Saturday, 12 July 2014

The African Short Story in Question by 2014 Judge, Nicole Rizzuto

Professor V.Y. Mudimbe
In a foundational essay in African literary studies, the critic V.Y. Mudimbe once posed the provocative question, is African literature a myth or a reality? (“African Literature: Myth or Reality?” African Literary studies, The Present State/L’etat présent, ed. Stephen Arnold, pp. 7-11. Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1985).  His answer is equally provocative: there is no real, true nature of African literature we can locate that exists in itself. This is not because, as some have argued, African literature is a copy of literatures from elsewhere, a “belated” cultural form that imports techniques of expression and modes of thought from outside of the continent.  Some such arguments have viewed the oral tradition, not the literary, as the true form of authentic African culture. Mudimbe, however, wants to question the oppositions posed between the indigenous and foreign, authentic and inauthentic, the oral and literary. 

The critic asserts that the reason there is no such thing as an essential nature to African literature is that African literature, like literatures from anywhere, cannot be separated from the multiple contexts in which it emerges and to which it also responds. These contexts—publishing houses both large and small, literary journals, school classrooms, academic conferences, and now fanzines, blogs, even twitter feeds —are always in the process of establishing and re-establishing procedures for measuring, classifying, and defining what African literature is. The Caine Prize for African Writing is another such context. The selection of short stories submitted for the prize this year is a testament to the capacity of contemporary writing to make us rethink assumptions that underlie such procedures of judging.  
  
The short stories—nearly one hundred and fifty of them received this year—challenged the very concept of what an African short-story is, if we understand by this term a category defined according to dominant taxonomizing conventions: the national, regional, or continental origins of a work’s author; the institutions and media through which it is published, diffused, and marketed; the topics it treats; the formal strategies it employs; the genre it embodies.  These works possessed an astonishing range of subjects and styles, and were written and published across multiple regions, nations, continents, and platforms. They created literary worlds that were just as diverse, extending from the prosaic to spectacular, the quotidian to the magical. 

Rotimi Babatunde

  In these worlds, a household pet becomes an       esteemed and then disgraced local politician 
  (Rotimi Babatunde,” Howl” in A Memory This 
  Size). 

Diriye Osman,
Photo credit
Boris Mitkov

The Sleeping Beauty fairytale is queered through the staging of a love story between a young refugee from Somalia living in Moi’s Kenya and his kindergarten classmate (Diriye Osman, “Fairytales for Lost Children” in Jungle Jim). 








George Makana Clark

A man searching for redemption confesses his sins of “trafficking in human souls” and traveling to the edge of the Portuguese empire and the coastal city of Luanda in the 18th century with his father and an abducted infant  (George Makana Clark, “The Incomplete Priest” in Ecotone). 








Leonora Miano

A new kinship formation emerges when a teacher becomes a surrogate parent to a young woman thrown out of her house, accused by her mother of being a witch (Léonora Miano, “The Open Door of Paradise” in Transition). 



Annie Holmes

And a teenager steals away with her girlfriend for sex during a family send-off for her brother, whose fate in the Rhodesian Light Infantry she worries over as his departure approaches (Annie Holmes, “Leaving Civvie Street” in Queer Africa).

    




Taken as a whole, but also viewed individually, the stories not only stretched generic categories such as modernism, realism, and naturalism, but also troubled attempts to separate the aesthetic from extra-aesthetic spheres, the literary from the political, historical, environmental, or economic. Their plotting, focalizations, narrative voices, rhetorical devices, and structural features call into question the idea that there might be any single definition or model against which the African short-story might be measured. They give us a view into an African literature of the present and future in ongoing conversation with, and re-imagination of, literary and historical pasts.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

A world in itself by 2014 Judge, Gillian Slovo

Chuppah
I went to France last weekend, to celebrate the wedding of the son of two of my closest friends to his long time girlfriend. Neither the bride nor groom nor any of their close families are French but they chose to have their ceremony in a garden in a French village because the location held special meaning for their growing love.  And, continuing on this theme, they designed their wedding ceremony as a way of joining their different identities.  She comes from a devout Catholic family and he comes from a long line of secular Jews, and theirs was a wedding of deliberate inclusion. It took place in a French garden, under a chuppah, the traditional Jewish canopy, with a contingent of Norwegian women relatives wearing drakter – the long robes that they don once a year to commemorate their community’s past – and the whole ceremony was presided over jointly by a male Catholic priest, and a woman rabbi.
Helon Habila
As the ceremony unfolded I was reminded of my fellow judge, Helon Habila’s thoughtful blog for the Caine prize where he talked about what makes tradition.  Helon quoted TS Eliot’s assertion that tradition cannot be inherited but be must be made by great labour.  I thought about the ramifications of this as I stood witness to two young people who were using their wedding to begin to carve their new tradition out of their different pasts.  As I thought about this, some of the multi-stranded stories that I had the privilege to read as a Caine juror came back to me.

I thought about the stories we had shortlisted – and how much I was going to enjoy reading them again for the final stage of the judging process - and then I thought about the stories that we had reluctantly to leave out of our shortlist.  I thought about Annie Holmes’s "Leaving Civvy Street" from the Queer Africa collection.  It’s a story set in the former Rhodesia and peopled by white characters we used to call “old Rhodies”.  Although I am not Zimbabwean, these characters were so familiar to me from a now mercifully changed South African past so that while I was reading Annie’s story I was simultaneously re-visiting my own past and seeing it with new eyes.  


Mukoma wa Ngugi
(photo credit:
David Mariampolski)
And then I thought about Mukoma wa Ngugi’s "Wounded Men": the life, in a few pages, of a boxer who crossed continents only to end up dying a typical Kenyan death. I am a novelist, accustomed to the long form, but what Mukoma wa Ngugi did for me in such a short number of words was invite me into a world of men that was unfamiliar, but which I understood as I watched it unfold on the page. And from wa Ngugi I re-visited a different story: Maurine Ogbaa’s "Chariot" that summoned up a world of women struggling to retain their identities, and make their own lives, in near impossible circumstances.


What all of these stories, and the ones we selected for our shortlist, did for me was to immerse me in worlds that I knew to a greater or lesser extent but that I came away, having read the stories, knowing from the inside.  I didn’t worry about which country, or which tradition, I was reading: instead I found myself gripped by the characters, their histories and their immediacy.  Each story a world in itself and which, like the couple whose wedding I went to celebrate, were using their pasts, their presents, and their imaginations, to create narratives that continued to intrigue me long after I had turned the last page.


Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Tradition and the African writer by 2014 Judge, Helon Habila

What is African literature, who decides what it is, who reads it, who reviews it, who is African? These are questions that have been asked ad nauseum over the years. It is a question that I believe the Caine Prize for African Writing has been helping us answer over the last decade and a half.  Not by ivory tower literary critics, but by writers, story by story, sentence by sentence.

This year we have looked at stories as diverse in style and theme as one can imagine, many of which didn’t get shortlisted (at a point we despairingly asked the Director, Lizzy Attree, if it is possible to enlarge the shortlist to six instead of five). There was “Howl”, from A Memory This Size, about a learned dog, by former winner, Rotimi Babatunde, written in the folkloric tradition; there was “Calculus in the Afternoon” from Kwani?, by Mehul Gohil, raw and heartfelt and beautifully written about an Asian/African student in Australia; and there was the faultless and humorous “Bury Babu on Sandy Bay” by Achmat Dangor; there was a strangely beautiful detective story “Eloquent Notes on a Suicide” by Blessing Musariri; there were fantasy stories about people disappearing into their computer screens, about strange visitations by even stranger beings; there was a lot of sex, gay and straight, and yes, this is all African fiction…

Looking at this diversity and profusion of style and theme it feels strange to remember that there was a time, and not too long ago, when some theorists tried to limit what can or cannot be called African literature; some said a work can never be African literature unless it is in an African language – and actually, people like Ngugi wa Thiong’o still believe so. I wonder what people like Obi Wali, the arch-proponent of ‘African literature in African languages only’ would say now if they were to hear that there are writers who write their novels in languages like Flemish and Italian and who unapologetically refer to themselves as African writers. Clearly there is more to it than language and style – it is most importantly about tradition.

Stories like “Chicken”, by Efemia Chela, is clearly aware of this sense of tradition. It opens with a family oriented, very African feast, and then moves on to a theme of exile and loneliness in another land; and to such “unAfrican” themes as lesbianism and the selling of the narrator’s eggs for money – perhaps the furthest it can get from the family oriented opening section. But of course the story is about survival away from the community, a bildungsroman if you like, about the African traveling and surviving in the wider world, about the African writer embracing other themes and acknowledging that the traditional  “African issues” alone no longer suffice to define African writing.  

Tendai Huchu’s story of Zimbabwean exiles in London, "The Intervention", told with humor and lightness of touch, dealing with a serious subject matter, continues what I call the “post-nationalist” theme. By placing the African outside the boundaries of the continent, the story is challenging the literary pass-laws that sought to restrict where African literature can go. Not only that, it is also thematising and interrogating the notion of that most colonial of constructs, the “nation”, itself.  

The other stories on the shortlist, Billy Kahora’s "The Gorilla’s Apprentice", Okwiri Oduor’s "My Father’s Head", and "Phosphorescence" by Diane Awerbuck all contribute to, and widen our understanding of what African literature can be.

***
Here one is made strongly aware that a new generation of African writers is announcing itself with fanfare.  But we must always remember that any new generation is nothing but an offshoot of that which came before it. This new African literature is a culmination of certain historical moments in Africa; it owes a lot to the overseas scholarship students in the 60s and 70s; the anti-intellectualisms of the military dictatorships in the 80s which led to the brain drains of the 90s; all these led to a re-interpretation of the word nation, to a larger understanding of the idea of tradition.

And so even though less and less emphasis should be laid on the word ‘African’, and more and more on whether a story is good or not, still, we must remember at the bottom of it lies a certain tradition. The “literature” of Africa predates and supersedes the invention of Africa, it was there in the Sundiata epic, in the Chaka epic, in the ritual plays and Ijala chants of the Yoruba, in the folktales and songs and historical narratives of the griots. It transcended city borders and languages and political leanings; it defies simplistic definition. The geographical term “Africa” cannot contain or limit it, it can only aspire to describe certain salient aspects of it.

Of course every writer is free to decide for himself or herself what they want to be called. A lot have already declined the term “African”, preferring only to be called “writers”. There are also those who question why their books should be in the African authors section, calling it a “ghetto”.  These writers have already accepted and internalized the perception of Africa as a ghetto. For me, where a book is placed in a bookstore is less important than what is in the book; if it is a good book, people will make a beaten path it. Things Fall Apart is a fixture in the “Africa” section, and yet that doesn’t stop it from selling over a hundred thousand copies yearly in America alone.

Of course with some of these authors it becomes a matter of personality, or as TS Eliot calls it in his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, “emotions”. They think: how dare you place me in the same section as these other writers, clearly I am more talented, I am more complex, I am more European than African. I was born in London and went to Cambridge and Oxford and I live in Rome, surely I can’t be an African writer? Again, I say, it is a matter of choice.   You are not African because you are black, or because your parents came from an African country, again to quote Eliot:

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense... This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.

I don’t aspire to write like Achebe, or Ngugi or Bessie Head, but understanding them and the history and aesthetics that shaped their work improves and also shapes my work. This is not mere copying or imitation, it is not indulging in what Eliot calls mere “archeological reconstruction”, it is having a sense of tradition. The beauty of it, as Eliot again points out, is that a contemporaneous work always alters the meaning and the perception of works that came before it, for in a canon no work is greater, none is better, they just make use of different materials.  

The best metaphor to describe this idea would be that of a building, built over many generations, each generation doing its own part. Some clears the site for the building, another generation lays the foundation, yet another generation raises the walls, another comes and lays the roof, and so on, with plumbers and electricians and fitters and furniture builders, all doing their part. But what is important is that none is more important or less important that the other. They all build with the same keenness, the same purpose; they simply use different materials and different skill sets.

But of course in this age of superstar writers and commodification of literature it makes sense to try to stand out, to be different and thereby raise the value of ones stock. But again, a word of caution from Eliot (I am quoting him for the last time, I promise): “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.”
Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison, in her brilliant essay, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation” shows this awareness of an obligation, a duty to what she calls the community, or the “village”, and goes on to say that whatever she writes if it means nothing to the village, then it is worthless. We all have to decide who and what that village or community is for us. This is not a circumscribing of freedom, but actually a setting free, for no artist is ever free who is without a sense of belonging, a sense of history.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Podcasts of 2014 Shortlisted Stories

This year the Caine Prize has commissioned podcasts of the 2014 shortlist, to run alongside the pdfs of each story that are uploaded for audiences to read in the run up to the announcement of the 15th Caine Prize winner on 14 July. Click the links below to listen to the stories.

Diane Awerbuck (South Africa) "Phosphorescence" in Cabin Fever (Umuzi, Cape Town. 2011)

Read Phosphorescence
Listen to Phosphorescence read by the author, produced by Daniel Breiter at For Music Lovers, Cape Town.





Efemia Chela (Ghana/Zambia) "Chicken" in Feast, Famine and Potluck (Short Story Day Africa, South Africa. 2013)
Listen to Chicken read by the author, produced by Daniel Breiter at For Music Lovers, Cape Town.



Tendai Huchu (Zimbabwe) "The Intervention" in Open Road Review, issue 7, New Delhi. 2013
Read The Intervention
Listen to The Invervention read by the author for Open Road Review.













Billy Kahora (Kenya) "The Gorilla's Apprentice" in Granta (London. 2010)
Listen to The Gorilla's Apprentice read by Ery Nzaramba, produced by Alex Feldman at Pixiu, London.




Okwiri Oduor (Kenya) "My Father's Head" in Feast, Famine and Potluck (Short Story Day Africa, South Africa. 2013)
Read My Father's Head
Listen to My Father's Head read by Njoki Wamai, produced by Alex Feldman at Pixiu, London.

Taxi to Chitungwiza by 2014 Judge, Percy Zvomuya

Harare skyline
The life and fate of Chitungwiza, it seems, is to forever skulk in the shadows cast by Harare’s miniature sky scrappers and lead-soaked fumes. Chitungwiza’s small-time status is undisputed; in official and semi-official literature, it is routinely referred to as Harare’s dormitory town, though it is populated by a million people. It is just 30km removed from Harare, although it seems doubly-detached; the ever present air of fatigue, inertia and desertion that now hangs over Harare is thicker and more toxic in Chitungwiza. 

Percy Zvomuya

It was while on the way to Chitungwiza that I experienced one of the most literature affirming moments I’ve had in a long time. It was literature’s eureka moment, if you will, the football equivalent of which is hugging a stranger when your team eventually scores the winning goal in the last minute of extra time.

I had boarded a commuter minibus taxi and sat in the third or fourth row, two people to my left and someone else on my right. About the people on my left I don’t recall a thing; about the person on my right, I remember almost everything: sex, height, and the conversation we had.  


I had hauled out of my satchel sheets of paper on which was printed “The World’s Longest-Held Prisoner,” a short story by Libyan writer Omar El-Keddi; the story is one of 140 short pieces of fiction submitted to the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing. Almost instantly I had become aware that I had company. The man to my right was staring intently at the sheets of paper in my hands. He meant it to be unobtrusive but his interest in the papers in my hands was obvious. 
Nelson Mandela

It could have been the startling title which caught his attention. Southern Africa has its fair share of famous political prisoners; there is Robert Mugabe; late nationalist Maurice Nyagumbo; and, most celebrated of them all, is, of course, St Nelson Mandela. (With the World Cup a few weeks away, the saint is now in heaven where he is probably pondering football tactics with St Luke. It goes without saying that he is putting on an Argentina shirt since his own team Bafana, perennial underachievers, didn’t make it to Brazil, but that’s a story for another day). 

Or maybe it was the easy, unheralded way the story begins: “After failing his middle class exams, Saleh al-Shaybi decided to join the army. He saw his fellow villagers and men from the neighbouring villages return with new clothes, pockets filled with cash, wrists weighed down by watches, smoking cigarettes from full packs and lighting them with gold lighters. He decided to follow in their footsteps, and wrote down ‘please take me' on his application.”
                
Whenever I flipped a page, leaving my neighbour behind, he would remonstrate. After twenty or so minutes, in which I had turned a couple of papers, him always in tow, he took down the details of the story.  He would go on the internet, he said, download it, and read it for his own pleasure and at his own pace…

Later, finding my way through the inertia of Chitungwiza, I pondered the communion I had partaken in with the stranger. Even though reading is a profoundly solitary exercise, this was the closest that we had come to exploding that piece of wisdom. 

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Stories That Make a Difference by Jackie Kay, Chair of Judges 2014

Photo credit Ben Phillips
I am in Ullapool right now, a beautiful town surrounded by hills on the edge of Loch Broom in the north west of Scotland. At the book festival here I was asked if stories make a difference. I said something bland like that I hoped that my stories might hold up a mirror to the reader's life but that I thought writers were deluded if they thought stories could make a difference to the world we live in. Then a woman came up to me later and said, Your stories made a difference to me. She had suffered a brain injury and had only just been able to start reading again, and found that the short story form was something she could contain.  My stories were the first things she'd been able to read after five years of not reading.



Desert Spirits by Spencer Tunick



The short story is such a fascinating hybrid form. It shares the poet's particular love of image or lyricism, of not wasting a single word, with the novel's wide narrative lens. It takes people often at a moment of change or trauma and distils and invests that moment with something wider, something that in turn helps, by the narrowing of focus, to understand the wider world. It is wide open. It has stretched across the continent. It is the perfect form for our time. It can be carried around in the head, the whole story. You should be able to lay it down on a vast plain and it would still glow.

We were inspired this year by the range of subject matters in the Caine Prize short-listed stories, the different approaches to this pioneering and inventive form.  During our judges meeting we returned again and again to what made a story work for us and what stories made a difference. Was it because we believed the character's voice? Was it the style and tone? Was it the structure of the story? Was it because the story can be philosophical? What is it we were looking for in the stories? We were looking for different stories. Fresh, inventive, surprising. We were looking for stories that make a difference.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Caine Prize Reflections by Bella Matambanadzo


Bella Matambanadzo
No writer worth her salt would turn her nose up at the opportunity to take part in the Caine Prize for African Writers' Workshop. Being included in a group of 12 published and promising writers from 6 African countries whose short stories are produced into an anthology that sees 8 publishing houses work together is not the sort of gift an author receives everyday. I am looking forward to seeing the final collection stitched together. Its themes of place and belonging, of legacies and futures are inspired as much by our everyday experiences on the continent we call home, as they are by the places elsewhere that we visit, either in the flesh or through the magical realm of our imaginations. 

We will be published by local book houses in Zimbabwe, ZambiaUganda, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria. Off the continent, we have publishing deals secured in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Our work may additionally be translated into French, the first time the Caine Prize is doing so for its annual anthology. I hope this is the beginning of an expansion in the languages formally associated with the Caine Prize. Perhaps in future collections will be published in Kiswahili, Fulani, Wolof, isiXhosa, Hausa and Africa's many other languages, that given the global nature of where Africans live in today's world, and where our works are read, would mean an expansion of readings and writings in our very own tongues. 

As a creative artist and thinker the precious gift of time to focus on the craft of writing and re-writing is something that I will cherish for many, many years to come. Time with other writers who serve as a loving group of peers, giving feedback and reactions to work that goes from draft to final version in less than ten days. The writing escape is organised in a formula that permits you to write what you want and share it firstly with other writers through daily reading sessions. Artistic independence is a hallmark of the workshop. You can either accept, or reject the feedback given you. Experienced editor/mentors offer one-on-one sessions where they see your words and suggest what works, what is incomprehensible, and where improvements can happen. Nothing is off limits. We were guided, urged in fact, to stretch our creative imaginations and push down traditional literary boundaries, break up and recreate language and show no respect whatsoever for prepositions.





I came back with 6 complete stories. The one that will go into the Caine Prize collection, and the 5 others that I am presently submitting to other publishers who have asked for stories. In terms of output that means I wrote a story every two days. The other writers were even more productive, knocking out stories and ideas more adeptly. We met as strangers, and we left with a sense of camaraderie that means although there will eventually only be one winner for the £10,000 prize announced at a ceremony this July because we shared so much as writers, listened to each other's ideas an stories, edited for each other, had great laughter together the collection honours us all. In the end we will all be winners because we worked as a team and everyone brought the best of themselves to our writer's retreat held in the perfect peace of Leopard Rock Hotel in the Vumba, Zimbabwe.


The visits to schools in the surrounding community brought us face to face with young writers, almost 800 of them spread across four different schools. Schools that have produced many of Zimbabwe's most profound literary achievers. At Hartzell, we could taste and feel the atmosphere evoked and immortalized in Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions. At St Werburgh's mission school we read what the students in the young writers club were crafting in their journals: poems, short stories and songs that they plan to publish in a newsletter.    




Back in Harare at the City Library we saw traditional literature coming into contact with tech experimentation. Zimbabwe's geek generation, and yes, it really exists far away from Silicon Valley, is building apps for books to stream via mobile phone. My aspiration now is for writing opportunities, and publishing prospects to expand in Africa, rather than diminish. I have found a thirst for books so rare here that it reminds me that literature is by no means dead. It's gaining a new morphology.
A shorter version of this article was published in Harare News