Caine Prize Judges' Series - Unboxing the Caine Prize by Henrietta Rose-Innes

Image credit: Martin Figura

Image credit: Martin Figura

When the entries for this year’s Caine Prize arrived in the post, they came nicely compacted into a cardboard box of modest dimensions. On opening, the contents expanded magically to cover my entire carpet.

These documents had already travelled far: in the minds of their creators, to publishers from Lagos to New Orleans to Bulawayo; to Caine Prize HQ in London; and now back to Africa for my reading pleasure. One hundred and thirty-three unique worlds.

Glancing at the sub list, seeing where all the writers came from and where they’d been published, I had a vision of the spread of paper on my floor growing again, bulking upwards into three dimensions. Because I knew that beneath these stories lay an intricate foundation: the small presses, magazines, editors, publishers, designers, typographers, teachers, readers, writing circles, in some cases funders – the scaffolding around which great stories are built. There were one hundred and thirty-three writers there on my carpet, and maybe five times as many others who’d helped them, in small or large ways, to be there.

This support can go unseen. Often, as with editing, you know it’s done best when it’s done invisibly. But here it all was, made visible on my study floor. One of the pleasures of the judging was this: seeing, so concretely embodied, how writing from Africa is flourishing. So many small local presses and magazines I wasn’t familiar with, alongside the bigger names.

I know what it’s like to write your heart into a story and send it off – and to feel like it’s disappeared into the ether. Unless you make it onto a shortlist or into publication, it’s easy to suspect that your words were never seen; that they were tossed aside, or just evaporated.


Writers and publishers reading this, I want to tell you: you were seen. Every story on that carpet got picked up and turned over and admired from every angle by all the judges; we read every story, some two or three or more times; we savoured and discussed.

And while a handful of complex and wonderful stories will now be celebrated, with one taking the Prize – plus a double handful more that we loved but had to set aside, regretfully – the rest are still there, in a pile next to my bed, and many of them in my mind.

One of the satisfactions of the judging process is that I get to keep the books we’re sent. A few I will put on my own shelf; the others I will pack away into another cardboard box and send to a library or a school that needs more African literature (they all do); and one day soon they’ll get to spring back out and expand and spread and rise again, as stories do.

Written by Henrietta Rose-Innes, 2018 Caine Prize Judge, find out more about the judges here.

Caine Prize Judges' Series - Judging The Caine by Ahmed Rajab

Ahmed Rajab.jpg

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.

Caine Prize Judges Series - Living the Imperial Reach of English, In and Beyond Translation

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.

Caine Prize Judges Series - On Writing, Craftsmanship and the Caine Prize for African Writing 2017

Credit: Allan Gichigi

Credit: Allan Gichigi

Early in my writing journey, perhaps as early as ten years ago, I wrote astonishingly bad short stories and poems. The problem was not the themes I chose to write about or even my passion for writing itself. The themes I tackled were important and relevant to a Uganda in search of its true self. I wrote about loss, love, transformation and our collective past. My passion for writing was great. My desire to succeed at it was urgent perhaps even obsessive. Sometimes, I stayed overnight at the FEMRITE office, writing, agonising and then feeling exhausted I slept on the mattress the office made available in the ‘Den of Wisdom,’ the communal space.

By all appearances, the qualities that sustained my writing, were exactly those things anyone needed to be a good writer – or a good anything. Grit, curiosity and belief in the possibility of success. In principle, those qualities combined with some mentorship should have enabled me to produce fiction worthy of consideration by publishing houses, my peers and anyone who cared about writing. It was not.

Luckily, things did change eventually. At a certain point, I do not recall exactly when, I started to write stories that were not as bad. They were not structurally as flawed. The characters were plausible. The language was not as awkward. I do not know for sure how that happened but I think the chipping away at the computer helped. But, over the years, life also did happen to and with me and what we know of life for sure is that it does have several lessons under its belt. I think, it is those and other things that all converged to improve my skill.

Over the years and as I finalise my first novel, I am interested in the subject of craft. I want to be a better writer. To do that, I read books about writing. I read books about mastery in general. I read the masters, those whose writing is so well executed that they inspire things in us so great, so grand. To improve in my writing, I also read books, listen to podcasts and anything which illuminates mastery of all kind of things - chess, ping pong, sports etc.

Recently, I watched ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ a documentary about Jiro Ono an 85-year-old sushi master and owner of Sukiyabashi Ji in Japan. The documentary was a fascinating portrait of a life lived in service to a craft, in this case, the craft of Sushi. There are many ways to live a life and many examples of mastery and masters. But, what I learnt from ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi,’ is that mastery of a craft, is a journey. Craftsmanship is a quest that never ends.  Becoming a master craftsmanship is forever a work in progress. There is no true destination. Nothing is ever truly mastered. And yet, in the process of aiming for mastery, we become craftsmen and find ourselves executing our craft in a realm that lies beyond effort and takes us into transcendence.  

In terms of the Caine Prize, I have never judged a writing prize before – at least not in the same way. I was not sure what to expect when I came to judging 2017’s Prize. However, my limited experience allowed for limited influence and a willingness to approach the process instinctively.

As I read the many stories that were submitted for consideration in 2017, there were those stories which felt familiar exactly because they reminded me of the stories I used to write when I had passion, desire, theme and nothing else to anchor my craft on.

On the other side, for this year’s Prize, there were several stories (both those who made the short list and those which did not) that were just absolutely magnificent exactly because they demonstrated the author’s devotion to craft and the art of storytelling. Everyone’s writing process is different. How each person choses to grow themselves into a writer is different. Some people can do it with remarkable ease which stirs monumental fits of envy. Other people, like me, need to plough through each story and build each paragraph like a muscle. However, what I can say with great certainty is that all the stories that we saw on this year’s shortlist pushed boundaries and reflected a writer who had taken the time to sit with their craft and hone it. 

Bushra al-Fadil's ‘The Story of the Girl whose Birds Flew Away’ is a story told with a fascinating take on language and expression. Lesley Nneka Arimah's‘Who Will Greet You At Home,’ and Magogodi oaMphela Makhene's ‘The Virus’ are both truly innovative. Chikodili Emelumadu's ‘Bush Baby’ is a fabulous weaving of the rational and irrational worlds we occupy and what lies in the middle. Arinze Ifeakandu's ‘God’s Children Are Little Broken Things’ is intimate, heart-breaking and relentless all at once.

What I have seen from this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing is that the future of craft and of stories coming out of Africa is luminous. Riding on the backs of the masters who preceded us: Okot p'Bitek, Timothy Wangusa, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ama Ata Aidoo, Buchie Emecheta - more masters await us in our luminous  future.

Written by Monica Arac de Nyeko , 2017 Caine Prize Judge, find out more about the judges here.

Caine Prize Judges Series - A Feast of African Literature

The first thought that occurred to me when I was asked to take part in the judging panel for this year's Caine Prize, was trying to remember my first encounter with African writing and literature in another language other than Arabic. As a writer from Libya that spent my formative years reading literature that was either written in Arabic or translated from other languages into Arabic, the scope of reading African literature outside the North African sphere was limited if not seldom available.

Once I moved to London it became easier for me to read more African literature especially with the emergence of new writers from the continent who made it on the international stage, and through activities and events that were dedicated to promote new writing from all over Africa.

The Caine Prize has been at the forefront of a renaissance in African literature, and it wasn't accidental that the Prize was a manifestation of the resurgence of African culture, art and literature that began with the turn of the new millennium, which reflected the vigour and enthusiasm of the new generation of African writers to break old boundaries and explore new ideas, styles and themes.

With 148 entries for this year's round of the prize I found myself immersed in a feast of literature that I longed to read for a long time. The diversity of themes, styles, and language made the reading experience enriching. Nothing intrigued more than the strong sense of experimentation in many stories especially those that dealt with common ideas, like war, displacement, famine, poverty, racism, colonialism and domestic violence. The use of fantasy, myths and science fiction to describe and present these issues was fascinating and refreshing.

It was not only the use of new forms and styles of writing that filled me with enthusiasm about this year's entries but also the nuanced themes that are finding a strong footing among African writers, among them dealing with issues of gender, sexuality and immigration.

The next challenge for African literature will be to make it accessible to be read by everyone in the continent regardless of language. And as the Caine Prize reaches its second decade of promoting and celebrating African writing it will be integral for the mission of the Prize to invest in the future of inter-African translation projects to bring African writers closer together.

Written by Ghazi Gheblawi, 2017 Caine Prize Judge, find out more about the judges here.

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.

Caine Prize Judges Series - Finding Sweetness in the Caine

Image credit: Giorgia Fanelli

Image credit: Giorgia Fanelli

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.

Judges Series: The Politics of Writing

As a judge for the Caine Prize for African Writing, I had the opportunity to read an amazing set of short stories by a prolific, diverse set of writers. As a first time judge, I was not sure what to expect and the occasion to judge reminded me of the seriousness with which writers undertake their craft. As an academic trained in the diverse methods of literary criticism, I enjoyed being part of a panel of judges who themselves were writers and not necessarily or solely critics of writing. 


That is, their insights, both in terms of the aesthetics and politics, proved useful in amplifying the conversation we had about the stories, as well as in increasing the attention I paid to the stages of writing, including the risks that writers took in sharing their stories, cultures, lives, and emotions. However different and unique each story was, each one gave us a glimpse into the writers’ imaginations and reminded of the intricate relationship that exists between writing, politics, and political action. 

Love, sex, death, illness, wellness, and family are themes that constantly emerged in the short stories, and how the author approached the delicate navigation between and among these themes influenced how compelling I thought the story was.  Stories that stood out the most to me were the ones that didn’t recycle these themes, but rather provided alternative visions that would help us to re-imagine our very understanding of it.  What for, for example, does it mean to leave the love and family one has known to chart out a new, not yet imagined family and love?  Would that new family and love even be recognizable within the framework we already know? Stories like these pushed the envelopes on both cultural norms and the imagination and it is in these spaces that we create revolution.  If the stories submitted to the Caine Prize gesture toward the possibilities for a world re-made, we certainly have good reasons to be optimistic. 

Written by Caine Prize 2016 Judge Robert Patterson. To find out more about the 2016 judges click here

Judges Series: "What stories of the continent do we long for?"

The news - vibrating with Hillary and Trump, Orlando, Jo Cox, Brexit, Labour & Tory party meltdown, England's ignominious Euro 16 Icelandic defeat ... But of dreadful floods in Ghana, death & destruction along Cape Coast? Vibration was there none....

Often I bemoan the misery-focussed stories reported on from our continent, but at this moment in our local Western turmoil, not even this African misery impinges.

As human beings all our learning is from stories. From Anancy to Algorithms, we make stories to enlighten ourselves, to communicate ideas, to send out warnings, to raise our spirits.

The story of the policeman at London Gay Pride flanked by fellow officers on duty proposing to his boyfriend watching the parade or the story of drunken English football fans throwing coins at refugee children, proposing they engage in disgusting sexual acts for more coins - stories shape opinion, shape climate, shape behaviour..

What stories of the continent do we long for, to shape an international consciousness of who we Africans in our infinite variety are?

In the  enlightening submissions to the 2016 Caine Prize , shine all the joys, terrors, complexities, absurdities and nuances of any life acutely observed.

I cannot tell you how exhilarating it has been for me as a judge, to have become lost and found in Africa through the  stories as presented in these submissions, nor how powerfully they illuminate and shape new perspectives on the richness of who we are, have been and can be as members of the African continent and her diaspora.

A thrillingly moving literary journey of wit, surprise and skill, and one I am honoured to be a part of this year, as it sings to the world new songs of Africa!

Written by Caine Prize 2016 Judge Adjoa Andoh. To find out more about the 2016 judges click here

Judges Series: "African writing is in brave hands"

Seventeen years. I celebrate the Caine Prize’s enduring power in opening doors for outstanding African writers. That the prize attracts criticism is a good thing – as the saying goes: To escape criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.  Controversy attracts attention, and any attention that stimulates heat over the merits of African stories, particularly by Africans, is worth the price of admission. And if it indirectly puts money in the pockets of African writers, who am I not to celebrate that as a good thing?!

As a virgin judge, what hit me was how many stories ticked the unexpected box. Yes, I had pre-conceptions of what a Caine prize ‘was like,’ and came into it prepared to do my bit to shake things up. But the stories submitted covered a wide range of genres, voices, styles. The future, past and present were all in there. Most of the stories that got our attention took risks. They risked upsetting, risked sounding un-African, risked taking new forms(In fact, African writers seem to be taking more risks than most others out there - read Nnedi, Awuor, Abubaker, Selasi et al - just saying).

Perhaps due to their more nurturing culture, role models and facilities for writers, two countries offered more strong submissions than the rest of the continent combined. Perhaps they  have more interest in the Caine Prize. No matter. The rarer talent came from wide and far, and, like cream, rose to the top. And the best stories submitted felt intimate and big and true. Writers insisted on seeing what they saw, what moved them, listened to their own voices, offered unsettling insights. They lingered in my head and bothered me, and made it ridiculously difficult for the judges to narrow the best to five. The critics in my head, baggage I’d carried into the judging room - poverty porn, pandering to the West, exotica, recycled narratives and expected forms – were silenced. Humbled to be so moved by our stories, I salute African writers. African writing is in brave hands.

Written by Caine Prize 2016 Judge Muthoni Garland. To find out more about the 2016 Judges click here