Reading the 133 short stories submitted for the 2018 Caine Prize was a daunting task, in the sense of being intimidating. I don’t remember having been in a similar quandary before.
Part of the problem was the luminosity of African talent on the pages. It was dazzling. It was difficult to select a few gems from among the jewels we encountered. The onus was on the four of us to subjectively decide on what objectively we saw on the pages.
There was another matter that vexed my mind when we met in the sedate surroundings of the Royal Overseas League in London to decide on the shortlist on 29th April. I was torn by the inclusion of fairly established authors in the same basket as the relatively new ones. Luckily I need not had worried. My three colleagues were of the same opinion that we should give preference to emerging writers.
It was not a case of penalising success. Yet the world would be an unfair place if established success is allowed to crowd out new talent. The operative word is “emerging” rather than young.
There is also something to be said for giving due recognition to the smaller publishing outlets in Africa that are producing admirable literary works.
The measure of a good story should be in the story-telling as a vehicle of transporting ideas – the marrying of structure with wisdom or even the grande idée of the narrative, adopting a bold vision which goes beyond the ordinary. The short story defines itself as short. As such it should be compact and inelastic.
A few of the stories are multilayered, grappling with myriad thematic preoccupations — ranging from the politics of identity, sci-fi, gender equity, and changing social mores. It is impressive to see how some capture the eruption of emotions or the politics of memory.
But where there is squalor, deprivation and tortured souls, the collective narrative of the tortured is hemmed in. And it, too, becomes tortured.
In depicting such situations a few writers have been bold enough to subvert grammar and syntax to create a fresh language, although rough at the edges. It is spoken in a social landscape where the powerless speak truth to power in a manner that somehow at least frees them from the perimeters of oppression through their subversion of polite language and ownership of the alternative diction. In a way, it empowers them.
The human condition is a political condition and should, of necessity, be dissected through the prism of power relations which essentially translate into politics.
The Caine has come into its own with exacting standards and expectations. These stories do not disappoint. Indeed, some of them are unexpected literary and metaphorical gifts. They give us a glimpse of the many ways that one can be a successful writer. They are offerings by consummate storytellers who happen to be African.
Written by Ahmed Rajab, 2018 Caine Prize Judge, find out more about the judges here.