Lennox Odiemo-Munara provides us with a taste of ‘Ten Years of the Caine Prize for African Writing’, which revisits the winning short stories and those by other renowned writers of African literature. Odiemo-Munara concludes that as the Caine Prize enters its second decade, ‘we are certainly sure of marvelling the more at the grounding of a… literary tradition of a continent. It is a tradition that… “will bring many unsuspected gifts and wonderful surprises to the world in the fullness of time”.’
‘Ten Years of the Caine Prize for African Writing’ (2009), published by the New Internationalist, is a timely celebration of recent African writing in the literary genre of the short story. The text revisits the ten years of the existence of the Caine Prize and the winning short stories. It also contains bonus short stories from established prize-winning practitioners in African literature: Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee and Ben Okri.
Founded in 1999, and named after Sir Michael Caine, a long-time chair of the Booker Prize management committee, the prize is awarded annually for a short story by an African writer published in English. In recognising the genre of the short story, it offers vital induction for nascent African writers to gradually gain entry into the complex world literary process. Furthermore, beginning 2007, the winner is engaged for a month as writer-in-residence at Georgetown University’s department of English literature.
The prize was first awarded in 2000 to the Egyptian-Sudanese novelist and short story writer Leila Aboulela for her ‘The Museum’: A moving piece of an African-Arab girl’s encounter with Europe as a student, it tells of her horror of the misinformation about Africa in a museum which is ostensibly about Africa, but instead valorises the colonisers’ untruths.
In ‘Love Poems’ (2001 winner0, Nigerian writer Helon Habila, burrows into the troubled Nigeria of the 1990s. In the protagonist, Lomba, a journalist political detainee, we witness the brutal reality of suffering under an unconscionable military dictatorship. And yet it is the protagonist’s ability to refuse to succumb to total collapse that best arrests the human conscience.
The Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina’s story, ‘Discovering Home’ (2002 winner), recalls the fluidity of borders and the formation and formulation of multiple self identities in a fast changing globe. Wainaina insightfully collapses the occlusive us-them logic.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s ‘Weight of Whispers’ (2003 winner) delves into the horror that the artificial conceptualisation of the ‘other’ brings. It examines the terrible occurrence that was the 1994 Rwanda genocide and its effects on the Rwandese people, especially in their dislocation as refugees and asylum seekers. Owuor’s short story in a way anticipates the Nigerian Segun Afolabi’s ‘Monday Morning’ (2005 winner), a sad tale of displaced people in an asylum endeavouring to ‘gather strength after years of turmoil in other places’. They live disturbed by traumatic dreams ‘[of] violence, of rebels and rape and cutlasses arcing through the air’. But they still dream into the imagination of the beauty of a new day, because ‘[t]here was a way to function in the world when the world was devastating, everyone careless of each other and of themselves.’
In the same breath, ‘Waiting’ (2009 winner) by the Nigerian writer E. C. Osondu, presents a powerful narrative about violence and dislocation. In this story, the refugee camp setting manifests as a metaphor of harrowing memories. The concept of ‘waiting’, in Becketian nuances, assumes an existentialist dimension, one that also, incidentally, gives the victims the strength to live. Osondu’s is an illuminating reading of violence; a voluble attack on the warped mentality of ‘shoot and kill and rape and loot and burn and steal and destroy and fight’.
The Zimbabwean Brian Chikwava’s ‘Seventh Street Alchemy’ (2004 winner), is a haunting rendition of Harare’s populace under ‘a state whose methods of governance involve incessant roguery’. Hence, to survive, majority Harareans degenerate into socio-cultural decay. In the fusing of the metaphors of death, moral and economic decay, and the idea of the strong will to live, Chikwava issues a potent critique of Zimbabwe as a postcolony, a critique that arguably attains fullness with his novel, Harare North (2009).
‘Jungfrau’ (2006 winner) is an inspiring story in the psychological realist mode of narration. The South African writer Mary Watson employs a young girl’s perspective in digging into family relations, guilt, betrayal, as well as lack and deprivation in apartheid South Africa. In the narrator’s little girl’s mind-space, bigger realities of and insights into being are revealed.
‘Jambula Tree’ by the Ugandan Monica Arac de Nyeko (2007 winner), conveys a scintillating recollection of two girls’ negotiation of girlhood and their living the ‘shame’ (of being spied on exploring their naked bodies) which renders them outcasts in, satirically, a society that is itself a coarser banality.
The South African novelist, essayist and short story author Henrietta Rose-Innes in ‘Poison’ (2008 winner) brings out the fear and unease inhabiting a people in a fast transforming socio-cultural South African milieu. And in paying great detail to the landscape, people and their socio-cultural and historical trajectories, Rose-Innes creates a marvellous surreal narrative.
The bonus short stories deeply assist to situate the beauty of the genre of the short story in Africa. Nadine Gordimer (1974 Booker Prize winner and 1991 Nobel Prize for Literature) has her ‘Ultimate Safari’ and ‘An Emissary’ in the anthology. The latter, in a sustained poetic engagement, reads love, desire and the agonising, catastrophic ‘bite into death’ of the anopheles. ‘Ultimate Safari’ examines the ravages of the independence liberation struggle in Mozambique.
J. M. Coetzee’s (1983 and 1999 Booker Prize winner and 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003) ‘Nietverloren’ paints an idealistic yearning for the old-style-farm life in South Africa, in lieu of the emerging globalised ‘safari’ where farms have been appropriated into sites of ‘waiters and whores to the rest of the world’. Yet it is also a stinging criticism of conservatism in a dynamic globe. Ben Okri (1991 Booker Prize winner), is represented by his story ‘Incidents at the Shrine’ in which a man’s re-tracing back to find ‘power’ for the continuation of the journey of being is magically enacted.
As the Caine Prize for African Writing enters its second decade, we are certainly sure of marvelling the more at the grounding of a (short story) literary tradition of a continent. It is a tradition that, as Okri notes in the introduction to the text, ‘will bring many unsuspected gifts and wonderful surprises to the world in the fullness of time’.
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* Lennox Odiemo-Munara is a researcher in literary and postcolonial studies and is a creative writer at Egerton University, Kenya
* The Caine Prize for African Writing was first awarded in 2000 at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in Harare. The 2010 Caine Prize will be announced in Oxford on 5 July.
* ‘Ten Years of the Caine Prize for African Writing’, was published in 2009 by the New Internationalist.
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