Caine Prize sways African writing

Monday May 3 2010

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

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.

He immediately set about campaigning for a mouthpiece for the new literary possibilities in Africa, eventually setting up the Kwani?

Trust, which has since supported the publishing of experimental writings in its eponymous magazine and organised writing seminars and literary events.

Binyavanga’s most talked-about piece in recent years is his stereotype-busting How to Write about Africa.

Like the Caine Prize, Kwani? has been pushing a cultural revolution, especially in Kenya, where the trust has been holding regular poetry sessions, writing competitions and publishing stories, short and even full length but most importantly marketing them, with generous support from funding agencies.

But, again like the Caine Prize, Kwani? has gravitated towards the new urban and diaspora narrative, ignoring the traditional identity narratives of old.

Besides Binya, there is a whole congregation that the Caine Prize has been addressing around Africa.

Though some of the new breed of writers are ordinary, others have earned their space and publishers are lining up for their manuscripts.

Passionate storyteller Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tops the list with three novels, and a collection of griping short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck.

She may not have won the Caine Prize but she was shortlisted and has participated in several Caine Prize organised events.

The Nigerian author, who easily finds her way into the international media, has a way not just with words but details, too.

She presents deep issues in an easy narrative carried by catchy metaphors and flowing dialogue.

The stories also tell of a writer who is not easily detracted by sensationalism and remains faithful to her cultural base while ensuring that she owns the story.

Then there is the eccentric Brian Chikwava from Zimbabwe, whose first novel, Harare North, has been attracting a lot of attention.

Chikwava’s is an arresting narrative that finds humour in a situation that few would think funny.

Ugandan Doreen Baingana’s Tropical Fish was also shortlisted for the Caine Prize.

Her narrative grips, especially when it gets naughty. Educated in Britain, she does not venture into the heavy stuff that occupied older writers from her country.

This year’s shortlist also tells you where the Caine Prize is taking African writing.

On the list are Ken Barris of South Africa with his story The Life of a Worm, little-known Lily Mabura (Kenya), Namwali Serpell (Zambia), Alex Smith whose title Soulmates revisits a historical incident in South Africa and Olufemi Terry (Sierra Leone).

“The prize has generated a lot of new writing,” said Doreen Baingana, a finalist in both 2004 and 2005, in an interview with the International Herald Tribune.

“Fifteen thousand dollars definitely acts as an extra incentive. But the prize has also brought back discussions about African writing that were fading away.

South Africa writer Ken Barris says he is happy to be among those shortlisted this year, especially due to the publicity that comes with it.

Writers have to compete with movies, television, Facebook, comfort eating, mobile phones, online newspapers and so on for public attention. Awards are an important part of how the publishing industry markets itself.