Caine Prize sways African writing

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In good company: Books by African writers in a Nairobi bookshop. Photo/FILE

In good company: Books by African writers in a Nairobi bookshop. Photo/FILE 

By Mwenda Micheni

Posted  Monday, May 3   2010 at  00:00

Literary awards, well managed, can actually kick off cultural revolutions, and that can be good or bad depending on their agenda.

This becomes obvious when one sees what the Caine Prize for African Writing has achieved within a decade, infecting writers and propelling the African literary world from its traditional rural idylls to a mix of contemporary rural and urban themes, becoming in the process mostly a diaspora discourse.

Minutes after the 2010 Caine Prize shortlist was announced last Monday in London, the media across the continent was abuzz with the news.

Through the week, the literary bushfire ignited in London spreading south as the listed writers and their works were fervently debated, especially by the elite who have access to the literary journals where most of the selected stories are published.

The British papers, The Guardian especially, also made much of the story.

This is how influential the prize, which celebrates the legacy of the late philanthropist, Sir Michael Harris Caine, has become, feeding a growing interest in African writing and arts on the continent and abroad.

It was born at a time when African writing had almost stagnated.

A time when African publishers were mostly interested in writers who didn’t need a lot of pushing in the market, the usual suspects like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and JM Coetzee.

Besides the cash prize, the Caine committees organise a series of writing workshops for their coterie of writers, both within Africa and outside. This heavily influences the writing, especially for writers eyeing the prize.

Having steered the international Booker Prize for over a quarter century as chairman, Sir Michael Caine’s dream was to bring African writing to the world.

After his death, a group of friends and family decided to set up a literary prize for African writing with his name and spirit on it, rolling out the first awards in 2000.

The whole enterprise sounded fresh and exciting and attracted a number of young African voices who had been eagerly waiting for someone to bet on their writing talents.

The winner of the inaugural prize was Kenyan writer and cultural activist Binyavanga Wainaina, who received it alongside runner-up Leila Aboulela at an intimate ceremony in London.

Binyavanga’s winning piece, Discovering Home, moves from South Africa though Kenya to Uganda, addressing identity and the politics of multiple heritage through the motif of a journey of self-discovery.

But that was not all that attracted attention to the charismatic Binyavanga.

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