by Tolu Ogunlesi
Originally published in NEXT (site no longer available)
An intimately-laid-out setting awaited me when I walked into the 17th century Old Schools Quadrangle of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, on Monday July 11, for the 2011 Caine Prize dinner. There were fourteen numbered tables, each seating eight or so persons, and all buzzing with small talk until prize administrator, Nick Elam mounted the podium. Kadija George, publisher and literary activist, was seated next to me. Having known and corresponded with her by email for six years – in 2005 she published a selection of my poems in her litmag, Sable – it was a pleasure to finally meet her.
To my right sat Ann Driver, who introduced me to her husband, C.J., poet, novelist, and 2007 Caine Prize judge. “A hundred years ago I taught Jon Cook [Emeritus Professor of Literature at the University of East Anglia] at school,” he joked.
As one would expect of Britain’s most high profile prize for writing by persons of African origin, the guest list was impressive. Ben Okri, Alastair Niven, Becky Ayebia-Clarke, James Gibbs, Kaye Whiteman, Aminatta Forna (a judge this year), Elleke Boehmer, Ellah Allfrey, Leila Aboulela (the inaugural Caine Prize winner), Maya Jaggi, Mohammed Kabir Umar, Richard Dowden. I spotted Cassava Republic publishers Bibi Bakare and Jeremy Weate near the front of the hall.
Changing of the guard
Jonathan Taylor, Chair of the Caine Prize Council, gave an opening speech, highlighting the “recognition, reward and readership” that the Caine Prize had brought to African writers. He announced that Elam, who has overseen the prize since its launch in 2000, would be stepping down in August (he will take up the role of company secretary), to be replaced by Lizzy Attree.At intervals novelist and poet Nii Ayikwei Parkes read from the shortlisted stories. For anyone used to awards ceremonies in Nigeria, this was a marvellously unfussy gathering; the speeches were brief, and the waiters brisk.
Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, President of the council, noted that the annual Caine fiction workshops (there have been nine in the 12-year history of the prize) formed the “core” of the prize’s growth. She paid tribute to Nick Elam’s efforts atmanaging the prize and the workshops, and announced that Ben Okri had agreed to be Vice President of the Council.
At a few minutes past 10pm, the Chair of the Board of Judges, Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, announced Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo as the winner of this year’s prize, for her story, ‘Hitting Budapest’ (published in the November/December 2010 edition of The Boston Review), about a starving yet boisterous gang of children on a guava-hunting quest in a rich neighbourhood. “This is a story with moral power and weight, it has the artistry to refrain from moral commentary. NoViolet Bulawayo is a writer who takes delight in language,” Matar said.
The first tweet
Shortly before then I had typed out the twitter message I was going to send, announcing the winner. As soon as Bulawayo was announced I inserted her name in the space I had left for it in my tweet, and sent the message. (The following day in London one of the PR people told me my tweet was the first announcement of the prize to leave the dinner venue).
Bulawayo gave a short speech, and then the photographs and interviews – and closing glasses of wine – followed.
The following day the five shortlisted writers – Bulawayo, Beatrice Lamwaka (Uganda), Tim Keegan (South Africa), Lauri Kubuitsile (Botswana) and David Medalie (South Africa) – gathered at the British Museum in London for a panel discussion. They answered questions from panel chair, Mpalive Msiska, and the audience, on the usual writerly themes: literary influences, inspiration for the shortlisted stories, experiences with editors and publishers, national and continental identity, etc.
While most of the writers traced their earliest literary experiences to reading, Bulawayo said hers came mostly from listening – to the night-time stories of her childhood in Zimbabwe.
Historian Tim Keegan said he was drawn tofiction by the “limiting methodology of history” – the strictures of footnotes and academic references. “History really leads to fiction. There’s no dividing line, I think they meld into each other.”
Inevitably, the issue of representation – how Africa is being portrayed in the fiction of its writers – and stereotyping came up. Since this year’s shortlist was announced a debate – mostly critical – has been going on, on internet forums, about how the selections of the Caine Prize judges are shaping (distorting?) the image of Africa. For one it is hard to miss the fact that, for some reason, the winning stories in 2009 (‘Waiting’), 2010 (‘Stickfighting Days’) and2011 (‘Hitting Budapest’) all feature poverty-stricken children living in slums or refugee camps.
One of the loudest of the critical voices has been NEXT columnist, Ikhide Ikheloa. In May, shortly after the 2011 shortlist was released, he described it as a “humourless, tasteless canvas of shiftless Stepin Fetchit suffering.” Of Bulawayo, the eventual winner, he said: “She sure can write; unfortunately, her muse insists on sniffing around Africa’s sewers.”
This raises the question: are writers to be judged on the subjects and themes of their writing, or simply the quality? Should a writer be taken to task for choosing “Africa’s sewers” – which are all too real anyway – as inspiration for her storytelling?
Bulawayo put forward a convincing defence, arguing that there are different Africas, and no one should prescribe for any writer what Africa they ought to write about. “I am that barefooted kid who went to steal guavas,” she said. That, she said, was the Africa she knew and she was under no obligation to write about an Africa unfamiliar to her.
That declaration, one imagines, should serve as an invitation to all who feel, quite strongly, that the stories of the Africa they know are not being written. If there is an imbalance of stories out there, surely the blame should go to those who should be writing but aren’t, not to those who are.
I’ve come to realise that there will never be an end to all those debates – around “authenticity”, “identity”, “stereotyping” and “audience” – that follow writers of African origin wherever they go. African writers will forever carry the burdens of having to comment, not merely about their “Africanness” as individuals, but also about the Africanness of their writing.
“I am from Zimbabwe, yes, but this is not necessarily a Zimbabwean story; it can happen to children anywhere,” Bulawayo said in an interview, shortly after winning the Caine Prize. A few days before that interview appeared, last year’s winner, Olufemi Terry, in an essay that appeared online in Granta, declared: “There is, for me, no African writing, only good writing and bad writing.”
I agree with Terry, at least for now, until another eloquent answer emerges to the vexed question of “African Writing”. I’m also starting to wonder if it wouldn’t be better to drop the “African” in the Caine Prize name, and redefine it simply as “The Caine Prize for Writing” -and this without altering the eligibility requirements (“African writers”).
There must be a reason why, the Orange Prize insists on referring to itself as the “Orange Prize for Fiction”, not the Orange Prize for “Women’s” Fiction – even though only female writers are eligible. That it celebrates writing by women should not be interpreted to mean that there is such a literary category as “women’s writing” – unless the increasingly ridiculous V.S. Naipaul is to be believed.
In that stance may lie a lesson for the Caine Prize.