Judges Series: The Stories That Haunt You

I’ve always had an idea of what grabs me the most when reading short stories: painfully beautiful writing, the skill in capturing something, maybe a mood, an encounter, an action, a transformation, perhaps something more elusive while fully exploiting the form of the short story. Good dialogue. Stories that are surprising, unexpected. The way a story moves, perhaps turning around on itself, that underlying flow. And as I read through the entries for the Caine Prize, I enjoyed the different ways that writers realised these possibilities, and the other ways in which they showed their skill.

But the unexpected pleasure for me was when stories spoke to me in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. Sometimes stories come out of nowhere and give a face punch. Sometimes they grab you by the collar and hiss, listen to me. Sometimes they send out little hooks and you don’t even know until days later, and you’re thinking about a landscape somewhere else, a moment between two fictional characters, an image, a sentence.  The most powerful stories for me were the ones that haunted me long after reading them. The stories that stayed with me, that I needed to go back to. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what the alchemy is here.  But for me, there was certainly an elusive something that lit up some stories, that allowed them to be more than words on a page and I think this is more than evident in each of the five shortlisted stories. 

Written by Mary Watson, Caine Prize Judge 2016. To find out more about the 2016 judges click here

Judges Series: Finding Something New in the Caine Prize 2016 Shortlist

It’s almost ten years since I last served as a Caine Prize judge. So much has happened. Countless compelling stories, careers taking off, millions of twists and turns on the cultural stage! As an apprentice judge, I experienced much doubt and felt a little overwhelmed. The endless divisions and factions we encounter – African, Nigerian, Ghanaian, Kenyan, black and white, straight, gay, trans. Who was I to critique others? How could I assess the multiple possibilities and varieties that manifested themselves among the entries?


But this time, I was happier, more sure-footed. I welcomed the storytellers who insinuated themselves into the few spare hours of my reading day, the ones who seemingly refused to be put aside. They were making up Africa, I felt, showing what the continent is or could be. I liked hanging out with them.

With those storytellers in the house, I had a feeling of moving around the African continent and beyond, sometimes hearing familiar voices – someone who sounded like my Auntie - or encountering well-known concerns – health problems, fear of mortality and loss - but occasionally feeling here is something genuinely new. Places, characters and emerging styles that bore no resemblance to the stories I’d heard before. I read and re-read. Made lists and made notes, and waited for my fellow judges to tell me who had moved in with them.

Written by: Delia Jarrett-Macauley, Chair of Judges 2016. To find out more about the 2016 judges click 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

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for all the latest news @CainePrize



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.

The African Short Story in Question by 2014 Judge, Nicole Rizzuto

In a foundational essay in African literary studies, the critic V.Y. Mudimbe once posed the provocative question, is African literature a myth or a reality? (“African Literature: Myth or Reality?” African Literary studies, The Present State/L’etat présent, ed. Stephen Arnold, pp. 7-11. Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1985).  His answer is equally provocative: there is no real, true nature of African literature we can locate that exists in itself. This is not because, as some have argued, African literature is a copy of literatures from elsewhere, a “belated” cultural form that imports techniques of expression and modes of thought from outside of the continent.  Some such arguments have viewed the oral tradition, not the literary, as the true form of authentic African culture. Mudimbe, however, wants to question the oppositions posed between the indigenous and foreign, authentic and inauthentic, the oral and literary. 

The critic asserts that the reason there is no such thing as an essential nature to African literature is that African literature, like literatures from anywhere, cannot be separated from the multiple contexts in which it emerges and to which it also responds. These contexts—publishing houses both large and small, literary journals, school classrooms, academic conferences, and now fanzines, blogs, even twitter feeds —are always in the process of establishing and re-establishing procedures for measuring, classifying, and defining what African literature is. The Caine Prize for African Writing is another such context. The selection of short stories submitted for the prize this year is a testament to the capacity of contemporary writing to make us rethink assumptions that underlie such procedures of judging.   

The short stories—nearly one hundred and fifty of them received this year—challenged the very concept of what an African short-story is, if we understand by this term a category defined according to dominant taxonomizing conventions: the national, regional, or continental origins of a work’s author; the institutions and media through which it is published, diffused, and marketed; the topics it treats; the formal strategies it employs; the genre it embodies.  These works possessed an astonishing range of subjects and styles, and were written and published across multiple regions, nations, continents, and platforms. They created literary worlds that were just as diverse, extending from the prosaic to spectacular, the quotidian to the magical. 

In these worlds, a household pet becomes an     esteemed and then disgraced local politician (Rotimi Babatunde,” Howl” in A Memory This Size). 

The Sleeping Beauty fairytale is queered through the staging of a love story between a young refugee from Somalia living in Moi’s Kenya and his kindergarten classmate (Diriye Osman, “Fairytales for Lost Children” in Jungle Jim). 

A man searching for redemption confesses his sins of “trafficking in human souls” and traveling to the edge of the Portuguese empire and the coastal city of Luanda in the 18th century with his father and an abducted infant  (George Makana Clark, “The Incomplete Priest” inEcotone). 

A new kinship formation emerges when a teacher becomes a surrogate parent to a young woman thrown out of her house, accused by her mother of being a witch (Léonora Miano, “The Open Door of Paradise” in Transition). 

And a teenager steals away with her girlfriend for sex during a family send-off for her brother, whose fate in the Rhodesian Light Infantry she worries over as his departure approaches (Annie Holmes, “Leaving Civvie Street” in Queer Africa).

Taken as a whole, but also viewed individually, the stories not only stretched generic categories such as modernism, realism, and naturalism, but also troubled attempts to separate the aesthetic from extra-aesthetic spheres, the literary from the political, historical, environmental, or economic. 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. They give us a view into an African literature of the present and future in ongoing conversation with, and re-imagination of, literary and historical pasts.

A world in itself by 2014 Judge, Gillian Slovo

I went to France last weekend, to celebrate the wedding of the son of two of my closest friends to his long time girlfriend. Neither the bride nor groom nor any of their close families are French but they chose to have their ceremony in a garden in a French village because the location held special meaning for their growing love.  And, continuing on this theme, they designed their wedding ceremony as a way of joining their different identities.  She comes from a devout Catholic family and he comes from a long line of secular Jews, and theirs was a wedding of deliberate inclusion. It took place in a French garden, under a chuppah, the traditional Jewish canopy, with a contingent of Norwegian women relatives wearing drakter – the long robes that they don once a year to commemorate their community’s past – and the whole ceremony was presided over jointly by a male Catholic priest, and a woman rabbi.

As the ceremony unfolded I was reminded of my fellow judge, Helon Habila’s thoughtful blog for the Caine prize where he talked about what makes tradition.  Helon quoted TS Eliot’s assertion that tradition cannot be inherited but be must be made by great labour.  I thought about the ramifications of this as I stood witness to two young people who were using their wedding to begin to carve their new tradition out of their different pasts.  As I thought about this, some of the multi-stranded stories that I had the privilege to read as a Caine juror came back to me.

I thought about the stories we had shortlisted – and how much I was going to enjoy reading them again for the final stage of the judging process - and then I thought about the stories that we had reluctantly to leave out of our shortlist.  I thought about Annie Holmes’s "Leaving Civvy Street" from the Queer Africa collection It’s a story set in the former Rhodesia and peopled by white characters we used to call “old Rhodies”.  Although I am not Zimbabwean, these characters were so familiar to me from a now mercifully changed South African past so that while I was reading Annie’s story I was simultaneously re-visiting my own past and seeing it with new eyes.  

And then I thought about Mukoma wa Ngugi’s "Wounded Men"the life, in a few pages, of a boxer who crossed continents only to end up dying a typical Kenyan death. I am a novelist, accustomed to the long form, but what Mukoma wa Ngugi did for me in such a short number of words was invite me into a world of men that was unfamiliar, but which I understood as I watched it unfold on the page. And from wa Ngugi I re-visited a different story: Maurine Ogbaa’s "Chariot" that summoned up a world of women struggling to retain their identities, and make their own lives, in near impossible circumstances.

What all of these stories, and the ones we selected for our shortlist, did for me was to immerse me in worlds that I knew to a greater or lesser extent but that I came away, having read the stories, knowing from the inside.  I didn’t worry about which country, or which tradition, I was reading: instead I found myself gripped by the characters, their histories and their immediacy.  Each story a world in itself and which, like the couple whose wedding I went to celebrate, were using their pasts, their presents, and their imaginations, to create narratives that continued to intrigue me long after I had turned the last page.

Tradition and the African writer by 2014 Judge, Helon Habila

What is African literature, who decides what it is, who reads it, who reviews it, who is African? These are questions that have been asked ad nauseum over the years. It is a question that I believe the Caine Prize for African Writing has been helping us answer over the last decade and a half.  Not by ivory tower literary critics, but by writers, story by story, sentence by sentence.

This year we have looked at stories as diverse in style and theme as one can imagine, many of which didn’t get shortlisted (at a point we despairingly asked the Director, Lizzy Attree, if it is possible to enlarge the shortlist to six instead of five). There was “Howl”, from A Memory This Size, about a learned dog, by former winner, Rotimi Babatunde, written in the folkloric tradition; there was “Calculus in the Afternoon” from Kwani?, by Mehul Gohil, raw and heartfelt and beautifully written about an Asian/African student in Australia; and there was the faultless and humorous “Bury Babu on Sandy Bay” by Achmat Dangor; there was a strangely beautiful detective story “Eloquent Notes on a Suicide” by Blessing Musariri; there were fantasy stories about people disappearing into their computer screens, about strange visitations by even stranger beings; there was a lot of sex, gay and straight, and yes, this is all African fiction…

Looking at this diversity and profusion of style and theme it feels strange to remember that there was a time, and not too long ago, when some theorists tried to limit what can or cannot be called African literature; some said a work can never be African literature unless it is in an African language – and actually, people like Ngugi wa Thiong’o still believe so. I wonder what people like Obi Wali, the arch-proponent of ‘African literature in African languages only’ would say now if they were to hear that there are writers who write their novels in languages like Flemish and Italian and who unapologetically refer to themselves as African writers. Clearly there is more to it than language and style – it is most importantly about tradition.

Stories like “Chicken”, by Efemia Chela, is clearly aware of this sense of tradition. It opens with a family oriented, very African feast, and then moves on to a theme of exile and loneliness in another land; and to such “unAfrican” themes as lesbianism and the selling of the narrator’s eggs for money – perhaps the furthest it can get from the family oriented opening section. But of course the story is about survival away from the community, a bildungsroman if you like, about the African traveling and surviving in the wider world, about the African writer embracing other themes and acknowledging that the traditional  “African issues” alone no longer suffice to define African writing.  

Tendai Huchu’s story of Zimbabwean exiles in London, "The Intervention", told with humor and lightness of touch, dealing with a serious subject matter, continues what I call the “post-nationalist” theme. By placing the African outside the boundaries of the continent, the story is challenging the literary pass-laws that sought to restrict where African literature can go. Not only that, it is also thematising and interrogating the notion of that most colonial of constructs, the “nation”, itself. 

The other stories on the shortlist, Billy Kahora’s "The Gorilla’s Apprentice", Okwiri Oduor’s "My Father’s Head", and "Phosphorescence" by Diane Awerbuck all contribute to, and widen our understanding of what African literature can be.


Here one is made strongly aware that a new generation of African writers is announcing itself with fanfare.  But we must always remember that any new generation is nothing but an offshoot of that which came before it. This new African literature is a culmination of certain historical moments in Africa; it owes a lot to the overseas scholarship students in the 60s and 70s; the anti-intellectualisms of the military dictatorships in the 80s which led to the brain drains of the 90s; all these led to a re-interpretation of the word nation, to a larger understanding of the idea of tradition.

And so even though less and less emphasis should be laid on the word ‘African’, and more and more on whether a story is good or not, still, we must remember at the bottom of it lies a certain tradition. The “literature” of Africa predates and supersedes the invention of Africa, it was there in the Sundiata epic, in the Chaka epic, in the ritual plays and Ijala chants of the Yoruba, in the folktales and songs and historical narratives of thegriots. It transcended city borders and languages and political leanings; it defies simplistic definition. The geographical term “Africa” cannot contain or limit it, it can only aspire to describe certain salient aspects of it.

Of course every writer is free to decide for himself or herself what they want to be called. A lot have already declined the term “African”, preferring only to be called “writers”. There are also those who question why their books should be in the African authors section, calling it a “ghetto”.  These writers have already accepted and internalized the perception of Africa as a ghetto. For me, where a book is placed in a bookstore is less important than what is in the book; if it is a good book, people will make a beaten path it.Things Fall Apart is a fixture in the “Africa” section, and yet that doesn’t stop it from selling over a hundred thousand copies yearly in America alone.

Of course with some of these authors it becomes a matter of personality, or as TS Eliot calls it in his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, “emotions”. They think: how dare you place me in the same section as these other writers, clearly I am more talented, I am more complex, I am more European than African. I was born in London and went to Cambridge and Oxford and I live in Rome, surely I can’t be an African writer? Again, I say, it is a matter of choice.   You are not African because you are black, or because your parents came from an African country, again to quote Eliot:

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense... This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.

I don’t aspire to write like Achebe, or Ngugi or Bessie Head, but understanding them and the history and aesthetics that shaped their work improves and also shapes my work. This is not mere copying or imitation, it is not indulging in what Eliot calls mere “archeological reconstruction”, it is having a sense of tradition. The beauty of it, as Eliot again points out, is that a contemporaneous work always alters the meaning and the perception of works that came before it, for in a canon no work is greater, none is better, they just make use of different materials.  

The best metaphor to describe this idea would be that of a building, built over many generations, each generation doing its own part. Some clears the site for the building, another generation lays the foundation, yet another generation raises the walls, another comes and lays the roof, and so on, with plumbers and electricians and fitters and furniture builders, all doing their part. But what is important is that none is more important or less important that the other. They all build with the same keenness, the same purpose; they simply use different materials and different skill sets.

But of course in this age of superstar writers and commodification of literature it makes sense to try to stand out, to be different and thereby raise the value of ones stock. But again, a word of caution from Eliot (I am quoting him for the last time, I promise): “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.”

Toni Morrison, in her brilliant essay, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation” shows this awareness of an obligation, a duty to what she calls the community, or the “village”, and goes on to say that whatever she writes if it means nothing to the village, then it is worthless. We all have to decide who and what that village or community is for us. This is not a circumscribing of freedom, but actually a setting free, for no artist is ever free who is without a sense of belonging, a sense of history.