Wednesday 29 July 2015

Podcasts of 2015 Shortlisted Stories

The Caine Prize has commissioned podcasts of the 2015 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 16th Caine Prize winner on 6 July. Click the links below to listen to the stories.

Segun Afolabi (Nigeria) "The Folded Leaf" in Wasafiri (London: Routledge, 2014)
Read The Folded Leaf
Listen to The Folded Leaf, read by Olu Alake, produced by Alice Lloyd.

Elnathan John (Nigeria) "Flying" in Per Contra (International: Per Contra, 2014)
Read Flying
Listen to Flying read by the author, produced by Alice Lloyd.

FT Kola (South Africa) "A Party for the Colonel" in One Story (Brooklyn, New York: One Story inc., 2014)
Listen to A Party for the Colonel read by the author, produced by Alex Feldman at Pixiu.

Masande Ntshanga (South Africa) "Space" in Twenty in 20 (South Africa: Times Media, 2014)
Read Space
Listen to Space read by the author, produced by Times Media in Johannesburg.

Namwali Serpell (Zambia) "The Sack" in Africa 39 (London: Bloomsbury, 2014)
Read The Sack
Listen to The Sack, read by Chakuchanya Harawa, produced by Alice Lloyd.

Saturday 4 July 2015

2015 Shortlist: Masande Ntshanga (South Africa) for “Space”

Bio: Masande Ntshanga is the winner of the 2013 PEN International New Voices Award. He was born in East London in 1986 and grew up between Mdantsane, Zeleni, Bhisho, King William's Town, Estcourt, Pietermaritzburg and Cape Town. He graduated with a degree in Film and Media and an Honours degree in English Studies from UCT, where he became a creative writing fellow, completing his Masters in Creative Writing under the Mellon Mays Foundation. He received a Fulbright Award and an NRF Freestanding Masters scholarship. His debut novel, The Reactive, was published in 2014 by Penguin Random House.

What it's about: Set in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa in the early nineties, Space is a window into the friendship of four school boys who discover a mysterious grey man.

Read it for: A thoughtful exploration of adolescence and the politics of education, sexuality, illness and family life.


My mother had banned video games at my house, citing a collective stink that stormclouded over a pile of our report cards, but even the homeland soldiers no longer excited anything in us, their jaws and manners just as rigid as the statues that kept vigil over the suits who worked in Parliament Hill. I mean, they never shot their guns.

So we shoplifted at the local OK Bazaar, which stood just across the street from the Amatola Sun Hotel, where the glass turnstiles were inviting but often kept us from slinking in and walking passed the casino, our bare feet moving us from the cold white marble and onto the lush red carpet, then through to the back where—just before the swimming pool where we saw the first white woman in our lives—they had a new Street Fighter machine glowing in the corner for only five bob a game.

At OK, during our short career there, I managed to nab a Bruce Lee poster and a Spider Man figurine; CK scored himself two twin sliver revolver BB guns. Then, one cold Saturday in the middle of April, one guy who wasn’t in our gang, this chubby laaitie who didn’t go to school with us down at the local, got caught and carried wailing into a dark room at the back of the supermarket. I don’t need to tell you which idiot’s parents were there. CK and I dropped everything we’d stuffed on ourselves and walked out slowly. We’d heard about the bald security guards who waited in that back room with their batons and shell-toe boots. They’d been put on the Earth to sort out precisely guys like us.

Each shortlisted writer receives £500 and the winner of the £10,000 prize will be announced at an award ceremony and dinner at the Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, on Monday 6 July. Each of these stories has been published in New Internationalist’s Caine Prize 2015 Anthology which is available here.

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.

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Sex and the African Short Story- Neel Mukherjee Judges the 2015 Shortlist

‘God, there’s a hell of a lot of sex going on in Africa,’ exclaimed one fellow- judge halfway through our reading of this year’s entries for the Caine Prize. In the year of the highest number of submissions for the prize – 153 stories – there is yet another record, dubious this time, which cannot pass unnoticed: the highest number of stories centred on sex. Masturbation features a lot, especially female masturbation. Male genitals, erm, dismembered (and disembodied), appear on a wall (yes, you read that correctly). There’s even sex – well, almost – with a tokoloshe. There’s an explicit little number, by no definition a story, in which a male narrator justifies his infidelity by his wife’s refusal to shave her legs or blow him after their marriage. And there’s your common-or-garden variety sex as well; often called vanilla, I’m reliably informed. Oh, did I forget female orgasms and ubiquitous ejaculations? 

The judge who commented on the pervasiveness of sex in Africa got an eye infection halfway through the reading because ‘all that ejaculation got into my eye’. What on earth is going on? One of the reasons behind this high incidence of writing about sex could be the (baneful) influence of Fifty Shades of Grey, the judges surmised. If this is true, then one can only lament. 

But it set me thinking: could it be that, after decades of being expected to write about poverty, famine, AIDS, corruption, dictators, writers from most of the countries on the continent are writing about whatever the hell they feel like writing about? But the problematics of this ‘liberation’ don’t need spelling out. 

The other problem is the knotty business of writing about sex. It’s notoriously difficult – bordering on impossible, in fact – to write well about it. While it is to be lauded that this has not held back some of the writers whose stories I have in mind – nothing ventured, nothing gained,
remember? – I wish the outcomes, in each of these cases, had lived up to the risk taken.

Two of the shortlisted stories show how to write about sex in extraordinary and powerful ways. One casts the briefest of glances at homosexuality in the subtlest way imaginable; it is barely a whisper. The other works by the suggestion of adultery or unfaithfulness -- the story leaves so much unsaid that one wonders if it is really that -- that casts a long shadow and seems to be one of the undersurface motors driving the motivations of the characters.

Read the shortlist here.

Neel Mukherjee is one of the 2015 Judges of the Caine Prize and the author of the award-winning debut novel, A Life Apart (2010). His second novel, The Lives of Others (2014), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He has reviewed fiction widely for a number of UK, Indian and US publications. He lives in London.

Tuesday 23 June 2015

The Port Harcourt One Day Short Story Surgery - Feedback from Participants by Jinaka Ugochukwu

Pemi Aguda winner of 2015 Writivism Prize
Congratulations to Pemi Aguda, whose story 'Caterer Caterer' has won the 2015 Writivism Prize. Pemi took part in the 2014 Caine Prize one day short story surgery, which Stanley Kenani wrote about in his blogpost back in November last year. 

The short story is in rude health. 

It’s striding along inspiring competitions, compilations and festivals in its name. This year already there has been the Time of the Writer Festival in Durban, the Costa Short Story Award, the London Short Story Festival in June, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Writivism and there's still the Short Story Day Africa Prize to look forward to.

Last year The Port Harcourt Book Festival was one such event in the calendar.  Taking place in October and celebrating Port Harcourt’s status as UNESCO 2014 World Book Capital, it also showcased the short story form. 

Africa 39 was launched there, a compilation of short stories and excerpts from novels and The Caine Prize One Day Short Story Surgery was facilitated there.  15 participants, selected from an open call for applicants were offered the opportunity to ‘become surgeons…to cut open their drafts and mess with the guts’ 

The one day surgery was the first of its kind for the Caine Prize which has hosted annual 10 day workshops, for the Prize’s shortlisted writers and others who have caught the attention of the judges, since 2003. 

The 3 facilitators of the short surgery were Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Abubakar Ibrahim and Stanley Kenani.  Stanley Kenani has written about the experience from the facilitator’s point of view here on the blog.  He outlines the group’s analysis of the key elements of storytelling (setting, language and character) through critique of the participants’ own work and that of 2010 winner, Olufemi Terry.

Writing advice can often boil down to ‘write more and read more’ so did the participants, Jo Nwinyi, Ndubuisi Newman, Tope Rotimi, Ikenna Okeh, Victor Emmanuel Idem, Nihinlola Ifeoluwa, Kechi Nomu, Louis Ogbere, Chika Tobi Onwuasanya, Jennifer Nkem-Eneanya, Yomi Kolawole, Adeniyi Mopelola Omayeni, Owoyemi Olorunfemi, Pemi Aguda, find this approach useful?

Here is some of their feedback:

So much learning and discovery stuffed like a Thanksgiving Turkey into a few hours – Jennifer Nkem-Eneanya

The Caine Prize Short Story Surgery opened for me a whole new perspective on how to approach writing - Louis Ogbere

[The surgery was] validating for me as a writer – Victor Emmanuel Idem

And perhaps only in Nigeria, and other countries on CAT (Central African Time), would the ‘punctuality of the facilitators’ be something to highlight but that caught the attention of Chika Tobi.  She also, like several participants, commented on the skill and expertise of the facilitators.

Ellah Allfrey [created a setting] which allowed [all] to speak, encouraged [all] to listen and persuaded [all] to learn - Chika Tobi

The facilitators made it worth each of the 21,600 seconds it lasted - Anaele Ihuoma

And Tope Rotimi put it simply - the facilitators were brilliant, warm and very well prepared

It was clear also that the facilitators had had a longer term impact on the writing of the participants.

I constantly see Mr Stanley’s face before me when I embark on too intense a description or explanation - Jennifer Nkem-Eneanya

[I learnt new things] especially not leaving my characters alone as it allowed for them to travel backdown memory lane rather than moving the plot(s) forward - Victor Emmanuel Idem

I heard the phrase ‘thought verbs’ for the first time [and I learnt] the importance of showing, not telling - Chika Tobi Onwuasoanya

Resoundingly the day was a positive experience for the writers. 
They were pleased to have been plugged into social media where they found out about the call for applicants and they enjoyed being associated with the Caine Prize and they are looking forward to developing their writing.

[The] event reinforced my determination to pour out my soul into my future writings - Victor Emmanuel Idem

There are things you feel you are good at until someone else show you how to be better - Louis Ogbere

[It] was an exhilarating experience - Tope Rotimi

Thank you for the experience of the workshop - Pemi Aguda

So whilst there are no immediate plans to repeat the event, ‘The One Day Short Story Surgery is a one off, for now’ says Caine Prize Director Lizzy Attree, it would likely be a successful undertaking if it were.

It was perhaps appropriate to have the surgery in Nigeria a country from which there have been three winners, and from which its writers are shortlisted almost every year and where year on year they contribute the most entries for consideration.  In recent years workshops have been held in locations from which the Caine Prize would like to encourage submissions. Let’s look forward to the future of these 15 writers and anticipate their future contributions to the ever growing short story canon.

Thursday 11 June 2015

2015 Shortlist: F.T. Kola (South Africa) for "A Party for the Colonel"

As well as recognising the talent of established writers the 2015 shortlist, which includes one past winner and two previously shortlisted writers, is also one to celebrate new talent. Shortlisted on the merit of her first published story, FT Kola draws on a childhood anecdote often told by her parents of the writer as a toddler growing up in South Africa.

Bio: F.T. Kola was born in South Africa, grew up in Australia, and lived in London and New York City before pursuing an MFA at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, Austin, where she is a fellow in fiction.

What it's about: A grandfather trying to blend into a world in which he would never belong is inadvertently exposed at a party by the young child of his activist son.

Read it for: Narrated through the eyes of the Colonel’s wife’s insecurities, an emotive look at the nuances and exploitative hierarchies of South Africa’s apartheid system from an Indian family’s perspective.


The more money the Colonel made, the more he was convinced that all along he had been right. But the Colonel’s wife, in private moments, thought differently. The Colonel’s money did not bring them favor, or let them into the forbidden places from which they would always be excluded: it merely let them pretend, sometimes, that Apartheid didn’t exist at all. Where the fact of inequality crept into their daily lives, the Colonel simply replaced the inevitable with the illusion of choice; going only to the Indian cinemas because there were no “for use by white persons” signs since no white people ever went there at all; sending Mohammed to a private school in Botswana; telling his wife to take a more scenic route from the market rather than the direct path through the cemetery where white children would hide behind the gravestones to throw rocks at her; never going to the annual Rand Easter show where a man of his color would be denied entry on certain days or to the nicest pavilions no matter how much he might pay for a ticket, but where the poorest white would be allowed to enter.

In the summer, the family went on trips to places where one could be treated as an equal: to Spain, to England, to Botswana, to Portugal. The Colonel managed eventually to buy the largest building in their area, one that took up the whole corner of the block, and had given himself a spacious set of offices downstairs and leased the rest out to a café. He had tasked his wife with transforming the upper floor (which the Colonel preferred to call the penthouse) into a charming warren of imported marble tiles, costly fabrics, and modern conveniences. They had hired Eunice, and the Colonel had built a sparse, four-by-four room on the roof for her to live, a room in which she would live for the next thirty years. For the Colonel’s wife, Eunice soon became like a friend and daughter, as well as an older sister to her son, so much so that she often forgot Eunice had a family of her own, in far off Transkei, a husband and child whom she saw just once a year.

It had stung the Colonel’s wife a little when Mohammed, at sixteen, had come home on school holidays to admonish his parents for hiring Eunice, claiming that they imprisoned her, and asking why she was not permitted to eat dinner with the family. He followed Eunice around while she made beds and chopped vegetables and washed the floors, lecturing her on Communism. The Colonel’s wife had to shoo her son away—Can’t you see she’s busy?—and the Colonel and Mohammed had fought in the evenings once Eunice was safely away in her own room. The Colonel claimed that hiring Eunice was practically charity, and besides, this life was something he had earned, while Mohammed accused him of trying to live like a white man, blind to the fact that he would never be one. Though she would never say it to her husband, the Colonel’s wife agreed. They did not live in Houghton, or Hillbrow. The view from their windows was bleak, and the stink of frying from the café below made its way into every gold-embroidered sofa cushion and filigree cedar wood shutter. They would never be able to go any further than they had come.

Read the full story A Party for the Colonel here.

Each shortlisted writer receives £500 and the winner of the £10,000 prize will be announced at an award ceremony and dinner at the Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, on Monday 6 July. Each of these stories has been published in New Internationalist’s Caine Prize 2015 Anthology which is available here.

Monday 8 June 2015

Chair of Judges, Zoe Wicomb, on the 2015 Caine Prize Shortlist, Child Narrators and Poverty Porn

The Caine Prize has of late been roundly criticized for favouring child narrators, the charge being that their perspectives contribute to the infantilization of Africa. This year’s judging panel has failed to heed the warning; perversely, we have allowed three child narrators on the shortlist. Moreover, all three tell stories of impoverishment, the nasty addictive ingredient, we are told, that converts so readily into ‘poverty porn’. Have we then deliberately chosen to perpetuate the parlous condition in which the representation of African writing is said to find itself? If child narrators are accused of trading in pornographic sentimentality, our three chosen ones deftly sidestep such charges.

Yes, the stories (‘Flying’, ‘The Folded Leaf’, ‘Space’) deal with poverty and disadvantage, but literary value is, of course, not based on content. Stylistically, these stories prove irresistible; their simplicity is strategic; and far from infantilizing the societies in which they are set, they make extraordinary and sophisticated demands on readers’ inferential skills. Poverty is not presented as a single meaning, begging bowl in hand; instead, meaning proliferates as we are prompted to infer the unspoken: that which lies just beyond what can be seen, or what can be heard, said, or done under social restrictions and conventional morality (––or, in western words, beyond what-Maisie-knew). Beyond poverty and underdevelopment are the clear-sightedness, the aspirational, the will to truth, the empathy and the ethical that lie within reach of the child as artiface. Through the child narrators ambiguity and irony are introduced. 

These stories seem to go a long way towards answering a pressing question that we fail to ask whilst we focus on what African writing looks like from the outside: Why do so many literary writers choose the narrative perspective of children?

Zoë Wicomb is a South African writer who lives in Scotland where she is Emeritus Professor in English Studies at Strathclyde University. Her critical work is on Postcolonial theory and South African writing and culture. Her works of fiction are You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, David’s Story, Playing in the Light, The One That Got Away and October. Wicomb is a recipient of Yale’s 2013 Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction.