Sierra Leone writer wins Caine Prize
Story of a boy who lives in a crime-prone dump scoops Africa’s top award, as queries are raised on the politics of literature and prizes, especially those funded by the West, writes Tom Odhiambo
The winner of the 10th Caine Prize for African Writing is Olufemi Terry for his book, Stickfighting Days.
It is an urchin’s account of a depressing life in which stick fighting becomes an occasion for glue-induced murder.
This is a story of dystopia — an account of the dead-end of life in which a game, and the honour associated with it, can easily become life-threatening.
Olufemi was shortlisted along with Kenya’s Lily Mabura, South Africans Ken Barris and Alex Smith and Zambian Namwali Serpell.
A well travelled man who has lived in Nigeria, the UK, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda, Olufemi — like many “new” African writers — has also found Cape Town hospitable.
Stickfighting Days first appeared in Chimurenga, an experimental and revolutionary periodical published out of Cape Town.
Olufemi’s winning story, like that of the 2009 winner E.C Osondu, is told from the point of view of a child, and is by a West African.
The 2008 winner Henrietta Rose-Innes and the 2007 winner Monica Arac de Nyeko were from South and East Africa, respectively.
Two Kenyans, Parselelo Kantai and Mukoma wa Ngugi, were shortlisted in 2009.
The question of the subject matter of these stories and the regional distribution of the winners seem to be fertile grounds for speculation on the background dynamics that determine the long list of the entries, the shortlist and the eventual winner.
The politics of literature and prizes, especially awards given in the West, should be of concern to those interested in African art and culture.
There is, of course, no doubt that awards such as the Commonwealth Prize for African Writing, the Caine Prize or the Penguin Prize for African Writing have contributed immensely to production and dissemination of literature from the continent.
Parselelo Kantai feels that such prizes “have done more to internationalise the new African writer (and thus liberate him) than a generation of head-banging against the stone walls of a publishing industry wholly devoted to the production of textbooks underwritten by Western donors.”
For him, the sorry state of local publishing outlets and their cavalier attitude to writers makes the international magazines in which many of the winning stories are initially published, a worthy proposition for young and budding writers.
That view is supported by Doreen Baingana, the winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Award (Africa Region) for her collection of short stories Tropical Fish.
Baingana says, “The need to promote good writers and writing from the continent is so urgent, it matters less where the money comes from to do this.”
A very utilitarian perspective, but nevertheless one that is profoundly important for a continent where governments continue to pay no more than lip service to “culture and the arts.”
All this notwithstanding, one cannot help feeling that no one does another good just for the sake of it.
Philanthropy is ultimately self-serving. Aren’t these prizes proof enough that African creativity still needs Western or foreign endorsement?
How many Chinese, Indian and Japanese writers are “discovered” in the West?
Is it coincidental that the child/youth is the dominant figure in the 2009 and 2010 winning texts?
To go further: Could the horse-trading that characterises the judges’ closed-door sessions have had something to do with rewarding stories that capture one of Africa’s most current and urgent problems: What to do with unemployed and criminal youth, most of whom are products of a collapsing social order and war zones?
Is it also possible to argue that the African canon is being created in the West because that is where the “market is,” as Sembene Ousmane noted?
The late novelist and filmmaker argued that while his audience was right here on the continent (hapless critics and a few interested individuals), the people who could buy and appreciate African works of art were in Europe, America and Asia.
That is where the money for fellowships, writing residencies and writing grants comes from. So, young African writers like
Brian Chikwava (Caine winner in 2004), Helon Habila (Caine winner in 2001) or Chimamanda Adichie will naturally find succour there. You can’t write (or read for that matter) on an empty stomach, or can you?
Still David Kaiza, one of East Africa’s pithiest art and literature critics, argues that while prizes such as the Caine may contribute to the growth of Africa’s literary works, they “will count for little in the future.”
Kaiza’s exasperation is partially because it seems that most young African writers are writing under the “direction” of the publishing houses, academy and critics in the West.
The piper is inexorably calling the tune.
Often, says Kaiza, the unstated expectation of the writer to tell “an authentic African story” means the sacrifice of the craft to deliver the theme.
But the workshop culture that is in the background of much of contemporary African writing today may also mean that new writers are struggling to attain standards of creativity at the expense of telling the story.
What is gained in prizes such as the Caine is indeed worthy of celebration, especially for the unrecognised African writers.
But in many cases one feels that much of the flesh of the African story may be lost in the wish to satisfy, connect with and sell to the Western market.
A Kenyan writer, who is also involved in publication of literature, notes that ultimately, “The prize becomes arbitrary and a good lightning rod for commercial and powerful literary interests.”
Tom Odhiambo teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]