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.