‘More responsibilities than bonuses for the African writer’

Friday May 25 2012

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

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.

However, I would argue that these complex and competing push-and-pull influences are possibly good, possibly more liberating for the writer than they are constraining. For, when we have more than one simple stereotypical assumption about what an “African short story” should do, we have in effect told our writers, “You have options to do many things and different things to what is usually expected.”

Consequently, we “Let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend,” encouraging diversity in our literary production.

Arguably, then, the Caine Prize, rather than straitjacketing African literature, has by opening up debate been a core factor in the increasing diversity noticeable in the African short story since 2000.

This diversity is apparent across the five stories, some of which — Myambo’s and Kenani’s — have their stock themes and devices, some of which attempt to do something very new.

Take the excellent Bombay’s Republic by Nigeria’s Babatunde. This story takes us into the depths of Second World War Burma, where many subjects of the British colonies were taken to fight, from Nigeria and, yes, our own East Africa. While the choice of Burma might not be entirely original, as numerous excellent books such as Biyi Bandele’s Burma Boy have recently emerged that deal with the issue, Babatunde’s story does take us convincingly and intoxicatingly into the experiences of “Bombay,” a Nigerian soldier who undergoes numerous miniature rites-of-passage as he comes to realise how people across the world — from Sri Lanka to Japan to Britain — view Africans.

Not only are Bombay’s eyes opened to how Africans are stereotyped, but he also importantly comes to realise the frailties of whites who, back in colonised Nigeria, always portrayed themselves as insurmountably powerful; Bombay’s “superiors” get killed, go mad, and generally fail to cope with the horrors of war. They are, it is implied, just people, like you and me, and so colonialism can be challenged. Yes, this story, too, becomes preachy and predictable towards the end, disappointingly deteriorating into a standard 1960s allegory of post-Independence disillusionment, and yet most of its beginning holds the reader’s attention, thrillingly.

Or Myburgh’s Hunter Emmanuel, a darkly hilarious “detective” tale in which Hunter sets out to solve the mystery of a severed leg that he finds in a tree. In the end, it transpires that the leg had been sold by its, ahem, owner. There are possibly three ways that we can interpret Myburgh’s humour: a) as simply inappropriate, in which case we’ll unproblematically dismiss the story as sick; b) as cathartic, lightening the seriousness of the issue under scrutiny but never facing it; c) as so over-the-top inappropriate that it in fact performs a service, making us giggle our way into confronting a serious issue.

I’d opt for (c), and I think Myburgh achieves this well in a story that, throughout, expertly employs convincing free indirect discourse — the voice of the character expressed through the author’s report — a device that stops this story reading like Myburgh’s views and instead brings multiple character voices into play, and so generously allows multiple reader responses.

And yet, my favourite of the stories remains Kahora’s fine Urban Zoning, which I have now read four times, each time discovering something new, sometimes even reaching very different conclusions about how this excellent story might be read. If I’ve said that across the five shortlisted stories we may read the present diversity of short African literature, I believe that Kahora’s is the only one to within itself fully encapsulate this diversity, this thrilling ambiguity of “How can we live and interpret Africa, especially its swelling cities where the majority of us now live?” As such, it participates very powerfully and eloquently in the debate over representations of the continent without pandering to anybody’s preconceptions, and without feeling preachy.

Urban Zoning has a dissolute main character, Kandle, a 30-something Nairobian who lives in a drunken haze, who sleeps around and who suffers the oppressions of a heartless capitalism symbolised, most obviously, by the bank that he works for. He is a complex character — very impressively drawn as such in the brevity of a short story — whom we can neither like nor fully loathe as he wanders through his urban life, shirking work, drink-driving, and generally loafing.

He is, we learn, both a victim of the abuse that he suffers in his youth and the adult abuse of economics and someone who perpetuates that abuse as he treats women with disdain and tries to cheat his bank as it would cheat him. In the end, Kandle pilfers money from his employer, an act that we can either condemn as merely corrupt and so no better than the corruption of the elite, or as a promising little act of transgression or rebellion against the system by a man who is not yet fully dehumanised but who instead, like a candle, shines out some hope that the oppressive system can, in fact be challenged, even if only through small acts of infrapolitics.

Consequently, in Urban Zoning, we have neither only poverty porn Africa (Kandle’s “bad zones”) nor only the rose-tinted happy Africa (Kandle’s “good zones”) that certain middle-class liberals might yearn for. Kahora’s story makes Nairobi and the postcolonial city in general more realistically complex than it has ever been before in our literature; stepping beyond the 1960s and 1970s obsession with the cultural decay that city-dwelling “inevitably” brings, Kahora nevertheless refuses to view Nairobi as only a place of bright and beautiful lights, and so nuances and rounds the urban landscape, brilliantly.

Of course, it is your pleasant task as a reader to pursue these matters further and make up your own mind, and so I’d urge us all to visit two websites: a) that of the Caine Prize itself, where all of the stories can be easily and freely downloaded; b) the Zunguzungu blog, which is hosting a Caine Prize blogathon, and which lists all of those diverse readers — general and academic — who are participating in a wider debate over 2012’s shortlist. I’d also ask you to participate there, and by doing so reclaim: This is, after all, our African and world literature, and not only that of any UK-based panel.

Stephen Derwent Partington is a Machakos-based teacher and author of the poetry collection, How to Euthanise a Cactus. Email: [email protected]