Caine Prize Judges Series - Finding Sweetness in the Caine

Image credit: Giorgia Fanelli

Image credit: Giorgia Fanelli

People who know me will know that I have been one of the Caine Prize's critics for many years; first as an outside observer, then from the inside as a member of the Caine Prize council. My problem has never been the idea of the prize itself, but elements in its setup that I believed skewed its relevance away from the continent of Africa. The saving grace of the Prize has always been the winning writers, who have gone on to do amazing things and have continued to engage with and help develop literature on the continent.

In a world where, in the centre, aesthetics are often conflated with ideas of quality (Victor Ehikhamenor's recent comments noting how Damien Hirst's appropriated versions of Ife art seem to have rid them of the tag 'primitive' reserved for the originals, only serve to reinforce this approach), my concerns were to do with slants in the narrative. What did the Prize say of contemporary short story writing in Africa if most of the entries were published by editors in Europe and North America?  As we are a continent with hundreds of languages, can a prize with no translations allowed possibly claim to reflect the continent's voice? It is thus a huge pleasure to have read a pile of entries where the majority were published on the African continent and to have a translated story on the shortlist.

It matters not that all the shortlisted stories were published outside Africa. Reading the full complement of submissions told us that our continent is concerned with transition and identity, that where the politicians are actively closing their eyes as the world changes around us, our writers are engaging and imagining bold new futures. As a kid who grew up watching Obra and Kantata (a Ghanaian TV opera) and reading of ancestors being called to intervene in the affairs of the living in Ama Ata Aidoo's Dilemma of a Ghost (which I directed in secondary school), I was excited to encounter similar quotidian energies at play in Lesley Nneka Arimah's‘Who Will Greet You At Home,’ Bushra al-Fadil's ‘The Story of the Girl whose Birds Flew Away’ and Chikodili Emelumadu's ‘Bush Baby’; Arinze Ifeakandu's ‘God’s Children Are Little Broken Things’ has within it so many of those whispered conversations of things everyone in the neighbourhood knows but everybody pretends not to know; and Magogodi oaMphela Makhene's ‘The Virus’, its sheath-bearing tails infecting both past and future, is as eloquent an expression of the existential schizophrenia that colonialism has bestowed on the world as you could ever hope for.

Judging has been an incredibly tough job. For the first time, I have found myself thinking that an annual Caine Prize anthology made up of just entries to the prize might be a good idea, such was the strength of the entries. For now, enjoy reading the shortlisted stories. I look forward to revealing a great winner in July.

Written by Nii Ayikwei Parkes, chair of 2017 Caine Prize Judges, find out more about the judges here.

Abantu Book Festival - by Lidudumalingani

Captured at Abantu Book Festival browsing book titles, Malebo Sephodi. Photo credit: Lidudumalingani

Captured at Abantu Book Festival browsing book titles, Malebo Sephodi. Photo credit: Lidudumalingani

Soweto Hotel, where I was staying during the Abantu Book Festival, stands on concrete pillars, elevating it from its surroundings. The design is meant to create a sense of integration, with the locals selling food and fresh produce underneath the hotel, but the design also tests the limits of architecture as a tool to integrate those who have the privilege to make use of the hotel and those who cannot afford to. In the morning, one can hear the trains that travel not far from the hotel. In the afternoon, when the sun sets, the pillars underneath the hotel multiply and stretch further away from it. The balconies are large, extending further from one’s hotel room. I arrive at the hotel a day before the festival and upon arrival the founder Thando Mgqolozana, curator Panashe Chigumadzi and the rest of the team are welcoming guests at the foyer.

The list of authors at Abantu Book Festival was eclectic, a mixture of seasoned writers that have nurtured my reading and writing to the young writers who have been handed the baton to carry it forth. The festival asserted the truth that the South African literature scene is not a space in which only a handful of black authors write. During the festival the venues were always full, proving wrong the long held assumption that black people do not read. In the open space between the two main venues at the Eyethu Cultural Center attendees dipped into literary conversation and dance.

Attendee posing with 'May I Have This Dance' by Connie Manse Ngcaba and 'Half of a Yellow Sun' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Photo credit: Lidudumalingani

Attendee posing with 'May I Have This Dance' by Connie Manse Ngcaba and 'Half of a Yellow Sun' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Photo credit: Lidudumalingani

The events were split between Eyethu Cultural Center and the Soweto Theatre. Opposite the Eyethu Cultural Center, further down the road, is an old cinema, no longer operational, and on its left sits a church. I was in Soweto for five days and the architecture of oval shaped roofs, the theatre and the church became so familiar that I do not remember a life without them.

Hosting the Abantu Book Festival in Soweto was a not a mistake, it was deliberate. This is true for the venues too, Thando explained to me.

“I arrived at the Eyethu Cultural Center and knew immediately that this where we needed to host the events. It is right in the middle of the community. People can, if they so please, wander off the street and come in to find out what is happening.”

The shared feeling amongst the attendees was that here, for the first time perhaps at a book festival, black people are present, having conversations about literature and being unapologetically black. That here they can dance, laugh without worrying about being out of place. That their presence was not an irritation. One could sit outside and marvel at all of this, the absolute blackness of it, the freedom of people to be themselves.

At the Soweto Theatre, in the evenings, was where the dance moves were choreographed and revolutions, led by enchanting performances by Zuko Collective, were initiated. The festival in a pleasing way was part dancing and part intellectual, the way one is meant to feed a soul.

Essayist, Bongani Madondo, captured by Lidudumalingani at Abantu Book Festival

Essayist, Bongani Madondo, captured by Lidudumalingani at Abantu Book Festival

Going forward, one cannot deny that the festival can carve a place in the hearts of many, especially the black writers and readers, young and old, who feel that they have long been not catered for in the South African landscape.

Its challenge, something that was beginning to rear its head in one or two events, would be to carefully and precisely define for itself and for its attendees the nuanced difference between conversations about politics using the prism of literature and political conversations that can happen outside of literature. It needs to ensure that the conversations the audience and the panellists are having are rooted in the literature, that they come from it, that the literature is not completely abandoned, or else we will be a nation that has one conversation and annuls all others as fruitless, which would be dangerous and short sighted.


About the Author:

South Africa's Lidudumalingani is a writer, filmmaker and photographer. He was born in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, in a village called Zikhovane. Lidudumalingani has published short stories, non-fiction and criticism in various publications. His films have been screened at a number of film festivals. Lidudmalingani won the Caine Prize in 2016 for 'Memories We Lost' and is currently a 2016 Morland Writing Scholar.

You can discover more of Lidudumalingani's stunning photos of the Abantu Book Festival on Brittle Paper's site here.

 

Out of Europe: Travelling with the Caine Prize in Germany - by Rotimi Babatunde

Photo credit: Herby Sachs

Photo credit: Herby Sachs

I

Istanbul—In Transit—Outward-bound

Once upon a time in Istanbul, the jetbridge had been wheeled off and the plane had departed when the Turk, the German and the Nigerian met at the closed and deserted boarding gate. You had known you would miss the flight even before you got to the gate: your flight from Lagos had been delayed and the queue at the Kemal Atatürk Airport’s security checkpoint had been interminable.

So the Turk, the German and the Nigerian, transiting through Istanbul from different places but, like Chaucer’s medieval pilgrims, compelled into instant comradeship by a common purpose, begin the long hunt for the relevant ticketing desk. The Turk, clutching several rolls of duty-free cigarettes, is in the lead, the three of you sweeping briskly through the self-replicating vastness of that airport for what seemed an eternity before the ticketing desk is finally located.

Rescheduling the missed flight is straightforward. You don’t even have to say a word: the Turk speaks in Turkish on behalf of your group, gesticulating furiously at the ticketing officer. The only cost you all have to bear is a three-hour layoff. Your band separates, the three of you dispersing into the cavernous maws of the airport’s international terminal to burn off time in your individual ways.

In that interval, your mind goes to the recent terrorist assault on that same airport, on that same terminal through whose main hall you are wandering. You remember the recent failed coup in your country of transit and the majoritarian crackdown that followed, unleashing violence on thousands of citizens with no demonstrable connection with the coup. You think about the ongoing cross-continental mainstreaming of intolerance. Brexit. The American presidential elections. Daesh. Europe’s burgeoning rightist parties. The slew of populist demagogues who have risen into political prominence around the world.

Not so long ago—if viewed through the long lens of history—the ascension to political office of such leaders in Germany and other countries led to the carnage your people call Ogun Hitila. Hitler’s War. A story you wrote about the war, ‘Bombay’s Republic’, was awarded the Caine Prize for African Writing some years ago. Now, several German cultural institutions are jointly organising a series of events around selected stories that have won or been shortlisted for the prize. Out of Europe comes something new, to tweak the motto of the Caine Prize. These cultural organisations include Stimmen Afrikas/Allerwelthaus in Cologne. The MA in Translation programme of the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf. Die Afrika Kooperative in Münster. And the Goethe Institut, Lagos. That is why you’re heading to Germany, which has now become a bastion of liberalism in Europe despite its own right-wing issues, and why you’re in transit through Istanbul.

You think of Orhan Pamuk, chronicler of Istanbul past and present, hounded into exile from his beloved city. And of the great Nâzım Hikmet, epic bard of Turkish life, thrown into jail decades earlier by his country’s leaders. You wince. Man will not only endure, he will prevail, said Faulkner. You want to believe him. You can’t.

 

II

Cologne

And then on the eighth day of Creation, after a night out in the cosy bars of Cologne, the Lord God created bicycles.

Cologne is a city of bicycles. Cologne’s roads, like those of some other German cities, are often clogged with vehicular traffic, so going by bicycle is wise. For your first dinner in the city, the genial, always-witty Christa Morgenrath, of your host institution Stimmen Afrikas/Allerwelthaus, arrives on a bicycle. So does Eva Wernecke, also of Stimmen Afrikas, who kindly brought you from the airport some hours earlier.

During the dinner, the conversation turns to the reconstruction of Cologne after the Second World War. The city had been so heavily bombed that an architect called it the world’s greatest heap of rubble. You remember reading somewhere that Heinrich Böll considered the post-war reconstruction of Cologne a destruction of his city all over again. Many people will say, though, that Böll’s position is not the final word on the matter.

For you, great writers have always been patron deities over the cities in which they lived. The humane, perspicacious and inclusive spirit of Böll’s writings echoes in the proceedings at the engagements on your packed schedule. The visit to a high school, during which a girl gives the most lucid explanation of colonialism you have ever heard. The interview at Allerwelthaus with the woman from Germany’s largest broadcaster—one of those rare journalists who truly understand what literature is all about. Your breakfast meeting with four Cologne writers at the Hotel Flandrischer Hof and the extensive conversation there that illuminates, among other things, how Nazism and kindred authoritarian regimes corrupt the very habits of language. The reading at the Zentralen Stadtbibliothek Köln, the Central City Library of Cologne. And the discussion at the event, which the actress Azizè Flittner translates for your benefit, that returns repeatedly to the relationship between literary invention and historical fact.

On your last day in Cologne, Christa Morgenrath suggests that you check out the Cologne cathedral before your departure. You gladly agree. The cathedral could not be more imposing. Craning your neck far back to observe its double spires, it seems it is the cathedral itself, rather than the clouds above it, that is drifting glacially across the surface of the earth.

Hordes of tourists mill around in the premises, taking pictures of the edifice and its magnificent stained glass windows. That grand cathedral, whose aesthetic could not be more dissonant with the post-WWII architecture of Cologne, brings back to mind the pre-war history of Germany. The Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa marching with his red beard and his conquering army into Italy. Bismarck presiding over the Berlin Conference, accelerating the Scramble for Africa. Kristallnacht.

As you leave for the train station, you look back one last time at the cathedral. It towers over you and the city, its spires ominous like the peaks of a cordillera violently thrust out from the bowels of the earth—Gothic, medieval, minatory.

Image courtesy of Rotimi Babatunde

Image courtesy of Rotimi Babatunde

III

Düsseldorf

Twenty postgraduate students, including your story’s translator Theresa Benkert and the other members of the translation team Louisa Kuck and Yvonne Kappel. Two of their professors—Sonja Frenzel and Stephanie Kreiner. One professional translator—Thomas Brückner, renowned for his translations into German of the works of African authors like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and Helon Habila. And one writer—you. These are the participants in your first session at the Heinrich Heine University’s Haus der Universität, located in a fashionable section of Düsseldorf.

After the preliminaries, the three-person team handling the translation into German, for the second time, of ‘Bombay’s Republic’ begin interrogating the story. The session lasts three hours. It is a rewarding experience. The questions raised by the team communicate their deep engagement with the story. In response to a comment about one of your long sentences, you voice out your assumption that such a sentence would be regular in German, which you know for its long sentences and word concatenations. Thomas Brückner says that tendency in the language makes long sentences written originally in another language even longer when translated into German.

You remember Garcia Marquez saying, with characteristic mischief and generosity, that he prefers Gregory Rabassa’s English version of One Hundred Years of Solitude to his own original. And you also remember some people have said, presumably tongue-in-cheek, that Shakespeare sounds better in German. In response to a question about a detail in your story, you reply that the translation team have the liberty to interpret it as they deem fit. Any worthwhile piece of literature is more intelligent than its writer, you say.

The second session is open to the university community and the general public. It is a presentation of the translation team’s practical and theoretical insights derived from the process of translating your story. The session is conducted mostly in German, unlike your other sessions in Düsseldorf. You are happy with just being another member of the audience, listening to the intense exchanges between members of the translation team and guests at the event, and understanding only snippets of the back-and-forth going on.

The last session for the day, a reading and discussion, which is also open to the public, holds at night. You’re back in front of the audience. It is a valid perspective to see the Second World War as a case of Germany trying to do to Europe what Europe, including Germany, had been doing to people in Africa and elsewhere for many centuries before the war, you tell the audience during that final event in Düsseldorf.

IV

Münster

Münster is happy when you arrive. A funfair is going on in the city. You watch the funfair’s savage rollercoasters flinging screaming thrill seekers skywards at hair-raising speed and then hurling them back earthwards with seemingly homicidal fury.

Across the road from the funfair, at the Internationales Zentrum der WWU ‘Die Brücke’, a scaled-down version of the exhibition ‘The Third World in World War II’ is in progress. A year ago, Anna Stelthove-Fend of the Afrika Kooperative contacted you to know if you would be willing to have your story “Bombay’s Republic” featured in the larger exhibition. The story was translated then, for the first time into German, by Thomas Brückner. It was published as a standalone piece in a small handsome edition, its proceeds going to a charitable initiative.

You couldn’t make the exhibition at that time. It is lovely you now have the chance to experience it, albeit in an abridged form. You walk through the exhibition, regarding posters of African soldiers in the different colonial armies of WWII. You stop for a long time before a poster illustrating the Nazi ideology of Lebensraum, Hitler’s foreign-policy goal of racially and ethnically cleansing parts of the world and turning those places into “living space” for his imagined “master race”.

Afterwards, during your reading moderated by Thomas Brückner, you talk about narratives. Stories are never innocent, you say. Implicit in every story is an ideology of how the world should be. That is why all pernicious narratives must constantly be challenged with counter-narratives.

 

Photo credit: Christiana Diallo-Morick

Photo credit: Christiana Diallo-Morick

V

Istanbul—In Transit—Homebound

This time around, there is no drama at the Kemal Atatürk International Airport. While waiting for your boarding announcement, you remember that, once upon a time in Istanbul, a Turk, a German and a Nigerian had missed their flight at that same airport. Their flight was rescheduled, and they had to burn away time by wandering independently around the huge terminal. By chance, the three of them met again in the course of their wanderings outside the entrance of one of the several smoking lounges in the airport.

The Turk, the German and the Nigeria did not have a common language with which to communicate. The Turk pointed to the rolls of cigarettes he was holding and to the smoking lounge, after which he pointed to himself and to the two others. Then the Turk began laughing. He thought the others had also missed the flight, like he did, because of tobacco-connected reasons. The German and the Nigerian started laughing with him. Though the Turk’s assumption was wrong, it didn’t matter. Only the possibility of human camaraderie across all essentialist boundaries did.

The memory of that chance meeting brings Faulkner’s words back to your mind. Humanity will not only endure, it will prevail, Faulkner said. You don’t want to believe him. You do.


About the Author:

Nigeria’s Rotimi Babatunde won the 2012 prize for his short story entitled ‘Bombay's Republic’ from 'Mirabilia Review' Vol. 3.9 (Lagos, 2011). Chair of Judges, Bernardine Evaristo, MBE, described it as “ambitious, darkly humorous and in soaring, scorching prose exposes the exploitative nature of the colonial project and the psychology of independence”.

Tribute to Buchi Emecheta (1944 - 2017)

Photo credit: Ekko Von Schwichow

Photo credit: Ekko Von Schwichow

The Council of the Caine Prize for African Writing pays tribute to Buchi Emecheta, a long-standing member of the Caine Prize Advisory Council, who died peacefully at her home in London on 25 January 2017, aged 72.

Buchi Emecheta was a Nigerian author who received great acclaim for her work both in the UK and Nigeria, as the author of more than 20 books. Born in Lagos, her father died when she was very young.  She won a scholarship to the Methodist Girls’ High School, married in 1960 aged sixteen, and had her first daughter that year. Her first son, Sylvester, was born in 1961 and in 1962 she joined her husband in London where he had gone to study. She had her second son in 1962, her second daughter in 1964, and in 1966, aged 22 and pregnant with her third daughter, she left her husband. While working to support her five children as a single mother, she wrote in the early mornings and studied at night classes to obtain an honours degree in Sociology.  Her first book, In The Ditch, details her experience as a poor, single parent in London. It was followed by Second-Class Citizen, The Bride Price, The Slave Girl, which was awarded the Jock Campbell Award, The Joys of Motherhood, Destination Biafra, Naira Power, The Rape of Shavi, Double Yoke, A Kind of Marriage, Gwendolen, Kehinde and The New Tribe. Her autobiography, Head Above Water, appeared in 1986 to much acclaim.

Chair of the Caine Prize Council Dr Delia Jarrett-Macauley recalls: “Many years ago, shortly after graduation, I enrolled on a Birkbeck College course on African women writers led by Buchi Emecheta. A warm and spirited teacher, she sensibly introduced us to her books Second-Class Citizen and The Joys of Motherhood, and other passionate novels by writers of her generation. Buchi made us laugh and nudged us to be determined. She described rising at dawn to write before work and finding inspiration in her family's stories. She was a true pioneer and will be greatly missed.” 

Vice-President of the Caine Prize and MAN Booker Prize-winning author Ben Okri said that Buchi Emecheta “re-ignited the rich place of women at the heart of African literature and wrote brave tales about survival and motherhood. Without her the current strong generation of women writers, who write well and fearlessly, would not exist. We owe her courage a debt of gratitude. May she rest in peace.”

Margaret Busby, Caine Prize Advisory Council member, was Buchi's editor and publisher at Allison & Busby for more than a decade in the 1970s-80s, and says: “It is with pride and a feeling of privilege that I now reflect on the fact that it was on my watch, so to speak, that her best remembered books were published - Second-Class Citizen (1974), The Bride Price (1976), The Slave Girl (1977), The Joys of Motherhood (1979), Destination Biafra (1982), and also her books for children. Sadly, her health deteriorated progressively over the past seven years, following a stroke, so her writing career was prematurely halted. But the resonant impact her work made on readers and fellow writers lives on." Margaret Busby wrote a touching obituary for Buchi Emecheta in the Guardian, which you can read here

Buchi Emecheta titles published by Allison & Busby. Photo courtesy of Margaret Busby.

Buchi Emecheta titles published by Allison & Busby. Photo courtesy of Margaret Busby.

Nii Ayikwei Parkes, 2017 Chair of Judges and council member, commented that “Buchi Emecheta was a model of the kind of humility that makes a great writer; never self-aggrandising, always ready to listen. What made her great was that she had, in tandem with her humility, a self-possession that meant that, like Toni Morrison, she knew her voice, her story, was central and complete, needed no validation from any quarter. Her confident representation of certain realities of Nigerian womanhood gave courage to a generation of young women of the global south to express themselves fully and unapologetically. I am certain her work has played no small part in the rich array of complex creative work being produced by young writers today. From her I learned that it’s important to put work out there to start a conversation, to be part of the world of conversations that affect us all as humans.”

Wangui wa Goro, Caine Prize Advisory Council member, added: “Buchi Emecheta's towering presence is always there and will remain.  She was a fierce trailblazer, both in her writing and in her insistence on being heard.  I had the privilege of knowing Buchi, both in the literary world and privately, and she was as funny as she was generous.  She was honest about the struggles in her personal life and in the publishing and reception of her work. Her stance and courage have been vindicated as through her legacy, she has opened the doors for, and to, so many. She remains iconic to many African literature scholars and others, and especially for us here in the UK, both for her brave writing, and for her presence for younger generations of African women writers, such as mine.  I owe a great deal of my own inspiration to women like Buchi and feel blessed to have known her and her work. May she rest in peace.”

James Currey, Caine Prize Advisory Council member and publisher of the African Writers Series at Heinemann, states that “Buchi Emecheta's work was of double importance. She, Flora Nwapa and Bessie Head gave women from Africa the idea that they might get published. She also gave women - and indeed men - the idea that they could write about the wider world of the diaspora."

She served as a judge for the Caine Prize in 2001, alongside J.M. Coetzee, Patron of the Caine Prize, the year that Helon Habila won. Nick Elam, Administrator of the Caine Prize from 1999 to 2011, recalls: “Buchi did not reveal her preference for Helon as winner, for fear of its being discounted as mere partisanship in favour of the Nigerian candidate, but she let out an explosive ululation when it became clear the decision was going his way.”

2001 Caine Prize winner Helon Habila, now Professor of Creative Writing at George Mason University, added: “Buchi's death is a tragic loss. She was a supportive, positive role model. Her personal story of overcoming adversity and abuse to become the writer she was is inspiring not just to women but to all of us. We thank her for her books.”

2004 Caine Prize winner and 2015 Caine Prize Judge, Brian Chikwava, added: “It is not just the stories Emecheta chose to tell that were bold and inspiring but also the story of her commitment to writing, even when the odds were overwhelmingly stacked against her. The first and last time I saw her she told us, a group of writers, that if you’re writing just to get published and not to earn from your work, then you are a blockhead. That sets things into perspective for any beginner writer.”

Caine Prize Director Lizzy Attree remembers first meeting Buchi Emecheta as a result of her contributions to the African Visions series at the British Library, programmed by the Africa Centre in Covent Garden, which ran from 2001 – 2005. Buchi was also involved in the Reading Africa libraries project organised and funded by SABDET (Southern African Book Development Education Trust) and co-produced by Lizzy with Kate Arafa.

Buchi Emecheta was a great supporter of the Caine prize and we are extremely grateful for her service as a member of the Advisory Council. She set a great example for a new generation of African writers through her life and work, and her work was an inspiration for the shortlisted and winning authors throughout the years.  She will be greatly missed.

Buchi Emecheta died peacefully in London on 25 January 2017.  She is survived by three of her five children.

– Additional Comments and Tributes to note –

Further tributes to Buchi Emecheta have been posted online by numerous friends and admirers. 

Read the tribute in the Guardian led by Bernardine Evaristo which includes comments from Margaret Busby, Aminatta Forna and Kadija Sesay here.

Read the tribute in the New Statesman written by Buchi Emecheta’s son Sylvester Onwordi here

Listen to Nnedi Okorafor's tribute on BBC World: Africa here.

– Reflections and Tributes on Social Media –

Shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2004, Chika reflects on advice Buchi Emecheta gave to young writers.

Shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2004, Chika reflects on advice Buchi Emecheta gave to young writers.

Leila Aboulela, winner of Caine Prize 2000 and served as judge for 2013 prize, fondly recollects Buchi Emecheta's influence on African writers.

Leila Aboulela, winner of Caine Prize 2000 and served as judge for 2013 prize, fondly recollects Buchi Emecheta's influence on African writers.

2017 Judging Panel Announced

With applications for the 2017 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 will be chaired by Nii Ayikwei Parkes, award winning author, poet and editor. He will be joined by the 2007 Caine Prize winner, Monica Arac de Nyeko; accomplished author and Chair of the English Department at Georgetown University, Professor Ricardo Ortiz; Libyan author and human rights campaigner, Ghazi Gheblawi; and distinguished African literary scholar, Dr Ranka Primorac. 

The 2017 Chair of Judges, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, said: "I have been a consumer of fiction from Africa for close to four decades, revelling in its range, its humour, its insights and dynamic linguistic palette. So, I am ecstatic to be asked to chair the panel for this year's Caine Prize and look forward to working with this incredible assembly of judges. There is, of course, the selfish pleasure, as an editor, of getting a first look at some of the finest writing coming from the continent and its foreign branches." 

Key Dates: 

31 January 2017 - submission deadline

Mid May - shortlist announced

3 July - winner announced at Senate House

Find out more about our 2017 judges here. For more information on how to enter the 2017 prize please click here

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

The Seduction of Johannesburg - by Lidudumalingani Mqombothi

When I arrive in Johannesburg on the 7th of October for the Mail and Guardian Literature Festival, it is my third visit in two months and each time it feels like the city is courting me. In 2012, when I was at film school here, the city and I were in the middle of a terrible separation. The city had heightened my claustrophobia levels and the city had had enough of my incessant complaining. Things are different now. It is not so much that the city and I have vastly changed though there are some minor changes but largely we have accepted each other for what we are. I now appreciate the city for its eclecticism and the city appreciates my need for solitude.

“It is going to be a slow painful drive” the Taxify driver tells me upon entering the car, a silver greyish Toyota Etios, which arrived at the OR Tambo Airport long after the estimated time arrival, and as demanded by the etiquette we have learned from app based on demand transport services, when he arrived, I was already annoyed.

“Is it?” I half ask, looking out the window at the billboards at the OR Tambo Airport.

“Yeah, he replies, there is an accident on R24”

We get stuck behind a truck that is carrying a huge engine. The driver and I begin to play a game of guessing what the engine is for. The conversations arrives at how because of the advancement of technology engineering is far easier.

“They do not have to look for problems in a car anymore. The car tells the engineer where it hurts” he says.

After driving on the highway for about thirty minutes, a journey that had only been 5 minutes of actual driving and twenty five minutes of waiting, he tells me that if I approve he can take an alternative route. I had just landed in a humid Johannesburg from a cold Cape Town and my entire body temperature had been unsettled and because of the change in weather I suddenly felt hot and needed a shower. I tell him to do as he pleases, that the Mail and Guardian Literature Festival, which I was in town for, was only taking place tomorrow in any case.

And so he veered off the usual road, up a bridge, takes the first turn, cuts in front of a truck, gets to a robot, waits for two Pick n Pay workers holding hands, and then crosses to another road and in no time at all we enter Maboneng, where I was staying for that weekend of the 8 th and 9 th October.

I spent the night of the Friday, the 7th , in my room, which the gracious Milisuthando Bongela, the Mail and Guardian Friday magazine supplement editor, had organised for me via Airbnb. Standing on the balcony, I watch the sunset caught in between two buildings, silhouetting much of the building structures in the city whilst the hum of the city can be heard underneath that beauty. I think of both Ivan Vladislavic’s Portrait with keys and Phaswane Mpe’s Hillbrow and how the two texts engage with Johannesburg, departing from two different perspective but arriving at a complex but beautiful Johannesburg.

In the morning on Saturday I make my way to the SciBono Discovery Center with a friend of mine Tseliso Monaheng. The panel I was on was at 09:30 in the morning titled “Native life” a century after Sol Plaatje’s Native Life with Lwandile Fikeni, Percy Mabandu and Lindokuhle Nkosi and moderated by Milisuthando Bongela. Having read both Native Life and Mhudi by Sol Plaatje and found it to be as erudite literature and social commentary the panel had an appeal for me.

Lasting for close to two hours and appearing to have legs to run into a third hour and maybe a fourth before getting boring the discussion began with reflections on Sol Plaatje’s Native Life, and went on to touch on what it means to be a writer today, what it means to be a writer coming from a certain place, the politics of the language, can language alienate the very reader it is speaking to. There was not one agreement or disagreement, they were many, but one that stood out for me was that different writers are responding differently to essentially the same question. Pleasing was that were five young black writers engaging with literature, not so much as black writers, but as writers.

After the panel I went truant and went to find film stock for my camera, which I did find, for half the price I buy it for in Cape Town. When I return to the festival I sit in a panel with uMkhonto we Sizwe veterans and academics who have written books about the MK and the larger armed struggle aimed to free South Africa. Listening to the MK veterans speak about being in the struggle and realising that the trauma of it sits very much in their immediate memory refocuses one’s view of it.

On the Saturday night despite the rain I file out of my flat into the streets of Maboneng. In every corner in Maboneng is a security guard and I for the first time in a long time I feel safe in Jozi at night. Maboneng is a place constructed on other people’s trauma however. Poor people who have occupied derelict buildings are kicked out into the streets and the buildings turned into apartments. One’s relief at feeling safe is a laugh at the face of the poor people who are now homeless. This is what Gentrification does, it makes us complicit in its evilness. To feel unthreatened is a feeling every human being enjoys but one must also be aware that this has come at a cost.

When I return to my room that night, a room booked via Airbnb, a room owned by a stranger, and now inhabited by another, two men who have never met, yet have been in close proximity, occupied the same space, have slept in the same bed, admired, perhaps, the same view. I think too of the other guests that have stayed in that room and wonder about what they were like, which parts of the flat they found intriguing, I wondered if they care about the sunset trapped between the two buildings.

On Sunday the Mail and Guardian Literature Festival comes to an end with the launch of the Sol Plaatje Poetry anthology launch. Having not been to a poetry session in a long while, the poetry performances lifted my spirit such that when I leave Johannesburg for Cape Town in the afternoon, I am in high spirits.

The way that the city of Johannesburg is positioned is that when one leaves it to make their way to the airport, it sits there, beside the highway, going pass the window, waving goodbye, exhibiting its beauty, and one cannot help but be tempted and quietly tell it that I will return.

Written by Caine Prize 2016 Winner Lidudumalingani Mqombothi. You can catch Lidudumalingani back in Johannesburg 06-10 December 2016 at the Abantu Book Festival in Soweto. For more details visit www.abantubookfestival.co.za

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