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.