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.

Abantu Book Festival - by Lidudumalingani

Captured at Abantu Book Festival browsing book titles, Malebo Sephodi. Photo credit: Lidudumalingani

Captured at Abantu Book Festival browsing book titles, Malebo Sephodi. Photo credit: Lidudumalingani

Soweto Hotel, where I was staying during the Abantu Book Festival, stands on concrete pillars, elevating it from its surroundings. The design is meant to create a sense of integration, with the locals selling food and fresh produce underneath the hotel, but the design also tests the limits of architecture as a tool to integrate those who have the privilege to make use of the hotel and those who cannot afford to. In the morning, one can hear the trains that travel not far from the hotel. In the afternoon, when the sun sets, the pillars underneath the hotel multiply and stretch further away from it. The balconies are large, extending further from one’s hotel room. I arrive at the hotel a day before the festival and upon arrival the founder Thando Mgqolozana, curator Panashe Chigumadzi and the rest of the team are welcoming guests at the foyer.

The list of authors at Abantu Book Festival was eclectic, a mixture of seasoned writers that have nurtured my reading and writing to the young writers who have been handed the baton to carry it forth. The festival asserted the truth that the South African literature scene is not a space in which only a handful of black authors write. During the festival the venues were always full, proving wrong the long held assumption that black people do not read. In the open space between the two main venues at the Eyethu Cultural Center attendees dipped into literary conversation and dance.

Attendee posing with 'May I Have This Dance' by   Connie Manse Ngcaba and 'Half of a Yellow Sun' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Photo credit: Lidudumalingani

Attendee posing with 'May I Have This Dance' by Connie Manse Ngcaba and 'Half of a Yellow Sun' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Photo credit: Lidudumalingani

The events were split between Eyethu Cultural Center and the Soweto Theatre. Opposite the Eyethu Cultural Center, further down the road, is an old cinema, no longer operational, and on its left sits a church. I was in Soweto for five days and the architecture of oval shaped roofs, the theatre and the church became so familiar that I do not remember a life without them.

Hosting the Abantu Book Festival in Soweto was a not a mistake, it was deliberate. This is true for the venues too, Thando explained to me.

“I arrived at the Eyethu Cultural Center and knew immediately that this where we needed to host the events. It is right in the middle of the community. People can, if they so please, wander off the street and come in to find out what is happening.”

The shared feeling amongst the attendees was that here, for the first time perhaps at a book festival, black people are present, having conversations about literature and being unapologetically black. That here they can dance, laugh without worrying about being out of place. That their presence was not an irritation. One could sit outside and marvel at all of this, the absolute blackness of it, the freedom of people to be themselves.

At the Soweto Theatre, in the evenings, was where the dance moves were choreographed and revolutions, led by enchanting performances by Zuko Collective, were initiated. The festival in a pleasing way was part dancing and part intellectual, the way one is meant to feed a soul.

Essayist, Bongani Madondo, captured by Lidudumalingani at Abantu Book Festival

Essayist, Bongani Madondo, captured by Lidudumalingani at Abantu Book Festival

Going forward, one cannot deny that the festival can carve a place in the hearts of many, especially the black writers and readers, young and old, who feel that they have long been not catered for in the South African landscape.

Its challenge, something that was beginning to rear its head in one or two events, would be to carefully and precisely define for itself and for its attendees the nuanced difference between conversations about politics using the prism of literature and political conversations that can happen outside of literature. It needs to ensure that the conversations the audience and the panellists are having are rooted in the literature, that they come from it, that the literature is not completely abandoned, or else we will be a nation that has one conversation and annuls all others as fruitless, which would be dangerous and short sighted.

About the Author:

South Africa's Lidudumalingani is a writer, filmmaker and photographer. He was born in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, in a village called Zikhovane. Lidudumalingani has published short stories, non-fiction and criticism in various publications. His films have been screened at a number of film festivals. Lidudmalingani won the Caine Prize in 2016 for 'Memories We Lost' and is currently a 2016 Morland Writing Scholar.

You can discover more of Lidudumalingani's stunning photos of the Abantu Book Festival on Brittle Paper's site here.


Out of Europe: Travelling with the Caine Prize in Germany - by Rotimi Babatunde

Photo credit: Herby Sachs

Photo credit: Herby Sachs


Istanbul—In Transit—Outward-bound

Once upon a time in Istanbul, the jetbridge had been wheeled off and the plane had departed when the Turk, the German and the Nigerian met at the closed and deserted boarding gate. You had known you would miss the flight even before you got to the gate: your flight from Lagos had been delayed and the queue at the Kemal Atatürk Airport’s security checkpoint had been interminable.

So the Turk, the German and the Nigerian, transiting through Istanbul from different places but, like Chaucer’s medieval pilgrims, compelled into instant comradeship by a common purpose, begin the long hunt for the relevant ticketing desk. The Turk, clutching several rolls of duty-free cigarettes, is in the lead, the three of you sweeping briskly through the self-replicating vastness of that airport for what seemed an eternity before the ticketing desk is finally located.

Rescheduling the missed flight is straightforward. You don’t even have to say a word: the Turk speaks in Turkish on behalf of your group, gesticulating furiously at the ticketing officer. The only cost you all have to bear is a three-hour layoff. Your band separates, the three of you dispersing into the cavernous maws of the airport’s international terminal to burn off time in your individual ways.

In that interval, your mind goes to the recent terrorist assault on that same airport, on that same terminal through whose main hall you are wandering. You remember the recent failed coup in your country of transit and the majoritarian crackdown that followed, unleashing violence on thousands of citizens with no demonstrable connection with the coup. You think about the ongoing cross-continental mainstreaming of intolerance. Brexit. The American presidential elections. Daesh. Europe’s burgeoning rightist parties. The slew of populist demagogues who have risen into political prominence around the world.

Not so long ago—if viewed through the long lens of history—the ascension to political office of such leaders in Germany and other countries led to the carnage your people call Ogun Hitila. Hitler’s War. A story you wrote about the war, ‘Bombay’s Republic’, was awarded the Caine Prize for African Writing some years ago. Now, several German cultural institutions are jointly organising a series of events around selected stories that have won or been shortlisted for the prize. Out of Europe comes something new, to tweak the motto of the Caine Prize. These cultural organisations include Stimmen Afrikas/Allerwelthaus in Cologne. The MA in Translation programme of the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf. Die Afrika Kooperative in Münster. And the Goethe Institut, Lagos. That is why you’re heading to Germany, which has now become a bastion of liberalism in Europe despite its own right-wing issues, and why you’re in transit through Istanbul.

You think of Orhan Pamuk, chronicler of Istanbul past and present, hounded into exile from his beloved city. And of the great Nâzım Hikmet, epic bard of Turkish life, thrown into jail decades earlier by his country’s leaders. You wince. Man will not only endure, he will prevail, said Faulkner. You want to believe him. You can’t.




And then on the eighth day of Creation, after a night out in the cosy bars of Cologne, the Lord God created bicycles.

Cologne is a city of bicycles. Cologne’s roads, like those of some other German cities, are often clogged with vehicular traffic, so going by bicycle is wise. For your first dinner in the city, the genial, always-witty Christa Morgenrath, of your host institution Stimmen Afrikas/Allerwelthaus, arrives on a bicycle. So does Eva Wernecke, also of Stimmen Afrikas, who kindly brought you from the airport some hours earlier.

During the dinner, the conversation turns to the reconstruction of Cologne after the Second World War. The city had been so heavily bombed that an architect called it the world’s greatest heap of rubble. You remember reading somewhere that Heinrich Böll considered the post-war reconstruction of Cologne a destruction of his city all over again. Many people will say, though, that Böll’s position is not the final word on the matter.

For you, great writers have always been patron deities over the cities in which they lived. The humane, perspicacious and inclusive spirit of Böll’s writings echoes in the proceedings at the engagements on your packed schedule. The visit to a high school, during which a girl gives the most lucid explanation of colonialism you have ever heard. The interview at Allerwelthaus with the woman from Germany’s largest broadcaster—one of those rare journalists who truly understand what literature is all about. Your breakfast meeting with four Cologne writers at the Hotel Flandrischer Hof and the extensive conversation there that illuminates, among other things, how Nazism and kindred authoritarian regimes corrupt the very habits of language. The reading at the Zentralen Stadtbibliothek Köln, the Central City Library of Cologne. And the discussion at the event, which the actress Azizè Flittner translates for your benefit, that returns repeatedly to the relationship between literary invention and historical fact.

On your last day in Cologne, Christa Morgenrath suggests that you check out the Cologne cathedral before your departure. You gladly agree. The cathedral could not be more imposing. Craning your neck far back to observe its double spires, it seems it is the cathedral itself, rather than the clouds above it, that is drifting glacially across the surface of the earth.

Hordes of tourists mill around in the premises, taking pictures of the edifice and its magnificent stained glass windows. That grand cathedral, whose aesthetic could not be more dissonant with the post-WWII architecture of Cologne, brings back to mind the pre-war history of Germany. The Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa marching with his red beard and his conquering army into Italy. Bismarck presiding over the Berlin Conference, accelerating the Scramble for Africa. Kristallnacht.

As you leave for the train station, you look back one last time at the cathedral. It towers over you and the city, its spires ominous like the peaks of a cordillera violently thrust out from the bowels of the earth—Gothic, medieval, minatory.

Image courtesy of Rotimi Babatunde

Image courtesy of Rotimi Babatunde



Twenty postgraduate students, including your story’s translator Theresa Benkert and the other members of the translation team Louisa Kuck and Yvonne Kappel. Two of their professors—Sonja Frenzel and Stephanie Kreiner. One professional translator—Thomas Brückner, renowned for his translations into German of the works of African authors like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and Helon Habila. And one writer—you. These are the participants in your first session at the Heinrich Heine University’s Haus der Universität, located in a fashionable section of Düsseldorf.

After the preliminaries, the three-person team handling the translation into German, for the second time, of ‘Bombay’s Republic’ begin interrogating the story. The session lasts three hours. It is a rewarding experience. The questions raised by the team communicate their deep engagement with the story. In response to a comment about one of your long sentences, you voice out your assumption that such a sentence would be regular in German, which you know for its long sentences and word concatenations. Thomas Brückner says that tendency in the language makes long sentences written originally in another language even longer when translated into German.

You remember Garcia Marquez saying, with characteristic mischief and generosity, that he prefers Gregory Rabassa’s English version of One Hundred Years of Solitude to his own original. And you also remember some people have said, presumably tongue-in-cheek, that Shakespeare sounds better in German. In response to a question about a detail in your story, you reply that the translation team have the liberty to interpret it as they deem fit. Any worthwhile piece of literature is more intelligent than its writer, you say.

The second session is open to the university community and the general public. It is a presentation of the translation team’s practical and theoretical insights derived from the process of translating your story. The session is conducted mostly in German, unlike your other sessions in Düsseldorf. You are happy with just being another member of the audience, listening to the intense exchanges between members of the translation team and guests at the event, and understanding only snippets of the back-and-forth going on.

The last session for the day, a reading and discussion, which is also open to the public, holds at night. You’re back in front of the audience. It is a valid perspective to see the Second World War as a case of Germany trying to do to Europe what Europe, including Germany, had been doing to people in Africa and elsewhere for many centuries before the war, you tell the audience during that final event in Düsseldorf.



Münster is happy when you arrive. A funfair is going on in the city. You watch the funfair’s savage rollercoasters flinging screaming thrill seekers skywards at hair-raising speed and then hurling them back earthwards with seemingly homicidal fury.

Across the road from the funfair, at the Internationales Zentrum der WWU ‘Die Brücke’, a scaled-down version of the exhibition ‘The Third World in World War II’ is in progress. A year ago, Anna Stelthove-Fend of the Afrika Kooperative contacted you to know if you would be willing to have your story “Bombay’s Republic” featured in the larger exhibition. The story was translated then, for the first time into German, by Thomas Brückner. It was published as a standalone piece in a small handsome edition, its proceeds going to a charitable initiative.

You couldn’t make the exhibition at that time. It is lovely you now have the chance to experience it, albeit in an abridged form. You walk through the exhibition, regarding posters of African soldiers in the different colonial armies of WWII. You stop for a long time before a poster illustrating the Nazi ideology of Lebensraum, Hitler’s foreign-policy goal of racially and ethnically cleansing parts of the world and turning those places into “living space” for his imagined “master race”.

Afterwards, during your reading moderated by Thomas Brückner, you talk about narratives. Stories are never innocent, you say. Implicit in every story is an ideology of how the world should be. That is why all pernicious narratives must constantly be challenged with counter-narratives.


Photo credit:   Christiana Diallo-Morick

Photo credit: Christiana Diallo-Morick


Istanbul—In Transit—Homebound

This time around, there is no drama at the Kemal Atatürk International Airport. While waiting for your boarding announcement, you remember that, once upon a time in Istanbul, a Turk, a German and a Nigerian had missed their flight at that same airport. Their flight was rescheduled, and they had to burn away time by wandering independently around the huge terminal. By chance, the three of them met again in the course of their wanderings outside the entrance of one of the several smoking lounges in the airport.

The Turk, the German and the Nigeria did not have a common language with which to communicate. The Turk pointed to the rolls of cigarettes he was holding and to the smoking lounge, after which he pointed to himself and to the two others. Then the Turk began laughing. He thought the others had also missed the flight, like he did, because of tobacco-connected reasons. The German and the Nigerian started laughing with him. Though the Turk’s assumption was wrong, it didn’t matter. Only the possibility of human camaraderie across all essentialist boundaries did.

The memory of that chance meeting brings Faulkner’s words back to your mind. Humanity will not only endure, it will prevail, Faulkner said. You don’t want to believe him. You do.

About the Author:

Nigeria’s Rotimi Babatunde won the 2012 prize for his short story entitled ‘Bombay's Republic’ from 'Mirabilia Review' Vol. 3.9 (Lagos, 2011). Chair of Judges, Bernardine Evaristo, MBE, described it as “ambitious, darkly humorous and in soaring, scorching prose exposes the exploitative nature of the colonial project and the psychology of independence”.

Tribute to Buchi Emecheta (1944 - 2017)

Photo credit: Ekko Von Schwichow

Photo credit: Ekko Von Schwichow

The Council of the Caine Prize for African Writing pays tribute to Buchi Emecheta, a long-standing member of the Caine Prize Advisory Council, who died peacefully at her home in London on 25 January 2017, aged 72.

Buchi Emecheta was a Nigerian author who received great acclaim for her work both in the UK and Nigeria, as the author of more than 20 books. Born in Lagos, her father died when she was very young.  She won a scholarship to the Methodist Girls’ High School, married in 1960 aged sixteen, and had her first daughter that year. Her first son, Sylvester, was born in 1961 and in 1962 she joined her husband in London where he had gone to study. She had her second son in 1962, her second daughter in 1964, and in 1966, aged 22 and pregnant with her third daughter, she left her husband. While working to support her five children as a single mother, she wrote in the early mornings and studied at night classes to obtain an honours degree in Sociology.  Her first book, In The Ditch, details her experience as a poor, single parent in London. It was followed by Second-Class Citizen, The Bride Price, The Slave Girl, which was awarded the Jock Campbell Award, The Joys of Motherhood, Destination Biafra, Naira Power, The Rape of Shavi, Double Yoke, A Kind of Marriage, Gwendolen, Kehinde and The New Tribe. Her autobiography, Head Above Water, appeared in 1986 to much acclaim.

Chair of the Caine Prize Council Dr Delia Jarrett-Macauley recalls: “Many years ago, shortly after graduation, I enrolled on a Birkbeck College course on African women writers led by Buchi Emecheta. A warm and spirited teacher, she sensibly introduced us to her books Second-Class Citizen and The Joys of Motherhood, and other passionate novels by writers of her generation. Buchi made us laugh and nudged us to be determined. She described rising at dawn to write before work and finding inspiration in her family's stories. She was a true pioneer and will be greatly missed.” 

Vice-President of the Caine Prize and MAN Booker Prize-winning author Ben Okri said that Buchi Emecheta “re-ignited the rich place of women at the heart of African literature and wrote brave tales about survival and motherhood. Without her the current strong generation of women writers, who write well and fearlessly, would not exist. We owe her courage a debt of gratitude. May she rest in peace.”

Margaret Busby, Caine Prize Advisory Council member, was Buchi's editor and publisher at Allison & Busby for more than a decade in the 1970s-80s, and says: “It is with pride and a feeling of privilege that I now reflect on the fact that it was on my watch, so to speak, that her best remembered books were published - Second-Class Citizen (1974), The Bride Price (1976), The Slave Girl (1977), The Joys of Motherhood (1979), Destination Biafra (1982), and also her books for children. Sadly, her health deteriorated progressively over the past seven years, following a stroke, so her writing career was prematurely halted. But the resonant impact her work made on readers and fellow writers lives on." Margaret Busby wrote a touching obituary for Buchi Emecheta in the Guardian, which you can read here

Buchi Emecheta titles published by Allison & Busby. Photo courtesy of Margaret Busby.

Buchi Emecheta titles published by Allison & Busby. Photo courtesy of Margaret Busby.

Nii Ayikwei Parkes, 2017 Chair of Judges and council member, commented that “Buchi Emecheta was a model of the kind of humility that makes a great writer; never self-aggrandising, always ready to listen. What made her great was that she had, in tandem with her humility, a self-possession that meant that, like Toni Morrison, she knew her voice, her story, was central and complete, needed no validation from any quarter. Her confident representation of certain realities of Nigerian womanhood gave courage to a generation of young women of the global south to express themselves fully and unapologetically. I am certain her work has played no small part in the rich array of complex creative work being produced by young writers today. From her I learned that it’s important to put work out there to start a conversation, to be part of the world of conversations that affect us all as humans.”

Wangui wa Goro, Caine Prize Advisory Council member, added: “Buchi Emecheta's towering presence is always there and will remain.  She was a fierce trailblazer, both in her writing and in her insistence on being heard.  I had the privilege of knowing Buchi, both in the literary world and privately, and she was as funny as she was generous.  She was honest about the struggles in her personal life and in the publishing and reception of her work. Her stance and courage have been vindicated as through her legacy, she has opened the doors for, and to, so many. She remains iconic to many African literature scholars and others, and especially for us here in the UK, both for her brave writing, and for her presence for younger generations of African women writers, such as mine.  I owe a great deal of my own inspiration to women like Buchi and feel blessed to have known her and her work. May she rest in peace.”

James Currey, Caine Prize Advisory Council member and publisher of the African Writers Series at Heinemann, states that “Buchi Emecheta's work was of double importance. She, Flora Nwapa and Bessie Head gave women from Africa the idea that they might get published. She also gave women - and indeed men - the idea that they could write about the wider world of the diaspora."

She served as a judge for the Caine Prize in 2001, alongside J.M. Coetzee, Patron of the Caine Prize, the year that Helon Habila won. Nick Elam, Administrator of the Caine Prize from 1999 to 2011, recalls: “Buchi did not reveal her preference for Helon as winner, for fear of its being discounted as mere partisanship in favour of the Nigerian candidate, but she let out an explosive ululation when it became clear the decision was going his way.”

2001 Caine Prize winner Helon Habila, now Professor of Creative Writing at George Mason University, added: “Buchi's death is a tragic loss. She was a supportive, positive role model. Her personal story of overcoming adversity and abuse to become the writer she was is inspiring not just to women but to all of us. We thank her for her books.”

2004 Caine Prize winner and 2015 Caine Prize Judge, Brian Chikwava, added: “It is not just the stories Emecheta chose to tell that were bold and inspiring but also the story of her commitment to writing, even when the odds were overwhelmingly stacked against her. The first and last time I saw her she told us, a group of writers, that if you’re writing just to get published and not to earn from your work, then you are a blockhead. That sets things into perspective for any beginner writer.”

Caine Prize Director Lizzy Attree remembers first meeting Buchi Emecheta as a result of her contributions to the African Visions series at the British Library, programmed by the Africa Centre in Covent Garden, which ran from 2001 – 2005. Buchi was also involved in the Reading Africa libraries project organised and funded by SABDET (Southern African Book Development Education Trust) and co-produced by Lizzy with Kate Arafa.

Buchi Emecheta was a great supporter of the Caine prize and we are extremely grateful for her service as a member of the Advisory Council. She set a great example for a new generation of African writers through her life and work, and her work was an inspiration for the shortlisted and winning authors throughout the years.  She will be greatly missed.

Buchi Emecheta died peacefully in London on 25 January 2017.  She is survived by three of her five children.

– Additional Comments and Tributes to note –

Further tributes to Buchi Emecheta have been posted online by numerous friends and admirers. 

Read the tribute in the Guardian led by Bernardine Evaristo which includes comments from Margaret Busby, Aminatta Forna and Kadija Sesay here.

Read the tribute in the New Statesman written by Buchi Emecheta’s son Sylvester Onwordi here

Listen to Nnedi Okorafor's tribute on BBC World: Africa here.

– Reflections and Tributes on Social Media –

Shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2004, Chika reflects on advice Buchi Emecheta gave to young writers.

Shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2004, Chika reflects on advice Buchi Emecheta gave to young writers.

Leila Aboulela, winner of Caine Prize 2000 and served as judge for 2013 prize, fondly recollects Buchi Emecheta's influence on African writers.

Leila Aboulela, winner of Caine Prize 2000 and served as judge for 2013 prize, fondly recollects Buchi Emecheta's influence on African writers.

2017 Judging Panel Announced

With applications for the 2017 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 will be chaired by Nii Ayikwei Parkes, award winning author, poet and editor. He will be joined by the 2007 Caine Prize winner, Monica Arac de Nyeko; accomplished author and Chair of the English Department at Georgetown University, Professor Ricardo Ortiz; Libyan author and human rights campaigner, Ghazi Gheblawi; and distinguished African literary scholar, Dr Ranka Primorac. 

The 2017 Chair of Judges, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, said: "I have been a consumer of fiction from Africa for close to four decades, revelling in its range, its humour, its insights and dynamic linguistic palette. So, I am ecstatic to be asked to chair the panel for this year's Caine Prize and look forward to working with this incredible assembly of judges. There is, of course, the selfish pleasure, as an editor, of getting a first look at some of the finest writing coming from the continent and its foreign branches." 

Key Dates: 

31 January 2017 - submission deadline

Mid May - shortlist announced

3 July - winner announced at Senate House

Find out more about our 2017 judges here. For more information on how to enter the 2017 prize please click here

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

The Seduction of Johannesburg - by Lidudumalingani Mqombothi

When I arrive in Johannesburg on the 7th of October for the Mail and Guardian Literature Festival, it is my third visit in two months and each time it feels like the city is courting me. In 2012, when I was at film school here, the city and I were in the middle of a terrible separation. The city had heightened my claustrophobia levels and the city had had enough of my incessant complaining. Things are different now. It is not so much that the city and I have vastly changed though there are some minor changes but largely we have accepted each other for what we are. I now appreciate the city for its eclecticism and the city appreciates my need for solitude.

“It is going to be a slow painful drive” the Taxify driver tells me upon entering the car, a silver greyish Toyota Etios, which arrived at the OR Tambo Airport long after the estimated time arrival, and as demanded by the etiquette we have learned from app based on demand transport services, when he arrived, I was already annoyed.

“Is it?” I half ask, looking out the window at the billboards at the OR Tambo Airport.

“Yeah, he replies, there is an accident on R24”

We get stuck behind a truck that is carrying a huge engine. The driver and I begin to play a game of guessing what the engine is for. The conversations arrives at how because of the advancement of technology engineering is far easier.

“They do not have to look for problems in a car anymore. The car tells the engineer where it hurts” he says.

After driving on the highway for about thirty minutes, a journey that had only been 5 minutes of actual driving and twenty five minutes of waiting, he tells me that if I approve he can take an alternative route. I had just landed in a humid Johannesburg from a cold Cape Town and my entire body temperature had been unsettled and because of the change in weather I suddenly felt hot and needed a shower. I tell him to do as he pleases, that the Mail and Guardian Literature Festival, which I was in town for, was only taking place tomorrow in any case.

And so he veered off the usual road, up a bridge, takes the first turn, cuts in front of a truck, gets to a robot, waits for two Pick n Pay workers holding hands, and then crosses to another road and in no time at all we enter Maboneng, where I was staying for that weekend of the 8 th and 9 th October.

I spent the night of the Friday, the 7th , in my room, which the gracious Milisuthando Bongela, the Mail and Guardian Friday magazine supplement editor, had organised for me via Airbnb. Standing on the balcony, I watch the sunset caught in between two buildings, silhouetting much of the building structures in the city whilst the hum of the city can be heard underneath that beauty. I think of both Ivan Vladislavic’s Portrait with keys and Phaswane Mpe’s Hillbrow and how the two texts engage with Johannesburg, departing from two different perspective but arriving at a complex but beautiful Johannesburg.

In the morning on Saturday I make my way to the SciBono Discovery Center with a friend of mine Tseliso Monaheng. The panel I was on was at 09:30 in the morning titled “Native life” a century after Sol Plaatje’s Native Life with Lwandile Fikeni, Percy Mabandu and Lindokuhle Nkosi and moderated by Milisuthando Bongela. Having read both Native Life and Mhudi by Sol Plaatje and found it to be as erudite literature and social commentary the panel had an appeal for me.

Lasting for close to two hours and appearing to have legs to run into a third hour and maybe a fourth before getting boring the discussion began with reflections on Sol Plaatje’s Native Life, and went on to touch on what it means to be a writer today, what it means to be a writer coming from a certain place, the politics of the language, can language alienate the very reader it is speaking to. There was not one agreement or disagreement, they were many, but one that stood out for me was that different writers are responding differently to essentially the same question. Pleasing was that were five young black writers engaging with literature, not so much as black writers, but as writers.

After the panel I went truant and went to find film stock for my camera, which I did find, for half the price I buy it for in Cape Town. When I return to the festival I sit in a panel with uMkhonto we Sizwe veterans and academics who have written books about the MK and the larger armed struggle aimed to free South Africa. Listening to the MK veterans speak about being in the struggle and realising that the trauma of it sits very much in their immediate memory refocuses one’s view of it.

On the Saturday night despite the rain I file out of my flat into the streets of Maboneng. In every corner in Maboneng is a security guard and I for the first time in a long time I feel safe in Jozi at night. Maboneng is a place constructed on other people’s trauma however. Poor people who have occupied derelict buildings are kicked out into the streets and the buildings turned into apartments. One’s relief at feeling safe is a laugh at the face of the poor people who are now homeless. This is what Gentrification does, it makes us complicit in its evilness. To feel unthreatened is a feeling every human being enjoys but one must also be aware that this has come at a cost.

When I return to my room that night, a room booked via Airbnb, a room owned by a stranger, and now inhabited by another, two men who have never met, yet have been in close proximity, occupied the same space, have slept in the same bed, admired, perhaps, the same view. I think too of the other guests that have stayed in that room and wonder about what they were like, which parts of the flat they found intriguing, I wondered if they care about the sunset trapped between the two buildings.

On Sunday the Mail and Guardian Literature Festival comes to an end with the launch of the Sol Plaatje Poetry anthology launch. Having not been to a poetry session in a long while, the poetry performances lifted my spirit such that when I leave Johannesburg for Cape Town in the afternoon, I am in high spirits.

The way that the city of Johannesburg is positioned is that when one leaves it to make their way to the airport, it sits there, beside the highway, going pass the window, waving goodbye, exhibiting its beauty, and one cannot help but be tempted and quietly tell it that I will return.

Written by Caine Prize 2016 Winner Lidudumalingani Mqombothi. You can catch Lidudumalingani back in Johannesburg 06-10 December 2016 at the Abantu Book Festival in Soweto. For more details visit