Thursday, 10 April 2014

Africa39 and Caine Prize authors by Lizzy Attree


It is inspiring to read the newly released Africa39 list of the most promising writers from Africa under 40 years old and see so many writers who have been involved in the Caine Prize process recognised on that list.  

Cover_Africa 39On 8th April 2014, at a breakfast at the London Book Fair, 39 writers from Africa south of the Sahara and its diaspora were revealed as the authors selected as the Africa39. Also announced was that the official anthology of their work, edited by former deputy editor of Granta, and Deputy Chairperson of the Caine Prize, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, will be published in October 2014.

The “39 Project” aims to celebrate the most vibrant voices in literature and provides a platform to expand the conversation about the future of literature in Africa. The Africa39 Project, as part of the Port Harcourt (UNESCO World Book Capital 2014) Book Fair, will culminate in the publication of an anthology featuring new writing by selected writers from Africa, jointly published by the Hay Festival, the Rainbow BookClub, and BloomsburyAcross the world, and from 2014 to 2016, a series of events will seek to showcase the Africa39 authors, their work, and the Africa39 anthology.

How was the Africa39 list compiled?
In November 2013, Binyavanga Wainaina2002 Caine Prize winner, founder of Kenya-based literary journal, Kwani?, and author of acclaimed memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place—took on the task of researching and compiling a list of 120 writers from Sub-Saharan Africa for the Africa39 Project. This long-list was sent to the official judges (Margaret Busby, Elechi Amadi, Osonye Tess Onwueme) who then decided upon a short-list of 39. For one month Binyavanga and his team worked to issue calls to Anglo-, Franco-, Lusophone, and Kiswahili literary writers and to publicise the project across Africa.

Early on, Binyavanga emphasised that the places on the long-list must be apportioned equitably according to gender. Also important to the project were those authors writing in African languages. In outlining “The Spirit of the Africa39 Project”, Binyavanga made provisions for writers who might be “at risk” or who, for reasons of safety or security, publish anonymously or using pseudonyms. He ensured that as many different types of writers were encouraged to submit including, “[w]riters of children’s fiction, prose fiction blogs, erotica writers, romance,” as well those who have published “writing done in Braille.” The resulting long-list was as diverse as possible, reflective of the complexity of the continent, and populated with “the wild, weird, [African] explorers of the imagination.”
Which Caine Prize writers feature on the Africa39 list?
The 17 authors involved with the Caine Prize, either by taking part in a workshop, as a shortlisted writer, or as a winner of the Prize include: 

adichie-ngozie-chimamandaChimamanda Ngozi Adichie from Nigeria was shortlisted in 2002 for her story "You in America" and took part in the first Caine Prize workshop in South Africa in 2003 where she wrote the story "Lagos, Lagos" which was published in Discovering Home.



arac-de-nyeko-monica
Monica Arac de Nyeko from Uganda was shortlisted in 2004 for her story "Strange Fruit", and went on to win the Caine Prize in 2007 for "Jambula Tree". She took part in the 2005 workshop in Kenya where she wrote the story "Grasshopper Redness" published in Seventh Street Alchemy and the 2008 workshop in South Africa where she wrote the story "Night Commuter" published in Jambula Tree and other stories.





Rotimi Babatunde from Nigeria won the Caine Prize in 2012 for his short story "Bombay's Republic" and took part in the 2013 workshop in Uganda where he wrote "Howl" which was published in A Memory This Size and other stories








batanda-jackee-budesta
Jackee Budesta Batanda from Uganda took part in the 2005 workshop in Kenya where she wrote the story "Life Sucks...Sometimes" which was published in Seventh Street Alchemy.







 
chicoti-shadreck Shadreck Chikoti from Malawi took part in the 2011 workshop in Cameroon where he wrote the story "Child of a Hyena" which was published in To See the Mountain and other stories.  
 







Tope Folarin won the 2013 Caine Prize for his short story "Miracle" published in Transition magazine.




 


gachagua-clifton
Clifton Gachagua from Kenya took part in the 2014 workshop in Zimbabwe where he wrote the story "As a Wolf Sweating your Mother's Body" which will be published in the Caine Prize anthology in July this year.  



gazemba-stanley


Stanley Gazemba from Kenya took part in the 2004 workshop in South Africa where he wrote the story "The IOU" which was published in A is for Ancestors



 
Mehul Gohil from Kenya attended the workshop in South Africa in 2012 where he wrote the story "Elephants Chained to Big Kennels" published in African Violet and other stories.



 
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim Abubakar Ibrahim from Nigeria was shortlisted in 2013 for his story "The Whispering Trees".  He took part in the Uganda workshop in 2013 where he wrote "The Book of Remembered Things" which was published in A Memory This Size and other stories and the Zimbabwe workshop in 2014 where he wrote the story "Lily in the Moonlight" which will be published in the Caine Prize anthology in July this year.


Stanley KenaniStanley Kenani from Malawi was shortlisted 2012 & 2008 for his stories "Love on Trial" and "For Honour".  He took part in the 2013 workshop in Uganda where he wrote the story "Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile", published in A Memory This Size and other stories and the 2010 workshop in Kenya where he wrote the story "Happy Ending" published in A Life in Full and other stories


 

 



Glaydah Namukasa from Uganda attended the Caine Prize Naivasha workshop in 2007 where she wrote her short story, "Then, Now and Tomorrow" which was published in Jungfrau. Glaydah is the current Chairperson of FEMRITE, the Uganda Women Writer's Association.







Nii Parkes from Ghana has been a member of the Caine Prize council for three years.  He was the workshop leader for the 2014 workshop in Zimbabwe along with 2008 Caine Prize winner Henrietta Rose-Innes


serpell-namwali
Namwali Serpell from Zambia was shortlisted in 2010 for her story "Muzungu" and took part in the 2011 workshop in Cameroon where she wrote the story "The Man with the Hole in his Face" which was published in To See the Mountain and other stories




tshuma-novuyo-rosaNovuyo Rose Tshuma from Zimbabwe took part in the 2010 workshop in Kenya where she wrote the story "The King and I" which was published in A Life in Full and other stories







 

 
 

Chika Unigwe from Nigeria was shortlisted in 2004 for her story "The Secret" and took part in the 2005 workshop in Kenya where she wrote the story "Retail Therapy" which was published in Seventh Street Alchemy.



watson-mary
 
Mary Watson from South Africa won the Caine Prize in 2006 for her story "Jungfrau" and took part in the 2007 workshop in Kenya where she wrote the story "Simon Said" which was published in the Jungfrau collection.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Workshop writers visit Hartzell School, Mutare by Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende


Chinelo Okparanta and Abubakar Ibrahim at Hartzell School

Friday March 28, 2014, Chinelo Okparanta, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and I visited Hartzell School in old Mutare, just outside Mutare City. The school is named after Bishop Hartzell of the United Methodist Church who was the founder of the first Methodist Missionary Church in 1899 on land given to him by Cecil John Rhodes. The school was built in 1901 as a boys’ school and in 1903 a girls’ school was built. These two schools were integrated in 1924 and the students were trained as teachers and pastors so that they could spread the mission as educators and create new church communities.

Learners at Hartzell School

We met with about 200 students from form 3, 4 and A-level students along with their instructors in the language and literature departments. The three of us read from our work and we discussed the importance of creative writing and the power of storytelling. 

Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende reading

The students asked us questions about finding their passion, how to nurture it and to stay motivated in an environment where writing is not considered a real profession. This question brought about the discussion of Zimbabwe’s perception of writers and artists and the negative stereotypes of writers as dreadlocked drunks and junkies. Dambuzdo Marechera was the primary example of what many people gave when discussing writers and we were able to show the students that there were many other writers who did not look like or behave like Dambudzo Marechera.

Teachers with Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende, Chinelo Okparanta and Abubakar Ibrahim

Overall the visit was enriching for us and it is my hope that the talent, energy and dreams of these young people will find expression so that the story of Africa can be told in the voices of those whose very existence is inextricably tied to this continent. The rich stories of Africa require bold and courageous voices that are deeply empathetic to the issues that have shaped this continent and its people. It also requires voices that are committed to the delicate task of placing Africa and her stories within the global context.

Abubakar Ibrahim (left), Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende (centre), Chinelo Okparanta (right)

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Bulawayo's 'We Need New Names' wins inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature

NoViolet Bulawayo’s winning spree with her debut novel ‘We Need New Names’ has continued, following the announcement last Sunday 23rd February that she was selected as the winner of the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature. The Prize is the only pan-African prize celebrating first time writers of published fiction books.

From an original longlist of nine novels, the judges whittled the entries down to a shortlist of three, which included NoViolet Bulawayo, Karen Jennings and Yewande Omotoso, who took part in the 2012 Caine Prize workshop in South Africa. 


NoViolet Bulawayo, alongside Karen Jennings and Yewande Omotoso, receiving the Etisalat Prize for Literature of £15,000. Credit: Etisalat Nigeria

'We Need New Names' was victorious, chosen by a panel of three literary experts, Pumla Gquola, Sarah Ladipo and Billy Kahora, who was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2012. 

NoViolet in Lagos with her Etisalat award.
Credit: Etisalat Nigeria





In addition to winning £15,000, a Samsung Galaxy Note and a Montblanc Meisterstuck, NoViolet will take part in a sponsored book tour to three African cities and a Etisalat Fellowship at the University of East Anglia, mentored by Professor Giles Foden.







NoViolet's unique writing style reached international audiences when she won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2011 with the short story 'Hitting Budapest.' 'We Need New Names' was subsequently shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, making her the first black African woman and the first Zimbabwean to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. 

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Creative minds assemble by Lake Victoria: reflections on the 2013 Caine Prize workshop, by Lizzy Attree


This is a belated post on the Uganda workshop in 2013.  As the next workshop approaches in Zimbabwe it seems fitting to reflect on the last workshop and include some pictures of the memorable experiences we had in Entebbe and Kampala.

Left to right: Pam Nichols, Rotimi Babatunde, Michael Phoya, Davina Kawuma, Abubakar Ibrahim,
Melissa Myambo, Veronique Tadjo, Elnathan John, Harriet Anena, Billy Kahora.

On the shores of Lake Victoria we assembled 12 talented writers at the Garuga Beach Resort Hotel where we were surrounded by spiders fat on swarms of lake flies, whose webs cocooned all the surrounding foliage.

We are immensely grateful to Beatrice Lamwaka and Hilda Twongyeirwe from FEMRITE for helping us to find Garuga.



And thanks to Goretti Kyomuhendo, Director of the African Writers Trust, for all her useful advice when preparing for the first Caine Prize workshop in Uganda.

We were joined by the 2012 Caine Prize winner, Rotimi Babatunde, as well as three of the writers who were shortlisted in 2012 (Melissa Myambo, Billy Kahora and Stanley Kenani) and four were Ugandan writers (Lilian Aujo, Hellen Nyana, Harriet Anena and Davina Kawuma); the other four hailed from Nigeria (Elnathan John and Abubakar Ibrahim), Malawi (Michael Phoya), and Botswana (Wazha Lopang).

Lake Victoria
During 10 days of peace and quiet the workshop participants write, read their work to each other, discuss and critique each story.  They were guided by Veronique Tadjo (Ivory Coast) and Pam Nichols (South Africa), who are both based at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

Lilian Aujo, Pam Nichols, Harriet Anena

Pam Nichols, Rotimi Babatunde, Billy Kahora, Veronique Tadjo

The only breaks included a visit to St Mary's High School in Kisubi where writers spoke to 150 students about the workshop and read from their work in progress.


Stanley Kenani reads to St Mary's High School
Hellen Nyana, Stanley Kenani


St Mary's High School


Later that evening we launched the African Violet anthology at the Barn Steakhouse in Kampala with our co-publishers FEMRITE and the help of the British High Commissioner Alison Blackburne and the British Council country director Peter Brown.

Alison Blackburne, British High Commissioner

Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva, Poet
Lizzy Attree, Caine Prize Director

The Barn Steakhouse, Kampala

The writers (Left to Right):
 Michael Phoya, Lillian Aujo, Rotimi Babatunde, Abubakar Ibrahim, Hellen Nyana,
Elnathan John, Melissa Myambo, Stanley Kenani and Harriet Anena.
Although much fun was had by all, the product of this intensive 10 day workshop is a high quality collection of short stories anthologised as A Memory This Size and other stories, which is co-published in 7 African countries.



The workshop in Zimbabwe will produce another 13 short stories, which collected with the 5 stories shortlisted this year (to be announced in May), will form the next 2014 Caine Prize anthology, published by New Internationalist in the UK.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Caine Prize Material by Nathan Hensley

The entries arrived to me in a box that had been destroyed in transit.  It was a cardboard container about the size of a small TV set -- maybe two feet cubed, and heavy.  Someone must have dropped it (more than once?) during its long journey between London and Washington, DC, because holding it together now were layers of packing tape, new strapped over old.  You could see stacked papers through a split running down the side; a corner had been torn apart.  It was a massive, imposing thing, this demolished box.  My back strained as I heaved it toward my office.

I don’t think I will ever forget opening it -- I remember feeling anxious (had all the stories arrived?) but also excited (would they be good?) and, most of all, tingly with a sense of responsibility.  (They had all arrived, and more remarkable, nearly all of them turned out to be gripping reads.)  It was humbling that these 100-plus stories had come to me at all.  What an honor, I thought, to have been vaulted into a group charged with doing the work of cultural consecration, separating “good” literature from “bad” and, inevitably, enforcing the standards that might determine what counts as good in the first place.  It is, to say the least, a big job. 

In a chapter called “Prizes and the Politics of World Culture,” literary critic James English explains that conferring global prizes like the Caine Prize always exposes a delicate problem.  That’s because “to honor and recognize local cultural achievement from a declaredly global vantage is inevitably to impose external interference on local systems of cultural value.  … There is no evading the social and political freight of a global award at a time when global markets determine more and more the fate of local [literary cultures]” (298).  The asymmetries of cultural and economic power that English references, familiar to anyone who follows debates about what he calls “prize culture,” resonated in my unconscious, even as my conscious mind paced through riveting stories of village life, urban violence, river journeys to rebel camps.  My double-consciousness was yet more pronounced when I read in the Library of Congress’s European Reading Room, which looks out on the U.S. Capitol, and whose ceiling lists the four universal elements -- air, water, earth, and fire -- as though it had the power to contain them all:

Ceiling of Library of Congress

The Caine Prize is awarded from a center of global prestige, Oxford, but lends that prestige to writing from an area that, as many of the submissions themselves attest, can seem far removed from airy cathedrals of leisure like the Library of Congress or the Bodleian.  Reading these stories produced, in me at least, a sense of disconnection between where they took place and where I was evaluating them. 

Some of the stories were funny; many found a place for redemption; others played irreverently with form; and not a few dealt movingly with feelings of dislocation I felt I could recognize, having come from no global metropolis but a California city best known for raisins.  Some of the most polished stories conformed to the mostly unwritten aesthetic rules of consecrating institutions like The New Yorker.  Others, to my mind better, took less familiar shapes, and elaborated vocabularies and images foreign to me: a plane crash caused by magic; infidelities rupturing a patriarchal North African home; a breathless ambulance chase through an urban zone; and episodic, first-person narratives of sexual violation, unconsoled by formal resolution. 

In his own blog post, John Sutherland writes convincingly of the material circumstances that make art possible.  My broken box of African writing made such material circumstances uncannily palpable.  Some stories had been printed on office paper – 8 ½ x 11 and A4 variously— while others arrived in bound and printed formats of all sizes: in literary journals from three continents, in Nigerian glossies, in a men’s magazine published from London.  Who had sent them?  From where?   From what material situations, in other words, had these documents been imagined, composed, and typed -- but also printed, stapled, mailed?  

The most important “matter” of art is ineffable: human experience, translated into form and made legible to another human being across time and space.  To access this kind of matter you can download the stories now, from wherever you happen to be sitting.  But there is another kind of matter, too, one I am glad to have accessed, if only for a time, in the piled-up jumble of these astoundingly good submissions.  I am referring to the physical fact of the stories in their material forms.  These artworks were created in any number of countries, in who knows what concrete circumstances; promoted by editors equally various in situation; received in a small office in London by staff members; reboxed there and shipped across the ocean to be handled by innumerable postal workers, dropped, and re-taped along the way.  Finally they arrived to me: a mass paper on which the experiences of other human beings have been transformed, as if by magic, into aesthetic form -- an amazing process of connection that is also, and in some final way, physical.

Whoever wins this year’s Caine Prize will experience both immaterial and material benefits: a feeling of profound accomplishment, perhaps, but also £10,000 and (we hope) exposure to a wider audience.  She or he will also visit Georgetown, as a Writer-in-Residence at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice.  My colleagues and I look forward to welcoming the author in Washington and to inhabiting briefly the same space with him or her.  And I hope the winner’s journey is less bumpy than that of the document that won the ride.


Reference

English, James F.  The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural ValueCambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005. 

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A private conversation with this year’s submissions by Sokari Douglas Camp, Caine Prize judge, 2013


As an African woman and artist living in London, I have always loved reading stories about the continent, and what a privilege it has been to read the stories submitted for the 2013 Caine Prize. I was taken to so many places without getting on a plane.

 
'Pink Head' Galvanised Steel  H 193 cm. Location  ARTZUID
 Amsterdam 22nd May - 22nd September 2013

I am used to admiring works of art, especially sculptures, all over the world. The museums and shows I frequent are designed to have character and to tell the viewer a story. As an observer, one takes in a lot when you see beautiful or ugly objects, one is able to imagine all sorts of scenarios as a result of what the artist and curators have created.  Taking the time to go to an exhibition or event is not as instantaneous as opening a book. The process of being a judge and keeping one’s opinions to one’s self has resulted in a very private conversation with this year’s submissions.

It has been captivating to read and concentrate on what characters are seeing and feeling.

Viewing works of art is often a public experience; it is in front of you, one can walk around or walk away. As I read the Caine Prize submissions in various locations - London, Venice, Amsterdam - it was wonderful to carry a story around with me, which I could dive into where ever I was. The descriptions of locations and textures were so vivid; when I looked up I expected to feel heat and to swipe at mosquitoes.

It was a hedonistic process to feel so much of what the characters felt; running on dusty roads and holding weapons bigger than a child’s hand - all from within the peaceful, wintery landscapes of the Western cities I visited.

My lasting memory of this batch of stories is reading about the predicament of so many girls and women on the continent. Is this the plight of my African sisters? Or is it the story of all women in the world? Survival for girls in so many of the stories was tough. In many ways it is a wonder that African women rise to the to the top anywhere in the world.


I salute these authors that have brought contemporary life and visions of the future into text. Beyond all else, it is great to be publicising something other than the Eurocentric view which is not everyone’s norm – not even in Europe. 

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Interview with NoViolet Bulawayo on her recently published novel 'We Need New Names'


Former Caine Prize Winner NoViolet Bulawayo’s searingly powerful debut novel We Need New Names has been greeted with widespread critical acclaim.

NoViolet Bulawayo (credit: Smeeta Mahanti)


She talks to Irenosen Okojie about being a writer in diaspora, her writer’s process and the importance of the Caine Prize.

Irenosen Okojie (credit: Samantha Watson)


Your novel is a powerful depiction of the fractured lives of children living in a shanty in Zimbabwe. How important was it to tell their story?

The book was written during Zimbabwe’s lost decade. If you follow Zimbabwean politics, that’s when the country really came undone for the first time since Zimbabwean independence.
For me that was really shocking because I had a beautiful childhood, so to see what was happening was devastating. My family’s still back home. We’ve heard those stories of there being no food in the stores, violence because of government elections, activists disappearing, some of them turning up dead. It just became important, especially to parallel the media narrative. I was living in the west and seeing things through the internet. I felt someone needed to tell an intimate story that showed what was happening on the ground and captured the full essence of characters. Having kids really allowed me to do that, they’re kids but disconnected from what’s going on. They still lived, laughed and played despite what was happening. It became a big, necessary project for me.

Ten year old Darling as a narrator rings authentic and true. We’re reading about these children having to cope with horrible circumstances yet because it’s told through a child’s eyes there’s an other worldliness about it. How hard was it to get her voice right?
                                                                                                                                   
It wasn’t hard, probably because I emerged writing through craft and the child narrator. As a creator, it’s something that I’d worked on since I started writing. When it came to Darling, I was a bit more seasoned. You have to play on your strengths and that’s what I did. I come from a culture where we just have character. Put a bunch of kids together and they shine, they survive. I had to go back to my own childhood and my childhood friends for that voice. It’s honest and that’s important. You don’t want somebody to read it and think that doesn’t sound right.

There’s bleakness in their circumstances but it’s also very funny. How did you strike that balance and was it deliberate?

I come from a place of laughter, absence of humour is not normal. Whatever we were doing, laughter was a constant dynamic in our lives no matter the circumstances. I was talking to my cousin about a recent funeral back home. And she said people were funny, even at a funeral. It doesn’t have to be depressing. I needed to make that conscious decision to remember to bring in humour. Although it was partly deliberate and partly not, that’s how I am in my everyday life. I’m not a serious person. My personality also comes through my writing, I have to be pleased. Also, I was aware that I was working from a politically charged space, very dense material. I needed to find a way to make it tolerable to read, that was important. Not just with this book. For me it’s important that whoever starts reading my work doesn’t put it down. Laughter carries you through and I have to connect to the reader. Humour allows me to do that.

The second half of the novel is set in America where Darling finds herself facing a different set of challenges. Did you draw on your own experiences?

I think all fiction is drawn from real experiences, people will tell you it’s fiction but it’s real. It’s either your own reality or somebody else’s. My moving to America is even more recent than my ten year old self.  It had to be convincing, some of my personality needed to appear on the page but also stealing from others, family, friends, people I knew. It’s interesting, when my family members read the book; I get phone calls saying so I saw such and such in the book! It’s one of those things; if it comes into my writing I don’t resist it.

What do you think the reaction to the novel will be like in Zimbabwe and what sort of dialogue do you hope it sparks?

In Zim, I have no idea. I can’t really say one way or the other but I know Zimbabweans have been reading my work. I blog, on Facebook they read bits of it. Mostly they’ve been supportive and there’s nothing like being supported by your own people. Especially now, sometimes you think they’re not reading but some of them are. In terms of reaction, what matters is that they read. I’ve written and they’ll read. Whether good or bad, as long as the work is read. My only prayer is that the work is available for people. I just went home, first time in thirteen years. I was surprised they were selling just stationery in what used to be the biggest bookstore, no books. If they’re no novels available, people aren’t accessing books and that’s dangerous. The genealogy of our literature has always been engagement. It means there’s a disconnect somewhere. I’m hopeful, people on the ground are asking me for the book and on Facebook. I’ll be releasing it in Zim so there are ways they can access it. I hope we can work something out to make the book affordable and available in libraries.

How has being a writer in diaspora shaped your writing and how do you think it’s affected your sense of identity?

It’s quite interesting that I had to leave home to discover myself as a writer. I come from a culture where I never saw writers growing up. I read books and most of the books were by western writers. But beyond that, writing was never a career option to me. You had to be a nurse, doctor, a lawyer, which I went to the US to study or an engineer. I know that being in the diaspora for me meant I was given the golden opportunity to come into myself, to study creative writing which I wouldn’t have done in Zimbabwe. I would have studied a Masters in Finance. With the cost of leaving home came the benefit of discovery. For me it was when I embraced my Zimbabweaness more. At home, it wasn’t necessary; you’re surrounded by Zimbabweans so it was never an issue. Your race is never an issue because you’re living in a space where everyone looks like you. Then going out, you realise, I’m not from here. I’m this other thing. This other thing is not always at home in a space that can be both welcoming and marginalising. Which is why I’m obsessed with my homeland in my writing. It’s certainly made me fall in love with my roots even more. I can’t find that grounding sense of identity where I am which is why when it comes to identifying myself as a Zimbabwean writer, I feel I am. I don’t just want to be called a writer. For me that identity is important, it meant survival and grounding. We’re living in a time where technology’s so prevalent. This book wouldn’t have been written without that. I was getting on Facebook, seeing people and teachers updating about what was happening back home and that fed into the whole process.

You won the Caine Prize for Hitting Budapest. How did that help as a launch pad for your career?

When the Caine Prize is mentioned, I remember I’ve spent all the money. On a serious note, it gave me confidence especially because it happened at a time when I was just starting out. In as much as I love writing and know it’s what I’m supposed to be doing but when you’re young you really think about things. You know you’re expected to be doing something that’s more secure. You live in a practical world of bills, of supporting family especially those of us in the diaspora. You have to be sensible but it showed me that I could make it.

How important do you think the Caine Prize is for profiling African writers?

It’s the biggest prize in Africa, it’s very necessary. There aren’t so many things happening on the continent itself. It’s a western prize in a sense but that doesn’t undermine it. It’s still important, whether you’re looking at people who’ve been short listed or won, they’ve gone on to do amazing things. I’d like it to be more engaged on the continent. I know there was a workshop run which is cool. It gives people the opportunity to workshop when we don’t have a strong workshop culture. But I’d like to see a Caine Prize winner do a residency in Africa. Send that person to a school to work with kids. Young people are very impressionable and I think that would make a difference.

From Hitting Budapest, the story then evolved into a novel. Tell us about the trajectory.

It’s the first chapter in the novel so people think that it actually came first. The thing is, it actually came while I was working on the novel. It was in a different form then. When I got to Hitting Budapest, the story found its pulse. Then I had to rework the book and I reworked it a million times. Moving it forward and shaping it around these kids.

What’s your writer’s process?

I don’t have a fancy, high sounding process myself.  I try and envision a story in my head. Write as much as I can inside my head. Maybe that’s because I was brought up on hearing stories. I think of a story first versus it written down. Then I’ll write it in my notebook, edit as much as I can to get the language right. Then I bring it to the gadgets. I’m laid back and I don’t write every day. Writing isn’t always writing in terms of doing the physical act, I’m processing things in my head all the time. I’m an observer of life. I think about things and my characters. So I’m always in one way or another, involved in the process. I try not to stress, I’m not a serious person. I don’t take things seriously. There are times when I look at my work and think, that’s interesting or that could have been better! I think it’s necessary to be objective but the main thing is to enjoy what I’m doing. I enjoy it more if I don’t over think it. I just work from instincts. It’s interesting to hear intelligent people or critics discuss things I may not necessarily have worried about. You know things that just happened.

What sort of stories are you interested in telling?

I’m interested in stories that say something about who we are and engage with social issues. My art has to have meaning; it has to have people talking about things that matter. Like We Need New Names, there’s so much about that that I wanted to say. That’s what drives me for now, you never know what will come in future but to have a dialogue going and people talking about things.

Who are some of your literary influences?


The storytellers in my life, our literature is oral. There was a time when I read nothing but literature in my native language which was still for me a form of engagement. I learned so much about storytelling from those and about language itself. Then there were people like Yvonne Vera, Toni Morrison, Edward P Jones, the usual suspects. Young writers now are just creating brilliant work. Writers like Justin Torres and then you have people online who may not necessarily be published. I’m creating at a very vibrant time. It’s a good time to be a writer and of course I’m connected to young writers, Africans and otherwise. We’re having interesting conversations.

Which book do you wish you’d written and why?

I wish I’d written the bible! Seriously, everybody reads the bible. I approach the bible as a storybook. I don’t come from a seriously Christian background. As kids you didn’t have the whole picture and we were told these bible stories and they were just stories to us. I would have made it NoViolet’s bible. I may write a novel in that kind of style. Look me up in five or six years and see!

What are you working on next?

I’m working on recovering from writing and promoting We Need New Names. I’m working on a collection of stories. I’m not trying to force it, sometimes there’s this pressure to go straight onto the next book. In as much as I want something to come along, it will come along when it does.