An Unexpected Prize - by Efemia Chela

Efemia Chela

Efemia Chela

I was 22 when I got the 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.

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

Angeline_Kamba.jpg

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.

Caine Prize Judges Series - On Writing, Craftsmanship and the Caine Prize for African Writing 2017

Credit: Allan Gichigi

Credit: Allan Gichigi

Early in my writing journey, perhaps as early as ten years ago, I wrote astonishingly bad short stories and poems. The problem was not the themes I chose to write about or even my passion for writing itself. The themes I tackled were important and relevant to a Uganda in search of its true self. I wrote about loss, love, transformation and our collective past. My passion for writing was great. My desire to succeed at it was urgent perhaps even obsessive. Sometimes, I stayed overnight at the FEMRITE office, writing, agonising and then feeling exhausted I slept on the mattress the office made available in the ‘Den of Wisdom,’ the communal space.

By all appearances, the qualities that sustained my writing, were exactly those things anyone needed to be a good writer – or a good anything. Grit, curiosity and belief in the possibility of success. In principle, those qualities combined with some mentorship should have enabled me to produce fiction worthy of consideration by publishing houses, my peers and anyone who cared about writing. It was not.

Luckily, things did change eventually. At a certain point, I do not recall exactly when, I started to write stories that were not as bad. They were not structurally as flawed. The characters were plausible. The language was not as awkward. I do not know for sure how that happened but I think the chipping away at the computer helped. But, over the years, life also did happen to and with me and what we know of life for sure is that it does have several lessons under its belt. I think, it is those and other things that all converged to improve my skill.

Over the years and as I finalise my first novel, I am interested in the subject of craft. I want to be a better writer. To do that, I read books about writing. I read books about mastery in general. I read the masters, those whose writing is so well executed that they inspire things in us so great, so grand. To improve in my writing, I also read books, listen to podcasts and anything which illuminates mastery of all kind of things - chess, ping pong, sports etc.

Recently, I watched ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ a documentary about Jiro Ono an 85-year-old sushi master and owner of Sukiyabashi Ji in Japan. The documentary was a fascinating portrait of a life lived in service to a craft, in this case, the craft of Sushi. There are many ways to live a life and many examples of mastery and masters. But, what I learnt from ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi,’ is that mastery of a craft, is a journey. Craftsmanship is a quest that never ends.  Becoming a master craftsmanship is forever a work in progress. There is no true destination. Nothing is ever truly mastered. And yet, in the process of aiming for mastery, we become craftsmen and find ourselves executing our craft in a realm that lies beyond effort and takes us into transcendence.  

In terms of the Caine Prize, I have never judged a writing prize before – at least not in the same way. I was not sure what to expect when I came to judging 2017’s Prize. However, my limited experience allowed for limited influence and a willingness to approach the process instinctively.

As I read the many stories that were submitted for consideration in 2017, there were those stories which felt familiar exactly because they reminded me of the stories I used to write when I had passion, desire, theme and nothing else to anchor my craft on.

On the other side, for this year’s Prize, there were several stories (both those who made the short list and those which did not) that were just absolutely magnificent exactly because they demonstrated the author’s devotion to craft and the art of storytelling. Everyone’s writing process is different. How each person choses to grow themselves into a writer is different. Some people can do it with remarkable ease which stirs monumental fits of envy. Other people, like me, need to plough through each story and build each paragraph like a muscle. However, what I can say with great certainty is that all the stories that we saw on this year’s shortlist pushed boundaries and reflected a writer who had taken the time to sit with their craft and hone it. 

Bushra al-Fadil's ‘The Story of the Girl whose Birds Flew Away’ is a story told with a fascinating take on language and expression. Lesley Nneka Arimah's‘Who Will Greet You At Home,’ and Magogodi oaMphela Makhene's ‘The Virus’ are both truly innovative. Chikodili Emelumadu's ‘Bush Baby’ is a fabulous weaving of the rational and irrational worlds we occupy and what lies in the middle. Arinze Ifeakandu's ‘God’s Children Are Little Broken Things’ is intimate, heart-breaking and relentless all at once.

What I have seen from this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing is that the future of craft and of stories coming out of Africa is luminous. Riding on the backs of the masters who preceded us: Okot p'Bitek, Timothy Wangusa, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ama Ata Aidoo, Buchie Emecheta - more masters await us in our luminous  future.

Written by Monica Arac de Nyeko , 2017 Caine Prize Judge, find out more about the judges here.

Caine Prize Judges Series - A Feast of African Literature

The first thought that occurred to me when I was asked to take part in the judging panel for this year's Caine Prize, was trying to remember my first encounter with African writing and literature in another language other than Arabic. As a writer from Libya that spent my formative years reading literature that was either written in Arabic or translated from other languages into Arabic, the scope of reading African literature outside the North African sphere was limited if not seldom available.

Once I moved to London it became easier for me to read more African literature especially with the emergence of new writers from the continent who made it on the international stage, and through activities and events that were dedicated to promote new writing from all over Africa.

The Caine Prize has been at the forefront of a renaissance in African literature, and it wasn't accidental that the Prize was a manifestation of the resurgence of African culture, art and literature that began with the turn of the new millennium, which reflected the vigour and enthusiasm of the new generation of African writers to break old boundaries and explore new ideas, styles and themes.

With 148 entries for this year's round of the prize I found myself immersed in a feast of literature that I longed to read for a long time. The diversity of themes, styles, and language made the reading experience enriching. Nothing intrigued more than the strong sense of experimentation in many stories especially those that dealt with common ideas, like war, displacement, famine, poverty, racism, colonialism and domestic violence. The use of fantasy, myths and science fiction to describe and present these issues was fascinating and refreshing.

It was not only the use of new forms and styles of writing that filled me with enthusiasm about this year's entries but also the nuanced themes that are finding a strong footing among African writers, among them dealing with issues of gender, sexuality and immigration.

The next challenge for African literature will be to make it accessible to be read by everyone in the continent regardless of language. And as the Caine Prize reaches its second decade of promoting and celebrating African writing it will be integral for the mission of the Prize to invest in the future of inter-African translation projects to bring African writers closer together.

Written by Ghazi Gheblawi, 2017 Caine Prize Judge, find out more about the judges here.

Caine Prize Judges Series - The Caine Prize and the African Republic of Letters

Image credit: Amara Okolo

Image credit: Amara Okolo

‘It’s a great list’, a friend tells me once we have finished the first round of judging. ‘But why are Nigeria and South Africa on every Caine Prize shortlist? It feels weird and skews the conversation.’

Such concerns are justifiable. Stories by writers from Africa’s two literary superpowers have often featured on past shortlists. Nigerian and South African authors jointly make up a total of eight out of seventeen past Caine laureates. (That’s 47.5%, five were Nigerian.)

While making difficult judging decisions this year, my colleagues and I were mindful of literary quality first and foremost. The shortlist we produced has been hailed as one of the most diverse ever in terms of age, language, gender, genre and theme. Have we dropped the ball when it comes to national diversity? Is this year’s Caine literary conversation ‘skewed’?

In 1999, literary scholar Pascale Casanova published a book titled The World Republic of Letters. In it, she describes world literature as an international contestation for literary power and prestige. The contestants are writers and books, but also literary nation-states. Part of each nation’s currency is the international legibility of its writing traditions, underpinned by the strength and versatility of its educational and cultural institutions. Far from being a harmonious realm of free-flowing aesthetic cooperation, the international literary space – says Casanova – is unequal and uneven, with sharply contrasted centres and peripheries. It is, and has long been, obviously skewed (as my friend would put it).

Is there an African Republic of Letters? If so, then it is a postcolony. The continent’s literary and cultural flows are still powerfully regulated from London, Paris and New York, as the very existence of the Caine Prize and the residential location of many shortlisted authors attest. Foremost among the African cultural locations increasingly capable of rivalling the Euro-American institutions of literary gatekeeping are (for better or worse) Lagos and Johannesburg. The centrality of South Africa and Nigeria to Africa’s literary production in English makes itself felt globally. Of course, it has affected the quality and quantity of Caine Prize submissions, too.

Together with my fellow judges, I have kept such disparities firmly in mind during the judging process. But when, at the end of the short-listing meeting, we asked ourselves whether we could live with the national make-up of the list that had emerged, the answer had to be in the affirmative. Anything else would have meant defeating the purpose of the Prize: to help the most accomplished and competitive writers gain a foothold in the world’s troubled literary republic.

Written by Ranka Primorac, 2017 Caine Prize Judge, find out more about the judges here.

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”.