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.