Blogging the Caine Prize 2012

On May 1st, the short list for the “Caine Prize for African Writing” was released, and like last year, I and a group of intrepid bloggers will read and blog about the five stories in the next month and a half (schedule TBD). If you are a blogger, and also if you are not, you should join the conversation (drop me a line if you want to take part: aaron A@T thenewinquiry DO.T com).

Drum roll! The 2012 shortlist (these are links to full pdfs of the stories):

May 9-11 Rotimi Babatunde (Nigeria) ‘Bombay’s Republic’ 
May 16-18 Billy Kahora (Kenya) ‘Urban Zoning’
May 23-25 Stanley Kenani (Malawi) ‘Love on Trial’
May 30-June 1 Melissa Tandiwe Myambo (Zimbabwe) ‘La Salle de Départ’ 
June 6-8 Constance Myburgh (South Africa) ‘Hunter Emmanuel’ 

I didn’t love last year’s winner, NoViolet Bulawayo’s “Hitting Budapest,” (my post on it is here) and I haven’t had time to start reading this year’s shortlist. But I must admit being very heartened by the statement of criteria that Bernardine Evaristo — the chair of the judging — put on the Caine Prize blog:

I’m 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. I’ve been banging on about this for years because while we are all aware of these negative realities, and some African writers have written great novels along these lines (as was necessary, crucial), isn’t it time now to move on? Or rather, for other kinds of African novels to be internationally celebrated. What other aspects of this most heterogeneous of continents are being explored through the imaginations of writers?

image via, naturally, the indispensable Africa is a Country.

For context, a few words on the Caine Prize and “African writing.”

“International” is an important qualifier. And a lot of the action is in African journals and publishing, stuff like Kwani?ItchChimurenga and Saraba, not to mention the ones I haven’t heard of because I live in the US, so take me with that grain of salt. I’ve been reading the latest Kwani?’s, courtesy of a friend who physically handed them to me, and I’ve been blown away by the quality, and irritated by the fact that I can’t recommend that all my friends buy them.
Over the last decade and change, the Caine prize has become one of the more important institutions by which new African writing gets an international audience. Publishing being what it is, this is not a small thing: if you peruse the shelves of any bookstore in the USA, for example, chances are good that you’ll always find copies of novels by Achebe, Ngugi, maybe Ben Okri, maybe Buchi Emecheta or a few others — along with every single Coetzee novel — and anything beyond will be an exception to the rule, a rule which runs something along the lines of: “Why do we need new African writers? We already have Achebe.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love me some Things Fall Apart. But as a thinkable category of writing — as a genre of writing that is recognized by publishers, readers, and academics — African writing tends to exist in its most tangible form as “Achebe and writers who are similar enough to Achebe to have been published,” and this is a problem. In writing the book he wrote in 1958, he set a pattern that long ago hardened into a cliche, a stereotype defining what was expected from a thing called “African Writing.” This happened for lots of reasons, of course, but one of the most important ones was Heinemann’s African Writers Series, which Achebe edited for over a decade, which was patterned after the example of his most famous novel, which was funded by sales from his novel, and which — by first publishing an incredibly high percentage of what now passes for “African Literature” in the Anglophone world — set the standards for how that category would be understood (and not only outside of Africa). Most of the “important” African writers from the 1960’s and 1970’s — the first two decades of African independence — were not only published by Heinemann, but were established as important African writers by that fact.

I’ve written a bit about Achebe and the Heinemann series here, so I won’t repeat myself. Suffice it to say that while the “African Writers Series” and Achebe tended to define, in practice, what it was that we meant when we said something like “African Literature” — and what publishers meant when they decided what to publish, and what to reject — Achebe hasn’t written a new novel in decades and the African Writers Series is kaput.

Of course, whether or not “African Literature” is even a meaningful or useful category is another question. Some would say it’s not only unnecessary but positively counterproductive. Take a novel like Teju Cole’s Open City, for example: does calling it “African Literature” do anything but pigeonhole it and its author in ways that constrain what it is and what it could be read to be? In the case of that novel in particular, I’d tend to say no. And as incredibly important as Achebe has been, it’s when he’s reduced to an ideal type for a category — when you define a thing called “African Literature” and use him as model — that you crystalize a fluid and living process of literary growth into a commodified entity that can be replicated, but also kind of dies in the process.

So what is “African Writing” now? If it’s anything, the important thing to me is this: if you were an African writer in the 1960’s and 1970’s, your path to being published was, to a great extent, defined, enabled, and constrained by the African Writers Series, and this changed duing the 1980s and ’90s, when the African Writers Series first diminished in importance and prominence — as other publishers caught up, as the demand for African writing diminished, and as pan-African conditions for African writing deteriorated — and as it eventually went completely defunct. A few years ago, Penguin sort of revived the African Writers Series (at least in name), and while they initially only seemed to be interested in publishing already well-established writers, they showed signs of wanting to support newer writers as well. They even awarded a “Penguin Prize for African Writing” in 2010 — and the novel they picked is due to be available in the US soon, yay!  — but I can find no evidence that they did it again in 2011.

As M. Lynx Qualey noted at the time, there were no North Africans on the shortlist, to which I would add as well the complete absence of Francophonia, Lusophonia, and any -phonia other than English. Which simply is what it is: like the Commonwealth and Booker prizes, the Penguin AWS and most other “African” prizes/series pretty exclusively focus on an exclusively Anglophonic sense of “African Literature.”

The function that the African Writers Series filled was — after a kind of hiatus during the bad years of the 80’s and 90’s — not revived, but effectively replaced by something similar yet different: the “Caine Prize for African Writing.” And while one can talk about whether or not there should be an “African Writing” and whether we should take that category seriously (as opposed to just “writers,” or, say, “Kenyan writers,” etc), there is also the plain fact that being published means coming to terms with a publishing industry that requires and lives off of such categories. If you are a writer who is likely to be interpellated as “African Writer,” in other words, then the Caine Prize is an important means of getting published.

If you look at the list of writers who have received it since 2000 — and if you compare the Caine shortlist to books which have been published by African writers in the years since then — you will get a sense for how important it is, the kind of springboard to recognition it is meant to provide, and does. As an institution defining what is taken to be “African Writing,” the Caine Prize is as good as it gets.

Of course, African writers are also able to get some international attention by winning things like the Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, or the Commonwealth Writers Prize, but the intensely Anglophonic nature of those competitions is worth noting (and they are not specifically prizes for AFrican writers, of course). If you want to read something from Lusophone Africa, you have to go out and specifically look for that scene, and the same is true for North African writing, and writing from the parts of Africa where the dominant literary language is not European (like Tanzania or Ethiopia). And while Francophone African writing is better translated and more available in the Anglophone world — in that it occasionally is translated and available — it will tell you a lot to see that (as Africa is a Country notes), “the Ahmadou Kourouma Prize to an ‘African oeuvre, essay or fiction that reflects the spirit of independence and creativity which is the heritage of Ahmadou Kourouma’” has been awarded to 9 books, none of which are available in English.”

AiaC: “This year the Prize goes to Rwandan author Scholastique Mukasonga for her latest novel ‘Notre-Dame du Nil’. Of the past 8 winning books, not one is available in English: 2011 Photo de groupe au bord du fleuve (Emmanuel Dongala); 2010 Si la cour du mouton est sale, ce n’est pas au porc de le dire (Florent Couao-Zotti); 2009 Solo d’un revenant (Kossi Efoui); 2008 Le Bal des princes (Nimrod); 2007 Le paradis des chiots (Sami Tchak); 2006 Babyface (Koffi Kwahulé); 2005 Matins de couvre-feu (Tanella Boni); 2004 Survivantes, Rwanda 10 ans après (Esther Mujawayo & Souad Belhaddad)”

Of course, this is also the problem with a prize like the Caine, or at least the limitation it shares with all others: insofar as there are prizes and publication series that emphasize African writers as such, they tend to use the continental adjective without any serious effort at a continental scope. Because the Caine Prize is only geared to writers writing in English, the short list is always dominated by the same half-dozen countries, with only very rare exceptions; the Caine prize’s “Africa” more or less means South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and the diaspora living in Britain and the US. You’ll note that this years list is no exception: Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa.

Though it is worth noting that the African Writers Series really was continental-wide in its ambition. if you scan the list of books that were first published by the AWS, you’ll see classics from a remarkably broad geographical sway. From the start, Francophone Africa was very represented, they published translations from the Arabic of Tayeb Salih, Naguib Mahfouz, and Sonallah Ibrahim and from the Portuguese of Pepetela, Mia Couto, and Luís Bernardo Honwana, and there was also all sorts of other stuff, everything from Swahili love poetry and Onitsha market literature to collected creation myths and memoirs, plus a sprinkling of translated writing from “sub-national” linguistic groups, if I’m putting that the right way (and I’m not sure there is a right way).

I’m not sure I have more than a shrug of my shoulders about it. The Caine Prize gets its share of criticism — see Ikhide Ikheloa, for example — but I’ve come across a lot of writers that I like a lot by reading the short lists and then reading other stuff by those people, and that’s kind of enough for me. They aren’t representative of Africa — and shouldn’t have to be — but they are good, and that’s the main thing I’m interested in: mainstream tastemakers are so fundamentally ignorant and apathetic towards African literature (or, to put it another way, what is defined as “good” tends to implicitly exclude most African writers), I get excited with each new list of unfamiliar names, each year, and I’m excited now. So let’s do this!

If you’re curious what that will look like, here are the links to my five posts on the five stories from last year’s shortlist:


And, again, if you’d like to join us, join us! Drop me an email (aaron A@T thenewinquiry DO.T com) and let me know, so I can put you on an email list.