Friday 21 December 2012

African Violet: "For the beach or for the stocking."

The 2012 Caine Prize anthology African Violet has been featured on page one of WANTED Magazine's 6-page book supplement (December edition). 

"African Violet and Other Stories showcases the Caine Prize for African Writing's five shortlisted stories for 2012. The stories are diverse, veering away from the war torn, poverty stricken image of Africa. Characters have iPhones and iPads, are entangled in complicated relationships, create their own republics and even hoodwink their bosses while in the middle of a three-day bender."

We're delighted that WANTED have recommended this year's anthology as a must buy for the 'beach or for the stocking.' African Violet, as well as all the other Caine Prize anthologies, are available to buy here.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

My Caine Prize story by Tolu Ogunlesi

I first heard about the Caine Prize in 2001, when Nigerian journalist Helon Habila won it. It was only in its second year; the debut prize awarded to Sudanese Leila Aboulela in 2000. I remember the Lagos Guardian’s coverage of it – as I write this, a black-and-white photo of Habila - posing next to that now-well-known statuette of the late Sir Michael Caine (former Chairman of Booker Plc, and after whom the Prize is named) - hurriedly assembles itself in my mind. 

It was a big deal in Nigerian literary circles back then; a continental prize coming to a country that, until two years earlier, was aptly captured by the following excerpt (a conversation between the young aspiring journalist Lomba, and James, editor at the weekly magazine where he works and dreams) from the collection in which Habila’s award-winning story, Love Poems, first appeared:

“You won’t find a publisher in this country because it’d be economically unwise for any publisher to waste his scarce paper to publish a novel which nobody would buy, because the people are too poor, too illiterate, and too busy trying to stay out of the way of the police and the army to read. And of course you know why paper is scarce and expensive – because of the economic sanctions placed on our country. But forget all that. Say you found an indulgent publisher to publish your book, someone who believes in this great book as much as you do; and because you are sure your book is good, you’d want to enter it for a competition – what is the most obvious competition for someone from a Commonwealth country? Of course, the Commonwealth Literary Prize. But you can’t do that.”  
 “And why not?” Lomba asks. He stands and moves to the window, away from James, so that they stare at each other, the table between them, like antagonists.
“Because Nigeria was thrown out of the Commonwealth of Nations early this morning. It was on the BBC.”

Following the 1995 extra-judicial execution of writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, Nigeria had earned a suspension from the Commonwealth - only one of the many manifestations of the pariah status that defined Africa's most populous country.

Habila’s win was a huge vote of confidence in Nigerian talent. He lived and worked in Lagos as Arts Editor with a daily newspaper, and locally published the collection of stories in which the award-winning story first appeared. He was home-based in a country whose finest literary talent appeared to have fled into exile in Europe and North America.

Life changed dramatically for Habila from that moment – a two-book deal followed, as well as a fellowship at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Helon turned out to be the first Caine winner I’d meet in person, at a British Council Festival of African Writing in Kampala in October 2005. Years later he would kindly oblige my request for a reference to accompany my application to study for a Creative Writing Masters at UEA.

In the time since, I’ve met several other Caine winners – Uganda's Monica Arac de Nyeko and Zimbabwean Brian Chikwava at a winter arts festival in Belgium, Kenyan Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor at the Storymoja Hay Festival in Nairobi, Nigerian Segun Afolabi at the Caine Prize workshop in Kenya in 2006, Nigerian EC Osondu on Krazitivity, an internet listserve I joined in the mid-2000s, and Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo on Facebook. Yes, Facebook, long before she won the Prize.

And then Nigerian Rotimi Babatunde, the newest Laureate (2012), who was in Kampala as well for that 2005 conference. I recall Habila, Babatunde and I staying up and talking late into the night. I had no idea back then that I was with, not one, but two, Caine Laureates – one still seven years away from being recognised.

I’ve followed the Caine Prize quite passionately (short of being shortlisted or winning, 'following' is arguably the next best thing), submitted my stories for consideration, and attended a number of events associated with it – the annual writing workshop in March 2006 (I spent my 24th birthday there) and the Prize dinner in 2011, where I earned the (not-dubious) honour of being the first person (even before @caineprize) to tweet the name of the winner, seconds after the announcement.

No doubt it is one of the best things to happen to writers of African origin within the last decade-and-half. It has brought several writers to international prominence, and has helped maintain the tradition of short-story writing and publishing on the continent. And you cannot tell the story of the Kenyan litmag Kwani? without mentioning the Caine Prize.

Over the next twelve months we will blog once a month – random musings and proclamations about the Caine Prize, discussions of winning stories, comparisons of the Prize to similar prizes across the continent, and random bits of rabble-rousing, if we find myself in the mood for it. We look forward to getting comments and feedback, and hopefully to having some posts inspired by readers’ comments and queries. If you think there’s anything you’d like to see covered, please drop a message in the comments box. 

The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent those of the Caine Prize or Raitt Orr. Tolu Ogunlesi

Saturday 28 July 2012

Vox Africa Interviews

Watch an interview with 2012 shortlisted writers Melissa Myambo and Stanley Kenani on Vox Africa with Henry Bonsu here:

Thursday 19 July 2012

Looking forward

With the exciting announcement of Rotimi Babatunde's success in winning the thirteenth Caine Prize on 2nd July for his story "Bombay's Republic" a new cycle begins for the Caine Prize.  We start promoting the anthology which includes the 2012 winning story and all the shortlisted stories as well as the ten workshop stories written in South Africa earlier in the year.  African Violet and Other Stories is published by New Internationalist  alongside six African publishers in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, South Africa and Sub-Saharan Publishers in Ghana, and will soon be published by 'ama Books in Zimbabwe.  

As part of the Prize, Rotimi Babatunde will take part in this year's Open Book Festival in Cape Town between 20-24 September and events in New York to be confirmed later this year.

Rotimi Babatunde, Billy Kahora, Constance Myburgh, Stanley Kenani and Melissa Myambo will all be invited to take part in the 2013 workshop.  For a reminder of the workshop participants who contributed to African Violet here are a couple of film clips shot in South Africa back in March.  

2011 shortlisted author Lauri Kubuitsile talks to Lizzy Attree about the 2012 workshop and her story "Moving Forward" now published in the Caine Prize anthology: African Violet and other stories.

2011 Shortlisted author Beatrice Lamwaka talks to Lizzy Attree in the Book Lounge in Cape Town about the 2012 workshop and her story "Pillar of Love" now published in the Caine Prize anthology: African Violet and other stories.

Watch this space for more from our new guest blogger, Tolu Ogunlesi who will start blogging in September!
Tolu Ogunlesi (pic by Ifeyinwa Uzowulu)
pic by Ifeyinwa Uzowulu

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!

Monday 28 May 2012

Nima Elbagir, Judge 2012, International Correspondent for CNN

Whenever I travel around the continent or when I meet fellow Africans elsewhere around the world and they find out I’m a journalist I’m invariably asked the same question; why does the news out of Africa always have to be so unrelentingly bad?
It’s not.
Even just at CNN we have three separate Africa feature strands and so do many of our competitors but I can understand why people still feel this way.
For years it felt like there was only one narrative when it came to Africa and it was not a narrative that we as Africans had any control over.
That has changed as more and more Africans have picked up pens and cameras and taken ownership of their stories.
Reading through the Caine Prize entries really brought home to me what that ownership has brought with it; a conviction that our stories - whether the real or the imagined - have value.
I said at the beginning of the judging that I was looking for stories that were informed by an "Africanness" but managed to avoid the cliched and predictable.
Nebulous I know but I found that and more.
None of these stories carried the baggage of Africa the unfamiliar or Africa the “exotic”.
None relied on the niche or the novel to carry the reader with them. Instead there was a real confidence that their voices – unwatered down to pander to a ”western” palate- were compelling enough, that the truths universal.

Monday 7 May 2012

Samantha Pinto, Judge 2012, Assistant Professor, Georgetown University

Besides seconding everything that Bernardine Evaristo, in her inaugural Caine Prize blog post, had to say about the Caine Prize and African writing, it is hard to know what to add.  As a second-time judge (my first go-round was 2010), I appreciate her candor and her passion for African writing that does not fit the expected mold.   And as a professor of African literature at Georgetown, an American university, I think about how the West imagines Africa every day.  

Now, challenging others’ ideas about the continent is certainly not the job or primary concern of an African writer. But it is my job, explicitly, every time I teach contemporary African literature and culture. So it is with that in mind that I approach the Caine Prize entries. How are these stories engaging and representing the diversity and innovation of modern African culture?  How do these stories draw in line with the classics of contemporary African literature, and how might they also or instead relate to other forms of media on the continent, from Nollywood to Kwani? to genre fiction?  Where would I place them on a syllabus—and how can I imagine my students receiving them?  Does the writing, in form and/or in content, give us something new and substantial to read, something not easily forgotten?

The Caine Prize has the potential to say “yes” to this last question every year with its shortlist and its winning story.   In this, its generic rules itself are in line with our global, technologically advanced times.  As Jackie Kay, a Scottish writer of African descent, said recently in the Guardian, "I think the short story is perfect for our time, and perfect for people's time . . . You can read a short story in your lunch hour or before you go to sleep and it's a complete experience. You can carry the story around with you in your head and if you put it down in a large field it should still glow because of its intensity."   I hope as a judge to find this intensity in the short fiction submitted for the Caine Prize;  I hope as a teacher that my students learn to carry some of these beautifully crafted stories into a much larger conversation about Africa than the one that exists in mainstream American media.

Monday 23 April 2012

Bernardine Evaristo, Chair of Judges 2012, writer and poet

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.  

Monday 16 April 2012

Ben Okri will announce the 2012 shortlist on 1st May!

Friday 13 April 2012

Waigwa Ndiangui talks to Lizzy Attree about the 2012 workshop and his short story "Bloody Buda".

Sunday 25 March 2012

Mehul Gohil talks to Lizzy Attree about the 2012 workshop and his short story "Elephants Chained to Big Kennels".  Read his blog about his experience in South Africa here:

Thursday 22 March 2012

Workshop 2012 - South Africa

This year's Caine Prize workshop was held at Volmoed in South Africa, near Hermanus.  Although it was my first year attending as Administrator, Jamal Mahoub, who has worked on a number of the previous workshops thought it was the most comfortable place the workshops have ever been held.  Is comfort conducive to the potentially torturous writing process?  Essentially a religious retreat Volmoed is hidden in the valley of Heaven and Earth near Hermanus, nestled between vineyards and farmland was blessed with blue skies and sunshine, spacious cottages with stoeps and a wonderful cook who catered for our lunches and dinners every day.  I was tempted to switch off the hot water to make the writers suffer sufficiently to produce great works of art (and reproduce some of the conditions of previous workshops), but I couldn't bring myself to do it.  So with all their comforts provided for, in fact all the writers had to do was write...

The workshop almost went off without a hitch, except two of the Nigerians invited were prevented from attending by the South Africa immigration authorities.  Elnathan John was not granted a visa and Abubakar Ibrahim was deported on arrival in Johannesburg because the authorities were not prepared to accept his yellow fever certificate:  Despite this, the ten writers who did attend were perhaps in for more of an ordeal.  Starting on the third evening each writer would read part of their story in progress to all the other writers, and the two animateurs, acclaimed South African writer and 2008 Caine Prize winner Henrietta Rose-Innes and award winning writer of mixed British/Sudanese heritage, Jamal Mahjoub.  The rounds of praise and criticism received after dinner helped to shape the stories which were then revisited the following week when they were closer to completion.  In the meantime the writers consulted in private with Jamal and Henrietta who offered guidance on structure and direction, acting as editors and facilitators, or midwives...  

All ten writers are under pressure to meet the ten day deadline to complete a short story each of between 3,000 and 10,000 words, which is then published in the 2012 Caine Prize anthology along with the 2012 shortlisted stories that will be announced in the first week of May.  Next year all the workshop stories are entered in to the 2013 Caine Prize and stand a chance of winning £10,000.  As Brenda says in the clip uploaded below, the pressure was intense.  

In the next few days we'll upload a few more film clips so you can see what the writers themselves thought of the workshop plus a few teasers about the stories they wrote which will be published in time for this year's Caine Prize award announcement on 2nd July.  
Lizzy catches Brenda having a braai - burning drafts of her workshop story...  

Brenda Mukami talks to the Caine Prize Administrator, Lizzy Attree,  about the story she wrote while on the 2012 Caine Prize workshop in South Africa earlier this month "Table Manners".
2012 Workshop participants in South Africa:  Mehul Gohil, Rehana Rossouw, Lauri Kubuitsile, Rachel Zadok, Grace Khunou, Yewande Omotoso, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Jamal Mahjoub, Beatrice Lamwaka, Tendai Mwanaka, Brenda Mukami, Waigwa Ndiangui.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Welcome to the new Caine Prize for African Writing Blog.  We will begin with monthly blogs from this year's judges, Bernardine Evaristo, Maya Jaggi, Chirikure Chirikure, Samantha Pinto and Nima Elbagir.  We look forward to hearing what they have to say about judging this year's 122 entries from 14 countries, hearing about their favourite African authors and what they are looking for in a winning story. Enjoy.