‘More responsibilities than bonuses for the African writer’

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Caine 2010 winner Terry Olufemi with Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, who established the Caine Prize in memory of her husband, the late Sir Michael Caine in 1999. Picture: File

Caine 2010 winner Terry Olufemi with Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, who established the Caine Prize in memory of her husband, the late Sir Michael Caine in 1999. Picture: File 

By Stephen Derwent Partington

Posted  Friday, May 25   2012 at  14:29

Triskaidekaphobia’ — meaning fear of the ‘unlucky’ number 13 — is an unfortunately ugly word. Thankfully, 2012’s shortlisted Caine Prize stories usually avoid any ugliness of expression, and yet this year — the thirteenth of this important prize — will like any other feel relatively unlucky for four of the five shortlisted authors: Nigeria’s Rotimi Babatunde, Kenya’s Billy Kahora, Malawi’s Stanley Kenani, Zimbabwe’s Melissa Tandiwe Myambo, or South Africa’s Constance Myburgh. Only one will get the £10,000 prize, the big literary contract and a seat on Oprah’s colour-purple sofa.

Modelled loosely upon the UK’s prestigious Man Booker Prize, which covers Anglophone novels from the Commonwealth, the influential Caine Prize similarly rewards the best shorter Anglophone fiction from, specifically, the African continent. Initiated by Sir Michael Caine, a former chairman of the Booker Prize, the prize was first awarded in 2000, when it was won by the fine Sudanese writer, Leila Aboulela.

Since 2000, it has been awarded to talented younger writers from across sub-Saharan Africa, from Nigeria to Kenya — Binyavanga Wainaina and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor — to South Africa. Uganda had a winner, Monica Arac de Nyeko, in 2007, and yet it’s worth pointing out that the Anglophone focus possibly marginalises Tanzania — although translations are acceptable — even though contemporary Swahili literature arguably comprises some of the most adventurous literary experimentation on the continent. As of yet, no one from the Maghreb or Egypt has won, although it’s fair to say that some of the strongest short-listed stories have, over the years, been from the North as much as from the East, South and West of our continent.

When he refused the 1964 Nobel Prize for Literature, the French Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre did so because “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.” For those of us aware of Sartre’s tendency to hold forth in front of adoring young disciples in fashionable Parisian cafes, his utterance has a faint whiff of hypocrisy about it, and yet the warning remains valid if we take him to mean, “Writers and their readers should be wary of who is validating and canonising them.”

The Caine Prize judges and writers have, year on year, been reminded of this danger, especially by talented African academics who are acutely aware of how our continent has been negatively portrayed in much Western literature from pre-colonial travelogues (“uggy-buggy fuzzy-wuzzies”) to more recent representations in the Western media (“panga-wielding ululators”).

One of the most vocal critics of this perceived consequence of the prize is the Nigerian academic, Ikhide Ikheloa, who last year wrote, “Many [African] writers are skewing their written perspectives to fit what they imagine will sell to the West and the judges of the Caine Prize. The creation of a prize for ‘African writing’ may have created the unintended effect of breeding writers willing to stereotype Africa for glory. The mostly lazy, predictable stories that made the 2011 shortlist celebrate orthodoxy and mediocrity.”

Ikheloa’s forceful critique, then, has two sides to it: a) a 2011-specific, value-ridden concern, shared by many commentators, that last year’s Caine shortlist was relatively uninspiring; b) a more profound concern that this UK-based prize, even when overseen by cosmopolitan African writers such as Ben Okri, the Caine’s new vice-president, has led certain of the continent’s short story writers to become native informants, cynically penning what sells to the West.

The implication is that some of our writers (willingly) succumb to the hegemonic representation of Africa as a place of famine, war, Aids, “tribal savagery” and entrenched corruption, prostituting the continent’s population in the process and, we might say, betraying the radicalism of earlier generations of writers and critics for whom countering such stereotypes was imperative. “Poverty porn,” it is called; the ability to thrill to Africa’s various impoverishments and, if you are a bleeding-heart American sophomore, make lemonade to raise money to “save” us.

It would seem that this year Ikheloa’s fair concerns — fair because certain past winners really have dwelt upon conflict and other woes — are being taken seriously by the very talented clutch of judges. For example, the judging chair, the prolific author Bernardine Evaristo, has explicitly blogged that she and her fellow panellists — CNN journalist Nema Elbagir, award-winning critic and journalist Maya Jaggi, postcolonialist scholar Samantha Pinto, and poet-editor Chirikure Chirikure — are “looking for stories about Africa that enlarge our concept of the continent beyond the familiar images that dominate the media: War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa, in short: The Tragic Continent.”

Whether the 2012 Caine Prize shortlist really avoids such portrayals of Africa is up for debate. Or, if poverty porn has been avoided, it is possible that other cultural clichés affect certain of the stories.

For example, while being one of my favourites, Myambo’s tender La Salle de Départ falls into the hackneyed category of “emigration and return” literature. While various forms of “ unhousedness” — exile, emigration, displacement, diaspora, and so on — are core to the postcolonial experience of many, I find myself among the slightly bored readers for whom such an ubiquitous cosmopolitan theme is becoming overdone, especially when the characters are members of the more privileged classes.

Similarly, what to me is the weakest of the five stories, Kenani’s Love on Trial, is really little more than an overlong dialogue between a law student arrested for gay acts and an obnoxiously pious Malawian journalist. The problem with Kenani’s story is at least threefold: a) the reader feels that this story might cynically have been selected because of the topicality of the debate over (African) gayness in the Western media; b) being dull, we are sadly not inspired to care about the character or the pressing issue; c) by including such a preachy story (one that didactically “tells” the reader how to read its issue), the prize seems to be legitimising the rather hackneyed claim that “the African cultural aesthetic” is exclusively one that states messages-and-morals about social issues, with no interest in entertainment — certainly, Love on Trial has little about it that could be called entertaining. And so, some stereotypes are in danger of being entrenched just as others are consciously avoided by the judges.

Yet, all of the shortlisted stories have some redeeming features, and some are extremely good indeed. Further, it may well be that the judges’ and Ikheloa’s liberal concerns are already becoming a little old hat on a certain level, as younger left-wing academics begin to ask, “Yes, poverty-porn is vile, but if when rightly criticising it you liberals overstep the mark and prescribe that poverty may no longer in any way be discussed in African literature, aren’t you both supporting ‘bans’ of the sort that our literature has painfully experienced before and ignoring the genuine plight of the majority of people who do not live in the middle-class affluence of the GDP-growing urban centre?”

A recent blogger, Carmen McCain, has argued that much of the present debate over the Caine Prize and African writing in general, puts the writers themselves in an impossible position, stuck between having to: a) write for a UK-based prize that might represent a Western readership that likes poverty porn; b) satisfy Africanists-in-place that they’ve not pandered too much and sold out; c) satisfy the new liberal Western academics who are pussyfooting around poverty porn ; d) be “true” to the social situation on the ground in vast parts of Africa, where some people (the majority) really do still often suffer.

It’s a fraught business, this being a writer, and there are always more responsibilities than there are bonuses; more criticisms and obligations than there are ten-thousand-pound prizes.

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