The Caine Prize has been instrumental in revitalizing African fiction, through both the prize and its annual creative writing workshops in Africa. We must remind ourselves that twelve years ago it seemed to be almost impossible for new African writers to get published beyond the continent, and certainly not in the UK. I can now think of scores of fiction writers published internationally in the past decade, many of whom have been touched, in some way, by the Caine Prize and its workshops.
So this prize is more than just another award that will sprinkle fairy dust on a single, lucky writer every year – it is a force for change; it heralds what is new, excellent and exciting in short African fiction, which is usually a stepping stone to the longer form – the novel. This is why the responsibility involved in chairing this particular prize is greater than usual. There are five of us judges from the Sudan, Zimbabwe, the UK and USA and we are currently whittling down the entries. Who knows what stories will gain enough consensus to make the shortlist, a consensus based on our shared understanding of what constitutes top quality literature that, in my previous judging experience, might not accommodate maverick writing and interests.
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?
I’m also looking for stories that display a strong, original streak, a writer who has a narrative voice, command of craft and ways of seeing that are different, fresh. I’d rather a story is provocative and unsettling rather than familiar, safe and perfectly accomplished. Yet risk-takers are rare. Among the submissions I’ve encountered a lot of uninspired prose that feels so dated, so Middle England circa 1950s, even though it might have been written in Central Africa in 2012. Luckily there are a few adventurers too. But we need more experimentation and daring, stunning image-makers and linguistic explorers who might, for example, infuse English with an African language or syntax. Not necessarily pidgin, but perhaps something else, something new – the English language (and forms) adapted, mutated, re-invented to suit African perspectives and cultures.
The age-old question remains – are too many African writers writing for the approval of non-African readerships, such as the big, international markets in Europe and America? It is understandable, of course, because these are the predominant publishing outlets. Certainly in Britain the taste-makers are, almost without exception, not African in origin. I ask myself - to what extent does published African fiction pander to received notions about the continent, and at what cost? How might this contract the imagination and reduce expectations for readers and writers alike.
For African fiction to remain more than a passing fad on the world stage it needs to diversify more than it does at present. What about crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, more history, chick lit? To be as diverse as, for example, European literature and its myriad manifestations. Imagine if the idea of ‘European Literature’ only evoked novels about the holocaust, communist gulags and twentieth century dictatorships. I’m looking forward to the time when the concept of ‘African literature’ also cannot be defined; when it equates to infinite possibilities and, as with Europe, there are thousands of disparate, published writers, with careers at every level and reaching every kind of reader.