Monday, 25 June 2012

Maya Jaggi, Judge 2012, Cultural journalist and critic

I was in the Arctic last week to interview one of Africa's leading novelists. Nuruddin Farah - who now lives in Cape Town - was in Norway's far north to tell a gathering of Ibsen experts by the sea about the impact of the great Norwegian playwright on his fiction. Henrik Ibsen's dramas spoke across centuries, continents and languages to a Somali would-be writer already disturbed by the constraints on women in his own society.

Africa's stories, such as Farah's, now captivate readers around the globe, much as Ibsen's plays have done. They reveal truths to them, not only about aspects of the immense African continent, but about their own lives. As Wole Soyinka responded when I once told him of some critics' surprise at the universality of his writing: "The universal always comes out of the particular, whether you're French or Russian or Nigerian. I'm surprised they're surprised."

As a critic (and previous Caine prize judge in 2006), I don't prescribe - or proscribe - writers' subject-matter. Writers are often chosen by their subjects, rather than the other way round. More at issue are the language, artistry and imagination with which those subjects are handled. As this year's shortlist illustrates, far from being a throat-clearing exercise for the heroic task of the novel, a fine short story can contain a universe.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Chirikure Chirikure, Judge 2012, writer, poet, editor

For me, going through the Caine Prize 2012 entries was a wonderful safari across the width and breadth of the African continent.  With some of the stories set in Francophone parts of the continent, this meant that the safari was not limited to Anglophone Africa only. What an eye-opening trip!

The experience was as varied as the continent is. The textures, tones, flairs and colours of the narratives were a true representation of the diverse and yet comparable cultures of the continent.  The traditional oral approach was as equally represented as the modern, contemporary, experimental voice. The stories were also a sincere reflection of the present-day realities of Africa.

Physical travel from one part of Africa to another is a great challenge. Analysing and awarding points to the different continental voices is an even more daunting task.  But I am grateful to my experience as a publisher, critic and creative artist. And to the wonderful, well focussed panel of judges.  It made it easier to eventually make decisions which, hopefully, celebrate the success of contemporary story writing and also shape the future for the African narrative.

The African story will forever remain a crucial element in the schemes of things artistic. Positive initiatives such as the Caine Prize are invaluable vehicles which deserve as much song and dance to keep them energised and stimulated. The true story of the African narrative is always in conception, developing with vigour. But any smooth, safe birth always requires a committed midwife.

My greatest wish is for the Caine Prize to remain as bold and solid as the baobab tree. Its role in bringing the African experience to the arms of the broader society of the world is noble.  This virtuous initiative also helps in bridging the distances between African nations and cultures.

May the muse keep lighting up the path for the African short story writer!