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.