Monday, 29 June 2015

Responsibilities - Cóilín Parsons on Judging the 2015 Shortlist

I was well over three quarters of the way through the 153 entries for this year’s prize when I opened one story and found a courier shipping label. It had been neatly filled out by the author, with her name and address, and a description of the contents (6 copies of a short story; no monetary value). She had spent about £25 to send the packet to a very unlikely address—the Menier Chocolate Factory in London—and had surely wished it well as she dropped it off. She was, after all, sending it to be judged, asking a panel of strangers to determine whether it counted as among the best of African short stories. As I thought of that writer in Nigeria, I was struck by the weight of responsibility on my shoulders as a judge, and the duty of care I had towards each story and every author. That night, I dreamt that I had forgotten to read her story. It wasn’t the last time that I had an anxiety dream about the Caine Prize. The subject of the dreams was always the same—I dreamt that, whether by losing my box of stories, or having them stolen, or passing over some by mistake, somehow I had failed to read all of the stories in time for the shortlisting meeting in late April. The responsibility of judging the Caine Prize weighed heavily on me in the early months of this year.


W.B. Yeats opened his 1914 collection, Responsibilities, with an epigraph marked by characteristically awkward Yeatsian locution: ‘In dreams begins responsibility’. Responsibilities was an extended poetic meditation on the politics of representation. Yeats worried about whether the poet could indeed represent his country in both senses of the word—to re-present it in his art, but also to stand in for it, to be its representative. In English we have the tendency to conflate these two senses, though they are quite separate. The latter responsibility weighed more heavily than the former, yet it was one that Yeats had long sought out, and would continue to cherish until the end of his life. At that time, when Ireland was emerging into nationhood and on the path of decolonisation (with all its utopian promises and dystopian realities), the question of who gets to be a representative of the people and how was one of the most pressing of the day. Now, one hundred years and many decolonisation movements and wars later, the issue remains just as fraught as it was then. African writing, whatever that may be, is frequently tasked with representing an entire continent, and the Caine Prize shortlisted stories are doubly
charged—they must represent both Africa and good writing. Did our entrant from Nigeria think of this as she wrote her story? Or only as she posted it to the Chocolate Factory? Or was it never in her mind at all? Did she, as I did, lie awake at night under the burden of responsibility? Did she wonder how her story might, if chosen for the shortlist, be asked to speak for Cameroon and Angola, Egypt and Botswana? I hope and suspect not.


While one author might be able to rest easy in the knowledge that she can only mistakenly be called on to represent an entire continent (as, no doubt, the winner will), a literary prize with ‘African Writing’ in its name carries a substantial burden of responsibility. The Caine Prize has, of course, become a lightning rod for questions of representation and responsibility—can or does it represent Africa? Can any prize claim to encompass such a diverse continent? Why should a prize awarded in the UK be the premier prize for writing in Africa? Does this or that winning story offer a new narrative for Africa or traffic in clichés? These are questions that treat of the Caine Prize as an institution, as a monolithic arbiter of what is good in literary Africa. But I came to realise as I sat in our shortlisting meeting (having, thankfully, managed not to forget any of the stories) that each jury constitutes its own values and its own criteria from the materials in front of it. The judges and the entries differ every year, and the shortlisted stories represent not the jury’s estimation of some vague thing called ‘African Writing’ but their determination of the five best stories on the table in front of them. It is a somewhat arbitrary process, then—a ‘bundle of accident and incoherence’, to repurpose another pregnant phrase from Yeats. But it is a happy accident and a necessary incoherence, for to be any otherwise would be to do an injustice to the complexity of all the authors and narrators and stories and characters in front of us. This is the genius of the board of the Caine Prize and its director, Lizzy Attree—they convene every year a disparate committee of judges, and gather together a multitude of stories from around Africa and beyond, and somehow what emerges is a coherent idea, ‘something intended, complete’. In short, the winner that emerges every year is genuinely outstanding, but never categorical—it does not define African writing, but only marks a special achievement under that broad umbrella.


All this talk of responsibility and representation—this sense that the prize and the prizewinner carry on their shoulders the burden of representing (in both senses) an entire continent—calls to mind a hoary old chestnut of postcolonial studies. When the American literary critic Frederic Jameson wrote ‘Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capital’, he was attacked for, among other things, implying that all literature from what we would now call the Global South was in thrall to the demands of the nation, unable to represent anything other than a story of decolonisation and national emergence. The essay also denies a space for specificity and creativity in the Global South—Aijaz Ahmad takes him to task for writing ‘All third-world texts are necessarily…’, a formulation that sweepingly refers to half a world as if it were indivisibly other. Despite the thorough debunking of Jameson’s essay, however, much of the criticism of the Caine Prize reprises his error, assuming and sometimes demanding that each story be a proxy for African Writing and each author an image of the African Writer. In one sense, that expectation is not unreal, given the title of the prize, but who demands that the winner of the National Book Award in the US define ‘American Writing’, or the winner of the Man Booker ‘International Writing?’ While writers from the Global North are seen as simply writers, unmarked and universal, those from the Global South are restricted to being representatives of their types—Indian or African or South American above all else. They become impossibly responsible for a whole people, state, or continent. When critics take the Caine Prize stories to represent African writing or Africa tout court, or even a ‘western’ view of African writing, they assume that such a project is unproblematically possible in a way that essentialises Africa.  The argument is an old one, but it is worth repeating, for although this and all other prizes are marked by many and varied responsibilities, standing in for all of Africa is not one of those.


None of the stories on this year’s shortlist purports to be definitionally ‘African’ in any way. F.T. Kola’s sympathetic portrait of a wife and mother’s agonizing evening; Segun Afolabi’s delicately woven tale of a journey filled with stories and disappointments; Namwali Serpell’s masterful account of disease and decay; Masande Ntshanga’s subtle and careful narrative of disease, parenthood, and estrangement; Elnathan John’s moving, textured story of surrogacy and love. Each of them offers something unique, surprising and clarifying, which is perhaps the best definition of a successful short. But they don’t make any large claims to stand in for a continent. Their responsibilities are to different scales and stories—to their characters and their settings, to the intimate and the local, to the present and the past, to the art of narrative and the short form. Their materials may be gathered from contexts throughout the continent, but they are comfortable in their skin as stories without national or continental allegories or burdens attached. I’ve spoken a lot about responsibility—as both burden and privilege—but very little about the other overwhelming feeling I had as I read all of these stories: pleasure. While I hope that the feeling of responsibility rests on the shoulders of the judges alone, I know that the pleasure of reading is something that we will share with everyone who picks up (or, more prosaically, downloads) these fine stories.

Read the shortlist here.

Cóilín Parsons is Assistant Professor of English at Georgetown University, where he teaches Irish literature, modernism, and postcolonial literature and theory. His work on Irish, South African and Indian literature and culture has appeared in such journals as Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies,Victorian Literature and Culture, The Journal of Beckett Studies, Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa, English Language Notes and elsewhere.
Cóilín, who is from Ireland, received his PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Before joining Georgetown’s English department, he was a Lecturer in English at the University of Cape Town.

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