Record breaking number of entries for 2016 Prize

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We've reached the seventeenth year of the Caine Prize for African Writing and our office is filled with a record breaking number of entries: 166 short stories from writers representing 23 African countries. Last year 153 qualifying stories were submitted to the judges from 17 countries.

Our 2016 judges, who were announced in London last month, will meet in early May to decide on the shortlisted stories, which will be announced shortly thereafter.

Caine Prize Director, Dr Lizzy Attree, commented on the entries, saying: “Once again we have received a record number of entries and we are delighted that so many of the best writers and publishers in Africa chose to submit their work. We are also excited to see an increase in the number of countries represented among the work submitted. Alongside nations with long histories of representation in both our shortlist and the roll call of winners, countries, like Ethiopia, Burundi, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Gambia, entered work which our judges now have the enviable task of reading and judging.”

Once again, Blackwell Hall, Bodleian Libraries, in Oxford, UK, will host the Caine Prize award ceremony on Monday 4 July 2016. 

Want to know who will be judging this years entries? Meet our 2016 judges here.

2016 Judging Panel Announced

With applications for the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing closing at the end of January, we're delighted to announce our five judges who have been tasked with reading through all the entries and picking their favourites. 

The panel of judges will be chaired by the distinguished author and broadcaster Delia Jarrett-Macauley. She will be joined by the acclaimed film, television and voice actor, Adjoa Andoh; the writer and founding member of the Nairobi based writers’ collective, Storymoja, and founder of the Storymoja Festival, Muthoni Garland; Associate Professor and Director of African American Studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC, Dr Robert J Patterson; and South African writer, and 2006 Caine Prize winner, Mary Watson.

Announcing the 2016 judging panel, Chair of Judges, Delia Jarrett-Macauley, said:  “I'm delighted to be chairing the 2016 Caine Prize judging panel. 2015 was an impressive year for the Caine Prize, with record entries, an excellent shortlist and marvellous winner. I look forward to joining my fellow judges to read some equally impressive stories this year.”

The judges will meet in April 2016 to decide on this year’s shortlisted stories, which will be announced shortly afterwards. The winning story will be announced at a dinner at the Bodleian Library in Oxford on Monday 4 July 2016, with £500 awarded to each shortlisted writer.

Find out more about our 2016 judges here. 

Key dates:
31 January – entry deadline
Late-April – shortlist announced
4 July – winners announced at dinner in Oxford

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Responsibilities

Cóilín Parsons on Judging the 2015 Shortlist

I was well over three quarters of the way through the 153 entries for this year’s prize when I opened one story and found a courier shipping label. It had been neatly filled out by the author, with her name and address, and a description of the contents (6 copies of a short story; no monetary value). She had spent about £25 to send the packet to a very unlikely address—the Menier Chocolate Factory in London—and had surely wished it well as she dropped it off. She was, after all, sending it to be judged, asking a panel of strangers to determine whether it counted as among the best of African short stories. As I thought of that writer in Nigeria, I was struck by the weight of responsibility on my shoulders as a judge, and the duty of care I had towards each story and every author. That night, I dreamt that I had forgotten to read her story. It wasn’t the last time that I had an anxiety dream about the Caine Prize. The subject of the dreams was always the same—I dreamt that, whether by losing my box of stories, or having them stolen, or passing over some by mistake, somehow I had failed to read all of the stories in time for the shortlisting meeting in late April. The responsibility of judging the Caine Prize weighed heavily on me in the early months of this year.

W.B. Yeats opened his 1914 collection, Responsibilities, with an epigraph marked by characteristically awkward Yeatsian locution: ‘In dreams begins responsibility’. Responsibilities was an extended poetic meditation on the politics of representation. Yeats worried about whether the poet could indeed represent his country in both senses of the word—to re-present it in his art, but also to stand in for it, to be its representative. In English we have the tendency to conflate these two senses, though they are quite separate. The latter responsibility weighed more heavily than the former, yet it was one that Yeats had long sought out, and would continue to cherish until the end of his life. At that time, when Ireland was emerging into nationhood and on the path of decolonisation (with all its utopian promises and dystopian realities), the question of who gets to be a representative of the people and how was one of the most pressing of the day. Now, one hundred years and many decolonisation movements and wars later, the issue remains just as fraught as it was then. African writing, whatever that may be, is frequently tasked with representing an entire continent, and the Caine Prize shortlisted stories are doubly charged—they must represent both Africa and good writing. Did our entrant from Nigeria think of this as she wrote her story? Or only as she posted it to the Chocolate Factory? Or was it never in her mind at all? Did she, as I did, lie awake at night under the burden of responsibility? Did she wonder how her story might, if chosen for the shortlist, be asked to speak for Cameroon and Angola, Egypt and Botswana? I hope and suspect not.

While one author might be able to rest easy in the knowledge that she can only mistakenly be called on to represent an entire continent (as, no doubt, the winner will), a literary prize with ‘African Writing’ in its name carries a substantial burden of responsibility. The Caine Prize has, of course, become a lightning rod for questions of representation and responsibility—can or does it represent Africa? Can any prize claim to encompass such a diverse continent? Why should a prize awarded in the UK be the premier prize for writing in Africa? Does this or that winning story offer a new narrative for Africa or traffic in clichés? These are questions that treat of the Caine Prize as an institution, as a monolithic arbiter of what is good in literary Africa. But I came to realise as I sat in our shortlisting meeting (having, thankfully, managed not to forget any of the stories) that each jury constitutes its own values and its own criteria from the materials in front of it. The judges and the entries differ every year, and the shortlisted stories represent not the jury’s estimation of some vague thing called ‘African Writing’ but their determination of the five best stories on the table in front of them. It is a somewhat arbitrary process, then—a ‘bundle of accident and incoherence’, to repurpose another pregnant phrase from Yeats. But it is a happy accident and a necessary incoherence, for to be any otherwise would be to do an injustice to the complexity of all the authors and narrators and stories and characters in front of us. This is the genius of the board of the Caine Prize and its director, Lizzy Attree—they convene every year a disparate committee of judges, and gather together a multitude of stories from around Africa and beyond, and somehow what emerges is a coherent idea, ‘something intended, complete’. In short, the winner that emerges every year is genuinely outstanding, but never categorical—it does not define African writing, but only marks a special achievement under that broad umbrella.

All this talk of responsibility and representation—this sense that the prize and the prizewinner carry on their shoulders the burden of representing (in both senses) an entire continent—calls to mind a hoary old chestnut of postcolonial studies. When the American literary critic Frederic Jameson wrote ‘Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capital’, he was attacked for, among other things, implying that all literature from what we would now call the Global South was in thrall to the demands of the nation, unable to represent anything other than a story of decolonisation and national emergence. The essay also denies a space for specificity and creativity in the Global South—Aijaz Ahmad takes him to task for writing ‘All third-world texts are necessarily…’, a formulation that sweepingly refers to half a world as if it were indivisibly other. Despite the thorough debunking of Jameson’s essay, however, much of the criticism of the Caine Prize reprises his error, assuming and sometimes demanding that each story be a proxy for African Writing and each author an image of the African Writer. In one sense, that expectation is not unreal, given the title of the prize, but who demands that the winner of the National Book Award in the US define ‘American Writing’, or the winner of the Man Booker ‘International Writing?’ While writers from the Global North are seen as simply writers, unmarked and universal, those from the Global South are restricted to being representatives of their types—Indian or African or South American above all else. They become impossibly responsible for a whole people, state, or continent. When critics take the Caine Prize stories to represent African writing or Africa tout court, or even a ‘western’ view of African writing, they assume that such a project is unproblematically possible in a way that essentialises Africa.  The argument is an old one, but it is worth repeating, for although this and all other prizes are marked by many and varied responsibilities, standing in for all of Africa is not one of those.

None of the stories on this year’s shortlist purports to be definitionally ‘African’ in any way. F.T. Kola’s sympathetic portrait of a wife and mother’s agonizing evening; Segun Afolabi’s delicately woven tale of a journey filled with stories and disappointments; Namwali Serpell’s masterful account of disease and decay; Masande Ntshanga’s subtle and careful narrative of disease, parenthood, and estrangement; Elnathan John’s moving, textured story of surrogacy and love. Each of them offers something unique, surprising and clarifying, which is perhaps the best definition of a successful short. But they don’t make any large claims to stand in for a continent. Their responsibilities are to different scales and stories—to their characters and their settings, to the intimate and the local, to the present and the past, to the art of narrative and the short form. Their materials may be gathered from contexts throughout the continent, but they are comfortable in their skin as stories without national or continental allegories or burdens attached. I’ve spoken a lot about responsibility—as both burden and privilege—but very little about the other overwhelming feeling I had as I read all of these stories: pleasure. While I hope that the feeling of responsibility rests on the shoulders of the judges alone, I know that the pleasure of reading is something that we will share with everyone who picks up (or, more prosaically, downloads) these fine stories.

Read the shortlist here.

Cóilín Parsons is Assistant Professor of English at Georgetown University, where he teaches Irish literature, modernism, and postcolonial literature and theory. His work on Irish, South African and Indian literature and culture has appeared in such journals as Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies,Victorian Literature and Culture, The Journal of Beckett Studies, Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa, English Language Notes and elsewhere.

Cóilín, who is from Ireland, received his PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Before joining Georgetown’s English department, he was a Lecturer in English at the University of Cape Town.

Sex and the African Short Story

Judge Neel Mukherjee on the 2015 Shortlist 

‘God, there’s a hell of a lot of sex going on in Africa,’ exclaimed one fellow- judge halfway through our reading of this year’s entries for the Caine Prize. In the year of the highest number of submissions for the prize – 153 stories – there is yet another record, dubious this time, which cannot pass unnoticed: the highest number of stories centred on sex. Masturbation features a lot, especially female masturbation. Male genitals, erm, dismembered (and disembodied), appear on a wall (yes, you read that correctly). There’s even sex – well, almost – with a tokoloshe. There’s an explicit little number, by no definition a story, in which a male narrator justifies his infidelity by his wife’s refusal to shave her legs or blow him after their marriage. And there’s your common-or-garden variety sex as well; often called vanilla, I’m reliably informed. Oh, did I forget female orgasms and ubiquitous ejaculations? 

The judge who commented on the pervasiveness of sex in Africa got an eye infection halfway through the reading because ‘all that ejaculation got into my eye’. What on earth is going on? One of the reasons behind this high incidence of writing about sex could be the (baneful) influence of Fifty Shades of Grey, the judges surmised. If this is true, then one can only lament. 

But it set me thinking: could it be that, after decades of being expected to write about poverty, famine, AIDS, corruption, dictators, writers from most of the countries on the continent are writing about whatever the hell they feel like writing about? But the problematics of this ‘liberation’ don’t need spelling out. 

The other problem is the knotty business of writing about sex. It’s notoriously difficult – bordering on impossible, in fact – to write well about it. While it is to be lauded that this has not held back some of the writers whose stories I have in mind – nothing ventured, nothing gained,

remember? – I wish the outcomes, in each of these cases, had lived up to the risk taken.

Two of the shortlisted stories show how to write about sex in extraordinary and powerful ways. One casts the briefest of glances at homosexuality in the subtlest way imaginable; it is barely a whisper. The other works by the suggestion of adultery or unfaithfulness -- the story leaves so much unsaid that one wonders if it is really that -- that casts a long shadow and seems to be one of the undersurface motors driving the motivations of the characters.

Read the 2015 Shortlist here. 

 

Neel Mukherjee is one of the 2015 Judges of the Caine Prize and the author of the award-winning debut novel, A Life Apart (2010). His second novel, The Lives of Others (2014), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He has reviewed fiction widely for a number of UK, Indian and US publications. He lives in London.

Child Narrators and Poverty Porn

Chair of Judges, Zoe Wicomb, on the 2015 Caine Prize Shortlist

The Caine Prize has of late been roundly criticized for favouring child narrators, the charge being that their perspectives contribute to the infantilization of Africa. This year’s judging panel has failed to heed the warning; perversely, we have allowed three child narrators on the shortlist. Moreover, all three tell stories of impoverishment, the nasty addictive ingredient, we are told, that converts so readily into ‘poverty porn’. Have we then deliberately chosen to perpetuate the parlous condition in which the representation of African writing is said to find itself? If child narrators are accused of trading in pornographic sentimentality, our three chosen ones deftly sidestep such charges. 

Yes, the stories (‘Flying’, ‘The Folded Leaf’, ‘Space’) deal with poverty and disadvantage, but literary value is, of course, not based on content. Stylistically, these stories prove irresistible; their simplicity is strategic; and far from infantilizing the societies in which they are set, they make extraordinary and sophisticated demands on readers’ inferential skills. Poverty is not presented as a single meaning, begging bowl in hand; instead, meaning proliferates as we are prompted to infer the unspoken: that which lies just beyond what can be seen, or what can be heard, said, or done under social restrictions and conventional morality (––or, in western words, beyond what-Maisie-knew). Beyond poverty and underdevelopment are the clear-sightedness, the aspirational, the will to truth, the empathy and the ethical that lie within reach of the child as artiface. Through the child narrators ambiguity and irony are introduced. 

These stories seem to go a long way towards answering a pressing question that we fail to ask whilst we focus on what African writing looks like from the outside: Why do so many literary writers choose the narrative perspective of children?

 

Zoe Wicomb is a South African writer who lives in Scotland where she is Emeritus Professor in English Studies at Strathclyde University. Her critical work is on Postcolonial theory and South African writing and culture. Her works of fiction are You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, David’s Story, Playing in the Light, The One That Got Away and October. Wicomb is a recipient of Yale’s 2013 Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction.

Why Being a Good Writer is Not Good Enough

Brian Chikwava on Judging the 2015 Shortlist

What makes a winning story is a question that has been discussed often on the Caine Prize blog by celebrated storytellers and previous judges. Nathan Hensley (Judge 2013) described the tingle of responsibility of “doing the work of cultural consecration, separating “good” literature from “bad” and, inevitably, enforcing the standards that might determine what counts as good in the first place.”

How do you determine that from just 3000 words? “Short, where narrative is concerned, is not easy: it requires more art.” argues John Sutherland (Judge 2013) in his reflections of the judging process, but an art that he says that “African writers are so damned good at.” For Helon Habila (Judge 2014), “their plotting, focalizations, narrative voices, rhetorical devices, and structural features call into question the idea that there might be any single definition or model against which the African short-story might be measured.” But decides that “if it is a good book, people will make a beaten path it.”.

Leila Aboulela, 2013 judge and 2000 winner, determined the good stories as the ones that were “the kind of stories I would want to pass on to friends, the kind of stories I would be keen to recommend.” And it’s not necessarily the ones with the serious subject matters.

However after going through the most recent shortlist announcement, Brian Chikwava, having won the 2004 Caine Prize for “Seventh Street Alchemy” and returned as a 2015 Judge, learned that “being a good writer alone is not enough to guarantee a place on the shortlist. One also needs luck. Plenty of it.”

“Judging the works of other writers can be a humbling experience. One gets to observe the capricious nature of the process and it was an eye opening pleasure to read through the astonishing range of entries and try to whittle it down from the overwhelming volume of 153 entries to five depending on their ideas, execution, the quality of the writing and how that package holds together.

Based on the frequency with which they appeared across the individual judges’ lists of the favourite ten, some stories initially gave the impression that they would sail into the final shortlist. But a surprisingly different picture began to emerge after illuminating discussions on the merits of each story, which perhaps speaks to the quality of the stories. One judge's reading may throw new light on a story whose strengths weren't so obvious to begin with, and suddenly…

After pleasant agreement and disagreement it also became apparent that in some cases arguing for or against one story or another had reached its limit. A bit of horse-trading therefore seemed like a sensible way of moving forward. At this point the process can take on a political complexion so that the final shortlist to an extent hinges on how firmly held individual judges’ positions are with respect to competing considerations: whether taste, predilection, conviction and other perceived or urgent concern of fiction/writing can be traded in order to arrive at a result that leaves no one judge feeling short-changed.

Inevitably not all of the stories that we liked as individuals made it to the shortlist. I would have loved to see Cat Hellisen’s Mouse Teeth and Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s Special Meal on the shortlist. They are well crafted, engaging and there is a nice freshness in the treatment of their subject matters. I also loved Jowhor Ile's Supersonic Bus.

It does make me wonder about the debates that must have taken place when my story Seventh Street Academy was selected as the 2004 winner. I would love to have been a fly on the wall during those discussions but no one wants to find out that a good outcome may not have been down to their staggering genius.”

For more insight into the judging process of the Caine Prize read Bernadine Evaristo (Chair of Judges 2012) and Samantha Pinto’s (Judge 2012, Assistant Professor, Georgetown University) descriptions of the kinds of questions that came to mind as they read the stories. 

Find out who made the 2015 shortlist here and the full judging panel here

 

Brian Chikwava won the Caine Prize in 2004 and is the author of Harare North, published by Jonathan Cape (English, 2009) and Editions Zoe (French, 2011). His short fiction has appeared in anthologies published by Picador, Granta, Weaver Press, Jacana, Umuzi and also been broadcast on BBC Radios 3 and 4 and the BBC World Service.

Caine Prize 2015 Writers Workshop by Nkiacha Atemnkeng

Nkiacha Atemnkeng is a young Cameroonian writer based in Douala who was one of twelve selected participants of the 2015 Caine Prize Writers Workshop.  In a recent blogpost, Nkiacha shared his experience of the workshop held in Elmina, a picturesque coastal town in Ghana from April 6th to 19th.

Arriving in Accra

 An immigration officer looked at me and said, “You’re a nice guy!” I was taken aback. Immigration officers in my country don’t lavish such beautiful compliments on anyone. They are either non-committal to you or they scold you. So I asked him,

“Why do you say that?”

“There are some people that when you see them, you begin to shiver. But you! I don’t think so. Where are you from?”

“Cameroon,” I answered.

“It doesn’t matter where you are from, you’re a nice guy.” I felt flattered. Being airport staff myself, I knew he said that from his profiling of me, with respect to fake documents or illegalities.

The second officer who stamped my Visa pronounced my town of birth with a certain familiarity that something told me that he knew the place, “Nkiacha, born in Kumba!” I halted, trying not to think of the exaggerated infamous stories of my birth place. But as he returned my passport, he added,“I attended CPC Bali.” “Oh! Really! Good to know.”

(CPC Bali is one of the first Secondary schools in Anglophone Cameroon.) We spoke French briefly after that. The “nice guy” one warmed up to my chat so much he even gave me his phone number.

I left for the arrival hall. A gentleman gave me a cart, placed my bags on it and told me, “Welcome to Ghana”. It was another commendable act of gallantry. So off I went thinking about first impressions. “Ghanaians are generally hospitable, friendly people, birthplace of pan-Africanism really.” Then a voice boomed,

“This way sir, Customs.” (Damn it.) “Okay.”

“Anything to declare? Currency? Goods?” the man asked, his eyes on my bags.

“Nothing. Only clothing.”

“So where are you from?” he asked, spotting my foreign accent.

“Cameroon.”

He sighed.  “You people came here in 2008 and eliminated Ghana in the semi-final of the Africa Cup of Nations,” he snapped and flung his hand away dismissively. The unexpected reproach made me laugh, as I remembered the 1-0 defeat. An eight year grudge! Does he know our team has suddenly become the dead lions?

“I’m sorry about that.”   

Okay, first impressions. “Hospitable, gentle Ghanaians, customs officer exclusive.”

Accra looked like the better behaved twin of my city, Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital. The commercial hustle and bustle was palpable. There were throngs of people in every street corner and avenue. I saw a multitude of impressive buildings and neat wide roads, garnished by lots of traffic lights and a glut of cars and taxis plying them. The names of the businesses were entertainment; Downhill Virgins, Shalom fast food, Glee Oil etc. We drove past the state house and I was puzzled that it is along the road. Ours is a swanky mansion safely tucked away from public view in Yaoundé. The Accra presidency looks more statehouse like, with its pentagon like, slightly circular frame and greyish compartments and floors, surrounded by high flying Ghanaian flags. Accra is also a city with better architectural symmetry than Douala. Traffic lights at almost every junction guide movement, especially during hold ups.

Driving to Elmina

After lunch, we all hopped onto two buses and began our long drive to Elmina, the coastal town in the Central region where we were based. Brainy conversations trickled on all subjects in our bus and I was impressed by the intellect of young Efemia Chela who sat next to me, telling me about Ghanaian life.

“Oh look,” she quickly pointed at a boy selling West African garden snails in a bowl and I gasped at their gigantic size as we drove past. I was asked about writing in English and not French, since I am from a “Francophone country”. I explained that I write in English which I am more versed in and some French which I studied in school. But I am Anglophone Cameroonian, though living and working in a Francophone city. Little correction, Cameroon is a bilingual country, though predominantly Francophone.

Our conversation sort of paused when we drove past a car accident scene. Pede Hollist finally broke the silence a few minutes later,

“I noticed we were all quiet. So what inference can we draw from that?”

“It was heart breaking. But it seemed nobody died, only injuries. I saw a lady with some blood on her body,” someone answered. That was the only sad moment in our bus trip. Nature consoled us with scenic views of lagoons, fresh foliage and beautiful villages like Winneba and Anomabo, where we saw a clown who had disguised like a woman at a small beach party. We drove along the coastline, where hundreds of wild coconut trees lined the seashore and its waters breathed fresh breeze on us. The bluish green sea was quite a sight, as its gruff water currents splashed noisily against the shores, leaving behind a meshwork of brown seaweeds. After three and a half hours, we finally arrived at the eye catching, Coconut Grove Beach Resort Elmina, a plush seaside hotel built in a grove of wild coconut trees. It has entertained guests such as Kofi Annan, Serena Williams and Bono.  After checking into our rooms, we later had dinner and chatted at length, to know ourselves better.

The Workshop

There was a lot of entertainment the next day; delicious food and wine, swimming in the beautiful ocean, table tennis, crocodile viewing in the pond and horse riding. I rode a horse for my first time and saw my first donkey too. We all assembled in the conference hall at 5pm and our facilitator, wonderful Sudanese novelist and first winner of the Caine Prize, Leila Aboulela, gave us a guided imagery writing exercise to do, to send us into writing gear. We wrote and read the short pieces. From the readings and discussion of the short stories we intended writing, it was already evident how different and unique we all were. Our second facilitator, South African novelist, Zukiswa Wanner joined us two days later and she was another amazing and funny writer to complete the very panafrican group of fictioneers.

So it was on. We wrote and wrote and then wrote some more. Each evening, there were readings of work in progress by three writers. The facilitators gave feedback, suggestions and positive criticisms to make the stories better. The other writers did too. Each reader had the option to either accept, modify or reject the suggestions. I worked on one short story and stuck with it all along. I judged most of the feedback to my story helpful. Apart from the facilitators, I also profited from the knowledge of writers/teachers like Diane Awerbuck and Pede Hollist. The workshop was also an opportunity for me to network with other writers and understand their different creative processes. By the time our stories were concluded, it was no surprise that the range was so wide; from realist fiction to science fiction, tragedy to comedy, stories set in the earth’s water bodies to high up in the air, aboard a plane, to be published along with the 5 shortlisted stories this year in the Caine anthology in July by New Internationalist.

We also visited some secondary schools in groups, to talk about writing and reading and to encourage the students to do so. I visited the Catholic Girls Junior Secondary School, Elmina with Zukiswa, Dotse and Akwaeke. I read to the students from my children’s short story illustrations book, “The Golden Baobab Tree” and they enjoyed it. The girls showed so much interest in the book, relishing the cartoon illustrations and passing it on, so I gifted my copy to the school. We asked if they had written any short stories that they could share with us. They were initially shy but soon warmed up to Zukiswa’s arresting presence and produced three stories, read by three different authors. We were impressed by their writing skills. Akwaeke never forgot a beautiful line from one of the girls’ stories about a promiscuous female character, “She was a rolling stone in the hands of men.” Wow! But there was a scene where a character received a “wonderful slap” and I gasped. 

Before we left, we informed the headmaster about some children’s short story competitions and urged the girls to submit their stories online.

As I embarked the bus to the airport, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction, after participating in one of the prestigious creative writing workshops in Africa, in that hospitable land of Kwame Nkrumah, where many people and even the signposts tell you “Akwaaba” (welcome) and the people are always ready to make you their “Charle” (friend).

Read Nkiacha’s full post on his blog here.
Find out more about the Caine Prize workshops

TEDxEuston 2014 by Jinaka Ugochukwu

I'd spent most of the autumn looking forward to volunteering at TEDxEuston on Saturday 6th December. It was, in my mind, a big deal to be part of an event; inspiring new ideas about Africa.  So on many occasions, leading up to it, I’d animatedly tell friends and family about how I’d be part of the bookstore team on the day.  It transpired that many people didn’t know the TED brand and fewer still knew specifically about TEDxEuston.

So I explained many times. And eventually I condensed my spiel to this tightly crafted paragraph: TEDxEuston's focus is Africa. It is a local and independent TED-like event; a conference platform for spreading ideas worth sharing. It encourages its speakers and audience to engage with the continent's challenges and embrace their passion and commitment to direct its future. 

It is a day when the spotlight is on Africa and it shows a balance of its landscape and not a myopic show reel.

This year’s conference gathered speakers including Zain Asher (CNN news anchor), Frances Mensah Williams (founder reconnectafrica.com), Sunday Oliseh (Nigerian former footballer and coach); Binyavanga Wainaina (Kenyan writer), Chude Jideonwo (Managing Partner of Red Media Africa, Y!Africa andYNaija.com) and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenyan writer). 

The theme for the speakers on the day was ‘Facing Forward’; the ideal counterbalance to the recent regression of the global media’s perspectives on Africa.  Catalyzed by the backdrop of the Ebola outbreak, Africa had once again shrunk to a single homogenous country of helpless inhabitants.  So I was excited to be at TEDxEuston and I was excited to be ‘engaging responsibly about Africa’ by promoting books which reflected some of its various voices and experiences.

The Gonjon Pin and A Memory This Size, The Caine Prize Anthologies for 2014 and 2013 were two of the books on the stand that day.  It was a pleasure to introduce so many people to these stories and their authors and the work of the Prize. 

The Prize has done much to ‘foster writing in Africa and to bring new writers to the attention of a wider audience’.

Two former winners of the prize Binyavanga Wainaina (2002) and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (2003) were amongst the speakers on the day. 

Wainaina of course is well known for throwing down the gauntlet at the Africa stereotype with his ‘mischievous and scathing’ 2005 essay How to Write about Africa

Over the last decade Wainaina ‘has sought, worked with, published, mentored and promoted some of Africa’s most exciting new literary talent. He is the founding editor of one of Africa’s leading literary institutions Kwani? (www.kwani.org). In 2014, he was named by Time magazine as one of 100 most influential people in the world.'

His powerful discursive storytelling was evident throughout his TEDxEuston contribution, Conversations with Baba.  Through the winding path of his father’s illness and death, coming out as gay and various life events he proclaims that ‘the simple acceptance of our right to be and be diverse, is the biggest and strongest thing to defend’.

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor pondered the Competing narratives of a beautiful continent.  She too observes the media’s shrinkage of the second largest continent to ‘[a virus], a single country of mute sacrificial victims in need of self-appointed messiahs’.  She proposes that we think about what Africa means to Africa before we think about what Africa means for the world; looking forward is to look within. 

Dust Owuor’s debut novel was available on the bookstand and she was graciously available to sign copies.  ‘It is a novel about a splintered family in Kenya—a story of power and deceit, unrequited love, survival and sacrifice’.  It was a popular purchase; it was the first book to sell out.

The UK launch of the book had taken place on December 4th at Marlborough House hosted by Granta and Commonwealth Writers and in collaboration with Kwani Trust, The Caine Prize, TEDxEuston, Numbi and the Royal African Society.  The book has since be shortlisted for the 2015 Folio Prize.  See review here

In total the bookstand carried over 14 titles.  Including two by Frances Mensah Williams (also a speaker on the day).  Her debut novel is being published by Jacaranda in 2015.  Jacaranda and Africa Writes also had stands on the day.

There was a wide range of literature available at TEDxEuston; the enthusiasm for purchasing it was at times palpable as too was the disappointment when titles had sold out.

Working on the bookstand was a transformative way to experience the conference.  My interaction with the customers was literally an education in some instances, pure entertainment in others and overall a great source of pride in the veracity of the ‘Africa rising narrative’.

Berlin by Yvonne Owuor

To venture into the interstices of implanted memory through the vehicle of literature and a festival. The site is the Berlin Literature Festival. Truth be told, I am not there for the festival, my heart pounds at the thought of encountering the corporeal notion of Berlin. Some words take on the texture of emotion. Berlin is one of them. The substance of history, the crossroads of human strangeness, mythic tangible and intangible war frontier. I had always meant to learn German one day. When I was a child, I discovered the word ‘Schadenfreude’. I thought that a language that can encapsulate this sensation was worth knowing. Has not happened yet. But it also seems everyone here speaks English.

There is the Reichstag. There is the Brandenburg Gate. There are the traces of the wall that fell twenty-five years ago. Here are the Berliners, a people set apart, even in Germany. Here is the bus showing up on time. Here are more Berliners. I like them, for no other reason than that they are Berliners, but maybe because they are now real faces to people my pre-imagined Berlin. The author of ‘A Woman in Berlin’ walked these streets. Here where birds now sing, are echoes of old screams, the traces of bad ghosts, the site of furious fires, here is where hope rose and was murdered and emerged again, here again are memory labyrinths, here are where thousands and thousands died.

The festival has assigned me a guardian angel. Her name is Barbara. A gentle, self-deprecating lover of literature, who cooks the food that the books she reads offer. She will share her Berlin with me. We will traverse the city on foot, by bus and the metro. We shall sit together in the blue cathedral, and stop and stare at the signals from history’s books. We will dash into gorgeous clothes shops and exclaim over silhouettes—in Berlin. She will have to drag me out of bookshops where I go insane. She will also arrange a surprise—a visit to another bookshop where she has commanded the gleeful bookshop owner to display my book, Dust.

Ah, yes, the festival.

Refined, elegant, tastefully disarrayed, intense, the universe of books, writers, readers, words. Drinking in deeply, a sense of ‘home’, allowing that other being, writer, to be, to become, to engage, to listen, explore and speak. Turn left. In this sea of faces, a deep nod and special grin for the ones you remember by reputation and name. My first international outing with the book Dustunfolds here. The festival has appointed an actor to read a German translation. I read the English. I listen to the German telling and discern the feeling from the voice of the actor. I wish I could touch the book’s words in German. In the audience are friends made in Kenya. Anna, and beautiful Paul, fellow Middle-Earther, who flew in from Moscow. There are those who will become new friends, Africans living in Berlin who come to show their support. It is a gentle, loving, curious audience, the delightful kind who engage with story and story worlds. The facilitator with a synaesthesia secret, Susanne, is incisive, brilliant, and her questions prod, dig, and cause an honest sputtering. She has read the book. Many times my answer is, “Amazing, I hadn't thought of it that way.” I am not sure it helps her cause. I find that some stories are no respecter of their author medium. They reveal their meaning to others and then lurk in shadows to ambush their writer.

It is a most delicious evening. After the event, we gather around a table basking in the afterglow (I fall into an ultra-campy red chaise longue— why not?) and share good red wine in the writers’ tent. We talk about the world and Kenya and laugh about nothing and everything under a balmy evening in Berlin. We laugh until we must leave. It is a little past midnight. A day later, destiny and the organisers will fling Tope Folarin, Ismael Beah and I together. We have been invited to speak about those themes that writers connected to Africa are often expected to address with competence—Death and Disaster and Disease; War and Woe. Inner struggle.

I would rather perch on a crag and howl at the metaphorical moon but my parents, aka The Royal Owuors, raised my siblings and me with a strict code of manners. We know how to be exemplary guests: Do not embarrass your host. Be polite. Allow them their foibles. Do not judge. Be grateful for small gestures. Above all, do not embarrass your host. But see, I am neither a virologist nor a security specialist. I would prefer to explore humanity’s sacrificial predilections and its contemporary manifestation, and the language of value used to obscure this. I wish to debate the application of semi-colons. I want to ask Berliners what they think about JRR Tolkien, whose works obsess over love more than I ought to.

A television crew gallops in our direction. Word is out that there are three African writers in town. It is urgent that they interview us about . . . Ebola. We agree to answer their questions, Tope, Ismael and I. The Ebola strain we talk about is the Spooky Africa European Hysteria one. I do not think they will air our views.

It sets the stage.

I suspect we may have been a little too hard on our audience —this was the ‘Africa Fundamentalism and Ebola’ session. Ah well. However, in the end, I think we all understood one another. A tow-haired audience member finally asked, suddenly struck by exasperated realisation, “Why are we asking you writers to talk about Ebola? You aren't medical specialists.”

Sigh. Exactly.

Later, struck by the absurdity of demands inflicted upon most writers of African linkage when abroad, Tope, Ismael and I exchange ‘war’ stories. We laugh and laugh. Not sure if it is relief or resignation.

This is my last night.

In some places, my soul throws a moaning, “Why must we go” tantrum when it is time to depart. It results in a horrible, lingering ache in the heart--Brisbane, Gaborone, Maputo, Moscow, Dublin, Salvador de Bahia, New York, Santa Fe, Rome and Unguja—I almost scoff (it was inevitable) when Berlin enters the list. I have already told Berlin’s September sunset that I shall return.       

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Yvonne Owuor was the 2003 winner of the Caine Prize for her story "Weight of Whispers" published by Kwani? Her highly acclaimed debut novel "Dust," published last year is one of eight books shortlisted for the 2015 Folio Prize; the winner will be announced on 23rd March 2015.

A snapshot of the Ake Festival 2014 in Nigeria by James Murua

The Ake Arts & Books Festival was hosted in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria from 18-22 November. The festival was organised by Lola Shoneyin and her team and if this list is anything to go by they successfully gathered a large crowd of very cool artists at the literary festival. And I couldn't find a single complaint from the guests which for a bloggeratti like myself was a bit disconcerting, as controversy is my lifeblood; drama and mishaps are the things that drive traffic. None seemed to be forthcoming and for this I (reluctantly) salute the team.

The festival, supported by the governor of Abeokuta State Ibikunle Amosu and his administration, hosted many events:There were films and plays galore for those who wanted to experience the written word acted by thespians who knew their craft. There was no Nollywood type fare, of ghosts looking left and right before crossing the road or mermaids with brooms for the tails, on offer.  

The films and documentaries were from the likes of Yeepa a filmed play by Tunde Kelani andOctober 1 by Kunle Afolayan and The Art of Ama Ato Aido by Yaba Badoe. Then there were plays like Qudus: My Exile is in my Head and a musical Call Mr. Robeson.

This blog is not dedicated to all the arts but rather it focuses on literature from the continent and there was a lot on offer in this respect for those lucky folks in Abeokuta State.

There were book chats with authors like Okey Ndibe, Nnedi Okorafor, Zukiswa Wanner, Nike Campbell-Fatoki, Yejide Kilanko, Barnaby Philips, Chude Jideonwo. And Olusegun Obasanjo, President of Nigeria (1999-2007) who has several memoir type books to his name.

There was the launch of Beverly Nambozo's poetry anthology A Thousand Voices Rising. And also in the house was Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka who we are all celebrating as he goes through Soyinka @ 80.
 

There were many panel discussions where authors of prose and poetry discussed such topics asMutation and Mutilation: Feminism in Africa, What are publishers looking for in fiction, Poisonous Gas: The Crude Oil Politics in West Africa and many more.

There were also important announcements.

The Caine Prize for African writing, of which Lizzy Attree is Director, unveiled their 2015 judging panel to the public and they are Zoë Wicomb, Zeinab Badawi, Neel Mukherjee, Cóilín Parsons and Brian Chikwava.

The Writivism team (Dami Ajayi, Zukiswa Wanner, Lizzy Attree and Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire) announced the list of ladies and gentlemen who could be the new faces of African writing. They will be attending workshops in different African cities run by Dilman Dila (Kampala), Zukiswa Wannerand Anne Ayeta Wangusa (Dar es Salaam), Yewande Omotoso and Saaleha Idrees Bamjee(Johannesburg), Dami Ajayi (Lagos), Donald Molosi and Lauri Kubuitsile (Gaborone).

As an East African the announcement closest to my heart was that of the new Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili prize for African Writing, a brainchild of Mukoma Wa Ngugi and Lizzy Attree. The new award promotes writing in African languages and encourages translation from, between and into African languages.  Prizes will be awarded for the best entry of an unpublished book or manuscript, prose or poetry in the Kiswahili language.  Very cool.

After the whole conference, without any drama to tout I sadly add, the evening ended on Saturday with a shebang that was so loud (maybe the neighbours complained hopefully?) we could hear the stomping of feet to Dorrobucci from Nairobi where we were mourning the “mauling” of Arsenal by Man United. And some other more national matters.

Here's a link to James Murua's original blogpost: 
http://www.jamesmurua.com/category/ake-festival-2014/

Here are a few other views from the people who were actually there:

The Writivism Experience at the 2nd Ake Arts and Books Festival

The Ghosts at Continental Suites, #Ake2014-by Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva

Here are some images from the festival events, courtesy of the artists and the organisers: