‘Joycean’ tale wins Okwiri Caine Prize

Saturday July 19 2014

Caine Prize winner Okwiri Oduor. Courtesy

Kenyan writer Okwiri Oduor’s winning story at the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing opens thus: “I had meant to summon my father only long enough to see what his head looked like, but now he was here and I did not know how to send him back.”

Jackie Kay, the chair of judges for the 15th edition of the continent’s leading literary award, praised My Father’s Head as an uplifting story about mourning which is “Joycean in its reach.”

To Ms Kay, Okwiri “exercises an extraordinary amount of control and yet the story is subtle, tender and moving. It is a story you want to return to the minute you finish it.”

A work of literature is considered Joycean if it is focused on a character’s thoughts and feelings. The device is derived from the works of Irish novelist James Joyce, who is best known for his novel Ulysses in which he perfected the style.

Simbi, the protagonist in My Father’s Head, has been provoked to revisit tightly suppressed memories of her father, only named Johnson, whom she lost at a young age, by Father Ignatius, the new chaplain at an old people’s home where she works.

In particular, it is the way she feels the religious Father is being frivolous about love in his first sermon and how, just like her own father, the money-hungry Ignatius likes his teacup filled to the brim that reignites an interest in reconstructing her father.


“Even as I showed Father Ignatius to his chambers… I thought about the millet-coloured freckle in my father’s eye, and the fifty cent coins he always forgot in his pockets,” Simbi muses.

My Father’s Head, Oduor told, was inspired by her estrangement from home. The story says as much in a hanging monologue: “Let me tell you: One day you will renounce your exile, and you will go back home, and your mother will take out the finest china, and your father will slaughter a sprightly cockerel for you...”