct some preconceived ideas that the work of fiction from the West is of higher standard than ours, especially among the young writers and readers. There is a need to construct a new possibility. And this can only be done with telling our own stories well, and more workshops such as the one we were able to do.

  Participants for the 2017 Caine Prize Workshop in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. Top row: Daniel Rafiki (Rwanda), Darla Rudakubana (Rwanda), Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria), Cheryl Ntumy (Botswana/Ghana), Agazit Abate (Ethiopia), Esther Karin Mngodo (Tanzania), Tendai Huchu (Zimbabwe), Zaka Riwa (Tanzania), Elise Dillsworth (workshop facilitator) and Mohammed Naseehu Ali (workshop facilitator). Bottom row: Lydia Kasese (Tanzania), Abdul Adan (Somalia/Kenya) and Lidudumalingani (South Africa)

Participants for the 2017 Caine Prize Workshop in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. Top row: Daniel Rafiki (Rwanda), Darla Rudakubana (Rwanda), Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria), Cheryl Ntumy (Botswana/Ghana), Agazit Abate (Ethiopia), Esther Karin Mngodo (Tanzania), Tendai Huchu (Zimbabwe), Zaka Riwa (Tanzania), Elise Dillsworth (workshop facilitator) and Mohammed Naseehu Ali (workshop facilitator). Bottom row: Lydia Kasese (Tanzania), Abdul Adan (Somalia/Kenya) and Lidudumalingani (South Africa)

The 2017 Caine Prize Workshop was the first time that I was stationed in one place for 10 days with no other agenda but to write and workshop others’ work. It was a great opportunity for me to taste the possibility of being a full-time fiction writer. Everything was cared for, all I had to do was write.

Every evening, we worked on each other’s stories before sitting at the table for dinner. We got to know each other a little more every day, the 11 stories we produced became ‘our’ stories. And we bonded in such an amazing way as brothers and sisters in African literature. I think what stood out for me was how different we were – in culture and background – and yet we had one thing in common, we were all young writers from Africa. And all our stories were different. Some futuristic, other went back to the past. Some were fantasy, while others philosophical. It is a rich anthology that portrays how writers of African descent are free in their thinking. And perhaps other writers, and readers can be freed in their thinking as well.

I hope that there are more of our stories in bookshelves like that of the school we went to in Bagamoyo. I hope that our stories inspire people to read, to write, to live. I hope that this anthology would be something worth reading, worth keeping, worth sharing. It broke my heart to see how even if the children wanted, they couldn’t access the kind of stories they needed to read. How can they know the potential that lies in them as storytellers if they do not read stories that they can relate to? I hope that we keep telling our stories until children are no longer bothered by the question: Could Harry Potter be Musa Juma, an African boy from Bagamoyo?

Caine Prize Judges Series - Living the Imperial Reach of English, In and Beyond Translation

I only started learning to speak and read and write in English when I was five years old. My family fled our home in Cuba in September of 1966, landing in Southern California just in time for me to begin my life as a student in the English-speaking United States with all the other students of my American generation. Now, a half-century later, I find myself encountering English anew, as originally written and in expert translation, across a gorgeous array of pieces of short fiction written by this year’s nominees for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

This experience made me consider in astonishment both the broad extension through time and the remarkable breadth of geographical space that could join a barely Anglophone Cuban child, thanks to his instant, instinctive love of reading superhero comic books in American English – a love that began in a late-1960’s working-class Mexican neighborhood of East Los Angeles – to the diverse fictive worlds cast into the “same” language from the imaginations of 21st century “African” writers from countries as varied as Egypt and Ghana, Sudan and South Africa, Kenya and Cameroon. The experience requires an explicit acknowledgment of the complex, violent imperial reach of English as a language of power, and an honest appreciation of, and respect for, the resilience of the generations of speakers and readers and writers in anyone’s English for whom access to that language never guaranteed access to anything else, least of all power.

My US training in British and American literature, and my specialization in US Latino literature, certainly prepared me to listen for the traces of other languages even if the writing was first cast in English, and to respect the task of the translator regardless of which direction their work took in translating from or to. This process confirms that no text is ever strictly speaking monolingual, because no language has ever successfully so guarded its borders.

African English, like Latino English, is not one thing, never speaks from one place or in one voice: this is what the five shortlisted stories for the 2017 Caine Prize together told us, each in its own way, and on its own terms. The beauties of imaginative encounter range here from the intimate, fatal risks of queer love and desire to those of sibling attachment and sacrifice, from the bare survival of traumatic and soul-destroying violence in a shattered city to the speculative creation of possible other worlds, as either a fanciful lateral projection of our own, or a dystopic prognosis of the world to come if our current destructive pathologies remain unchecked. The five shortlisted stories also took the measure of talent, and vision, and diversity shared by this year’s entire field of entries: a vast, composite, living literary territory that I am grateful to have explored with my fellow jurors, and one that I welcome every curious reader to enter as well for the treasures to be found there, treasures that, because they’re freely given in and as art, already belong to everyone.

Written by Ricardo Ortiz, 2017 Caine Prize Judge, find out more about the judges here.